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Why some children with autism suffer in mainstream schools

SYBIL ELGAR, a secondary school for autistic children in Southall, west London, is a quiet place, and for good reason. Children with autism are easily overwhelmed by information and can react badly—even violently—to the wrong kind of stimulus. Sybil Elgar is designed as a "low arousal" building, without the usual eye-catching displays in the entrance hall

The school is unusual in other ways. With just over 100 pupils, it is barely a tenth the size of the average secondary school. There are two members of staff to every five children. Some pupils have screens around their desks to reduce external stimuli. The children travel between classrooms, as they would in an ordinary secondary school—but do so in small groups, led by an adult.

About 90,000 pupils suffer from autism, but there are just 7,500 places in specialist schools. Gillian Zettle, the deputy principal of Sybil Elgar, says not all autistic pupils can cope in normal state schools. "Some can't even be with more than one person. The average secondary school would be a living nightmare for many of our children."

Many parents agree. The National Autistic Society (nas) recently asked more than 1,000 parents about their autistic children's educational experiences. Two-fifths had been bullied at school, about double the rate of their non-disabled peers. Some parents said their children were so unhappy that they had harmed themselves and talked of suicide. One in five children had been suspended or expelled, often more than once.

In 2002 Tony Blair's government pledged that most children with disabilities would be educated in mainstream schools. That was mostly to avoid stigmatising them, but cost may also have played a part in the decision. According to the nas, it costs £30,000 to educate an autistic child in a special secondary school, but as little as £2,600 in a mainstream school

Poorly-trained teachers in mainstream schools are under huge strain. Last week, the National Union of Teachers complained that schools were struggling to cope with children with a vast range of disabilities. Not surprisingly, pupils with severe behavioural and medical problems were the toughest.

The government, it seems, is now rowing back on its earlier policy. In recent evidence to the parliamentary committee on education, civil servants said they wanted to provide "a flexible continuum of provision" rather than insisting on inclusion. In June, the committee is expected to publish a critical report on a policy that once seemed laudable and benign.


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