Is the number of autistic children excluded from school increasing?

Andrew Cutting, Specialist Exclusions & Alternative Provision Advice Coordinator for the National Autistic Society, writes about the exclusion statistics published earlier this year by the Department for Education and explores whether they actually show an increase in exclusions for autistic children.

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Author: Andrew Cutting 

Is the number of autistic children excluded from school increasing?

The most recent national statistics show that, between 2010-14, there was a 35% increase in the number of autistic pupils excluded for a fixed period and the number of pupils permanently excluded has doubled over the last three years. 

Although alarming, these statistics need to be viewed in the context of a growing population of pupils diagnosed with autism in our schools.

The latest national statistics on children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) show a dramatic increase in the number of autistic pupils in maintained schools in England. The statistics provide information from the school census in January each year on pupils with SEN and SEN provision in schools. They show that the number of autistic pupils  attending state funded primary, secondary and special schools now stands at 90,775 (Jan 2015) - an increase of 19% from 2014-2015 and a 160% increase in five years.

In terms of making sense of the exclusion statistics, it is perhaps more meaningful to consider the proportion of autistic pupils excluded from school i.e. the percentage of those identified as being autistic who are excluded. The proportion of autistic pupils excluded has remained fairly stable over the past five years, with between 4-5% of all autistic pupils in schools receiving at least one fixed period exclusion and about 0.1% being permanently excluded.

Although these percentages are lower than reported in some parent surveys, it is important to note that these statistics only include those autistic pupils who were at School Action Plus1  or had a statement of special educational need (SEN), under the then SEN Code of Practice (2001) and it does not include those pupils whose autism had not been identified as a SEN, nor those pupils who were awaiting a diagnosis of autism, or whose autism had gone undetected. Indeed, 11% of enquiries to the National Autistic Society (NAS) School Exclusions Service were from parents of pupils who did not have a diagnosis.

Furthermore, data on the number of informal or unofficial exclusions, such as sending pupils home ‘to cool off’ − which is unlawful practice − are not collected. Informal exclusions constituted 12% of the enquiries to the NAS School Exclusions Project. Therefore, the number and proportion of autistic pupils being excluded from schools is likely to be considerably more than the national statistics indicate.

Reasons for exclusion

The national statistics show that the two most common reasons that headteachers gave for giving a fixed term exclusion to an autistic pupil were:

1)    Physical assault against an adult (23%)
2)    Physical assault against a pupil (20%)

The national statistics show that the two most common reasons that headteachers gave for permanently excluding an autistic pupil:

1)    Physical assault against an adult (26%)
2)    Persistent disruptive behaviour (23%)
Clearly every pupil with autism is different and there is a complex combination of factors that come into play in any incident, such as the pupil’s:

•    upbringing
•    health
•    personality
•    character etc…

Which factor is coming to the fore in each occasion can be difficult to assess and isn’t the focus of this specific article. However, what is important is to remember is that permeating all of these factors is the person’s autism.

Having a basic but good understanding of autism can mean teachers and headteachers can better understand what motivates ‘behaviour’ in autistic children, this can mean the difference between understanding and adapting practice, or excluding an autistic child.

Teachers and headteachers should view the behaviour of any autistic pupil through the ‘lens of their condition’ and, as the Department for Education highlights in its exclusion guidance, recognise that disruptive behaviour can indicate unmet needs.

To avoid the need for future exclusion, some common steps that schools can take are:

•    ask the local authority to make an assessment of the pupil’s education, health and care (EHC) needs
•    call for an early/emergency annual review, if the pupil already has an EHC plan or statement
•    seek the advice of the local authority and other professionals’ advice and support (eg educational psychologists, local autism advisory service, behaviour support services)
•    training for staff on ASD
•    arrange additional or different support
•    make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to policies and practices, under the Equality Act 2010

In conclusion, although the national statistics initially show a dramatic rise in the number of fixed and permanent exclusions for autistic children, the proportion of autistic pupils excluded from school has remained consistent over the past 5-6 years. This however, fails to take into account various groups, such as those with a recognised SEN and those going through the process of diagnosis. 

Numbers are likely to be higher than documented and autistic pupils are still being failed within schools up and down the country. However, with greater awareness and understanding of autism and a genuinely inclusive ethos in schools, autistic pupils can be included instead of being needlessly excluded.


1 School Action Plus was used - prior to the Children and Families Act 2014 - where a school's own resources had not been able to help a pupil make adequate progress. Under School Action Plus a school could seek external advice from appropriate support services, such as a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or specialist autism advisory service. 

Date added: 27 April 2016