THE number of children in Scottish schools needing extra support due to autism has risen by 15 per cent to almost 10,000 in just one year, new figures show.
In 2013, 9,946 students were listed as having “additional support needs” in Scotland due to autistic spectrum disorder – up 1,296 from 8,650 in the previous year.
Overall the number of pupils needing extra help in class due to a wide range of problems, including speech and language disorders and other disabilities, rose 11.5 per cent from 118,034 in 2012 to 131,621 last year.
Concerns are now being raised about whether schools and teachers are properly equipped to cope with increases in children needing additional help with their studies, amid calls for further investigations into why numbers are rising at such a rate.
The Scottish Government said increased awareness and better detection of problems such as autism were behind the rising numbers listed as needing extra support in schools.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, affecting how someone communicates and relates to other people and the world around them.
As it is a spectrum disorder, the severity of its effects vary widely from person to person, with some people able to live relatively independent lives while others with a range of learning disabilities need a lifetime of specialist support.
Last year Scotland on Sunday’s sister paper, The Scotsman, reported a four-fold rise in Scottish schoolchildren recorded with additional support needs (ASN) due to conditions such as autism over the past decade.
The statistics showed the number of children needing extra support more than quadrupled from fewer than 29,000 in 2002 to more than 118,000 in 2012. In 2013, that figure increased again to 131,621 – 19.5 per cent of all pupils.
The sharp increases in recent years have been put down to changes in the way the figures are collected, meaning students not previously recorded as having ASNs are now included in the statistics, as well as growing awareness of conditions such as autism.
The most recent figures also show a continued rise in the number of pupils listed as needing extra support due to autism. About one in every 68 in publicly funded schools is affected by the condition.
The 9,946 pupils recorded with ASN due to autism last year compares with 6,506 in 2010 – an increase of 53 per cent in just four years.
The majority of cases reported last year – 8,399 – were boys. The condition is more common among males than among females.
The Scottish Government figures also showed rises in pupils with ASN due to a language or speech disorder in the last year, up 12 per cent from 11,367 in 2012 to 12,708 in 2013.
Those listed with a social, emotional or behavioural difficulty increased 14 per cent from 23,485 to 26,715 over the same period.
Campaigner Bill Welsh, former president of Edinburgh-based charity the Autism Treatment Trust, which announced its closure last year due to lack of finances, called for further investigation into the rise in cases, which he said could not be explained by greater awareness or the way figures are collected.
“We need to start looking into the environmental factors which may be implicated in this rise in autism,” Welsh said. “Genetic factors do not explain all cases of autism. We need to be investigating what else is going on here.
“As well as having a huge impact on the families affected, this rise has huge implications for the education system and teachers.”
The National Autistic Society (NAS) Scotland said it welcomed improved recording of children in mainstream schools with autism and additional support needs.
But policy and campaigns officer Robert MacBean said: “We are concerned that getting the right support for pupils with autism at school continues to be extremely challenging, with many education professionals with limited understanding of autism failing to identify the needs of children with the condition.
“Even where children receive some support, frequently it is not enough to meet all of their needs. In particular, many children do not receive speech and language therapy.”
MacBean added: “Children with autism need support at school to help them gain the most from their education.
“Their disability means they can find the social aspects of school particularly challenging, and are likely to need help to communicate with and understand the people around them.
“A delay in putting the right support in place has a detrimental effect on children’s well-being, self-esteem, and in many cases, mental health.”
The Scottish Conservatives’ young people spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “There is no doubt that the significant increase in the numbers of young people with additional support needs is placing extensive pressure on schools and local authorities.
“That is particularly true when it comes to the provision of the necessary finance to improve support and teacher training.
“There are serious questions to be asked about the scale of additional support needs.”
On Friday, Smith will host a special seminar at the Scottish Parliament to discuss pupils with additional support needs in schools.
Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said the increase in the numbers of pupils with autism was “a sign that increased training and awareness of the condition is working”.
“The key issue however is that every pupil in need of additional support receives it. Without proper support, the potential of each such child will never be achieved and that is the worst possible outcome,” she said.
“Autism need not be a barrier to educational success. We need to continue to work hard both to identify those who need extra support, but continue to improve the more general understanding of autism in the wider population.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union added: “Given the level of cutbacks in school budgets, including teacher numbers and the availability of pupil-support assistants, it would be naive to conclude that austerity measures have had no impact in this field, particularly against the background of an increasing number of pupils in mainstream schools who have additional support needs.
“The range of these additional needs is vast and often complex and teachers need a broad set of skills to deal with this.
“Further training and additional support is needed to allow schools to provide the best learning experience for all pupils.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Greater awareness and better detection rates mean that there are more children with additional support needs, including those with an autism spectrum disorder.
“We have updated guidance for teachers created with Scottish Autism that will offer advice on how to help pupils excel and fulfil their potential.”
Case study: ‘In a mainstream class he would just have been lost’
JACK Strachan’s parents believe their son would have been “lost” in a mainstream school.
The nine-year-old was diagnosed with autism aged five and now attends a specialist unit for youngsters with the condition, located within their local primary school in Kilmarnock.
But as he grows older, his family are concerned about how his needs will continue to be supported in the education system and beyond.
Father Hugh Strachan said Jack benefited from smaller class sizes and more one-on-one support from teachers to help him through his studies at the Crosshouse Communication Centre, which is located within Crosshouse Primary School.
“If he hadn’t got into the Communication Centre, then the next option was a general school which looks after kids with additional needs,” he said.
“They would have a general broad understanding of different conditions as they support children with all kinds of issues and more complex difficulties, whereas the school Jack goes to is all kids with autism and the teachers are more focused on autism.”
The unit also allows the children to mix with the mainstream school for some lessons and activities.
Strachan said Jack’s school had seen growing numbers of students with autism trying to gain places in recent years, in line with a rising recognition of the disorder.
When he is 12, Jack faces moving to another school with hopes he can find a place in a similar unit in a secondary school.
“It would be a natural progression, as long as he is continuing to work the way he is working,” Strachan said.
“We’re hopeful that will be the next step, but it is a worry.”
Strachan said being educated in a specialist unit had allowed Jack to do well in his education in a way the family did not think would have been possible in a general class.
“In a mainstream class he would have just been lost. Mainstream teachers are not really in tune with what autism is,” he said.
Strachan said to look at Jack, the youngest of four brothers, you wouldn’t know that he had autism, but when you spoke to him it was clear that he had communication issues.
“He is developing well and I couldn’t sing the praises of the Communications Centre enough,” he said.
“It has been a Godsend,” he added.
“It is unfortunate they have a limit to the numbers they can take in as I am sure there are people out there who have kids that they would like to go there.”