Investigation of the causes and implications of exclusion for autistic children and young people

Karen Guldberg, Simon Wallace, Ryan Bradley, Prithvi Perepa, Liz Ellis, Andrea MacLeod

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A recent report found that autistic pupils are three times more likely to be regularly and unlawfully excluded from school for a fixed term than those who do not have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and that exclusions for autistic children and young people rose by 59% between 2011-2016 compared to a rise in overall exclusions of 4% over the same period (Cooke, 2018). In fact, every region in England has had an increase in the number of school exclusions for pupils on the autism spectrum of between 45% and 100% in the last five years, whilst exclusion rates for the general school population have fallen in some regions such as the South East (Cooke, 2018).

Educational exclusion is clearly a growing problem that seems to be affecting autistic children and young people disproportionately. As the proportion of autistic pupils classified in Department for Education (DfE) school population data is also increasing, this should be a priority within government planning. Although estimated UK prevalence figures for autism are typically quoted as being approximately 1% (Baird et al., 2006), official data from the DfE show a figure of 1.7% of pupils classified as autistic in schools. Furthermore, the 1.7 % in 2019/20 official data is probably an underestimate given the number of undiagnosed cases, and that some autistic pupils are likely categorised in the data as having Social Emotional Mental Health (SEMH) difficulties. It is noteworthy, during a time of lingering austerity and budget cuts, that educational exclusions cause a net cost to the UK economy of approximately 2.1 billion for every cohort of excluded pupils (Gill et al., 2017).

This research

This research focused on England and the aims were to:

• Generate better understanding of the causes underlying the exclusions of autistic children and young people from Early Years, schools and Post 16 provisions.
• Investigate how various factors interplay in the exclusion of those children and young people.
• Highlight the impact of exclusion on the child or young person, and their family.
• Identify the challenges facing policy makers, school leaders, governors and Local Authorities.

The work of this project consisted of a scoping review of the literature related to school exclusions of autistic children and young people. We also collected data via questionnaires to parents of autistic pupils (n=203), educational leaders (n=91) and autistic adults (n=22) on the causes, the types and the consequences of school exclusion. We asked for opinions about a range of educational settings, including: Early Years; Schools and Post-16 provision; mainstream, special and specialist. We interviewed eight members of the Communication Autism Team (CAT) at Birmingham City Council (BCC). CAT is an outreach team providing specialist autism support to schools in Birmingham. Workshops with the Autism Education Trust (AET) Young Person’s Panel (YPP) informed the findings and recommendations. The findings from the YPP are woven into this report, as well as key points being highlighted in text boxes, so that their input is clearly outlined. The text boxes outlining the YPP perspective provide summaries of points made in the focus group in relation to the literature review, the research design, the findings and recommendations.

The research outlined in this report was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic. Towards the end of the first lockdown, we conducted research on the impact of the pandemic on the lives of families of autistic children and young people. Findings from that indicate that the long-term effects of the pandemic are likely to further exacerbate the issues outlined in this report.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of Birmingham
Number of pages43
Publication statusPublished - 10 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

With involvement and input from: The Autism Educational Trust Young Person’s Panel, The Autism Educational Trust, The Communication Autism Team, Birmingham City Council, The National Autistic Society, Dr Thomas Perry, Professor Colin Diamond, Dr Madeleine Findon.

The authors would like to thank all those who participated in the research and who circulated the questionnaires for us. Particular thanks go to the autistic adults and parents who commented on early drafts of the questionnaires, the AET Young Person’s Panel, and the Communication Autism Team at Birmingham City Council (BCC) for their invaluable input. Colin Diamond and Tom Perry at University of Birmingham were involved in the initial stages of the research and worked with the team on case studies that will accompany this report and will be published at a later stage. Several individuals have generously given their time in supporting the project, advising and providing feedback on the report, including Andy Cutting (National Autistic Society), Dr Sarah Broadhurst (Director, Autism Education Trust), Emma Chantler (Autism Education Trust) and Emily Niner, Ambitious about Autism. Special thanks to Autistica for distributing our questionnaire.


  • Autism
  • School exclusion
  • England


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