Autistic young people’s experiences of mainstream education help shape guidance for schools and parents 

York St John University publishes four-year pupil-centred study. 

Researchers at York St John University have published the results of a four-year study exploring what it’s like to move to mainstream secondary school as an autistic young person.

The insightful and sometimes challenging report looks at the highs and lows of school life for autistic pupils.  The study’s aim was to better understand school experiences as pupils progress from primary school through the first three years of mainstream secondary school. Centring the voices of young autistic people, the findings give an insight into how schools can support wellbeing and positive educational outcomes for neurodivergent pupils.

The work was led by Sue Mesa, Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, and Dr Lorna Hamilton, Associate Professor in Psychology, at York St John University. It was conducted in partnership with the Specialist Autism Teaching Team at City of York Council and supported by the Institute for Social Justice at York St John.

The team worked with 15 young people, their families and teachers over a four-year period. The pupils attended 12 primary schools and 5 secondary schools across the City of York Council district.

The young people shared insights into the daily challenges they face:

“No one understands me. They know I have autism but they’re never understanding, and I just feel like they haven’t done enough research of autism.”

“I’m not really worried about anything, apart from making friends.”

“They label me as the weird kid, and they do treat me differently for it.”

“The autism people at school are a bit of a target for bullies.”

Factors that impacted the young people’s experiences and outcomes fell into the following categories:

  • Sensory stress in busy school environments
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships
  • Peer victimisation and negative perceptions of difference
  • Classroom practices that made learning harder to access
  • Being disciplined for behaviours that are characteristic of autism
  • Low expectations of ability from some teaching staff.

The report also shows autistic pupils resorting to ‘masking’ – hiding their condition because they want to fit in, including refusing extra support to avoid seeming different from their peers. Acting ’normal’ at school could take a severe toll on young people’s wellbeing and their behaviour at home. It could also mean teachers were unaware of young person struggling until they reached a point of crisis.

Sue Mesa, Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at York St John University said: “There are more than 166,000 autistic pupils in schools in England, a figure that’s increased by 8% since 2020. Over 70% of autistic children are educated in mainstream schools but rates of exclusion are disproportionally high, and many autistic young people say they are unhappy at school.

We all know the importance of these young people getting the best support possible and listening to them and their families is key to understanding the best ways to help.”

Maxine Squire, Head of the Education Team at City of York Council said: “City of York Council highly values the partnership work with York St John University. This is crucial in developing an evidence base to inform the development of strategic approaches to improving the lived experience of neurodivergent children and young people in York.

Work on the transitions report and STEPs project is providing the council and school leaders with information to develop interventions to improve access to mainstream schools, particularly at points of transition between primary and secondary education.”

The team have some key recommendations from the report relating to:

  • Universal training for school staff
  • Education of the wider school community about autism and neurodiversity
  • Adjustments to the physical and sensory school environment
  • Neurodiversity-inclusive teaching practices
  • Effective home-school communication
  • Individualised pastoral support.

The researchers are now running a series of workshops to share their findings with education providers as well as parents and carers.

Hope Sentamu Learning Trust Director of SEND (special educational needs and disability), Fiona Hunter said: “The session was informative in terms of the topic of neurodiversity, highlighting the true overlap of different conditions and thinking about whether discrete labels are the most appropriate way to understand an individual’s strengths and challenges. I will be promoting amongst our SENDCos within the Trust the concept of describing students as neurodivergent. The session was a great starting point for developing an understanding of our neurodivergent learners whose prevalence is becoming ever more so within our schools.”

Access the full report on the York St John University website

The team are now working on an extension to this project. AIMSS (Autism Inclusive Mainstream Secondary Schooling) is a participatory project in which the research team will work in partnership with a group of autistic young people to develop resources for schools to support autism inclusion and acceptance.

Information about AIMMS and STEPS research projects can be found here