PDA & School

Our Being Misunderstood report highlights that 70% of children with a PDA profile of autism are not in school or regularly struggle to attend. This figure is much higher than for the ASD population as a whole, and shows how challenging school can be with PDA.

This page is for families and includes information on: sources of specialist SEN advice; requesting support in school; Education, Health & Care Plans & assessments; school placements & other options; and school refusal.

Information for teaching professionals, including helpful educational approaches for PDA, can be found here.


Specialist SEN advice

The information below provides just a brief overview and we strongly encourage you to contact these specialist SEN organisations which can provide up to date information and advice about securing support in school and navigating the legal process:


Legal duties of schools & LAs

​The information below relates to the current legislation and guidance applicable to England – the process may be different if you live in other parts of the UK. The relevant codes of practice are England: SEND code of practice 0-25 years; Northern Ireland: SEN Code of Practice and Supplement to Code; Scotland: Supporting Children’s Learning Code of Practice; Wales: SEN Code of Practice for Wales

Schools and local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that they identify and support the special educational needs (SEN) of children for whom they are responsible.

Part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 places legal duties on Local Authorities (LAs) to identify and assess the special educational needs (SEN) of children and young people for whom they are responsible. LAs become responsible for a child/young person in their area when they become aware that the child/young person has or may have SEN. They must then ensure that those children and young people receive a level of support which will help them “achieve the best possible educational and other outcomes” – Section 19 (d).

​A child does not require a medical diagnosis of a specific disability before a school or local authority should identify, assess and support a child’s special educational needs.

Needs are usually grouped on four broad areas of need and support: Communication and interaction; Cognition and learning; Social, emotional and mental health; and Sensory and/or physical needs.


Requesting support in school

If you feel that your child has special educational needs and requires additional support in school, the first step is to arrange an appointment with your school SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) to discuss your concerns. Request that your child is named on the school’s SEN Register and ask for an Individual Education Plan (IEP), sometimes known as a Personal Provision Map, to be drawn up for your child.

There are lots of education-specific PDA resources you can share with your child’s school about PDA.

It is very common for autistic children to mask or camouflage their differences/difficulties with different people or in different settings. There can often be a mismatch between behaviours at school and at home, which can lead to misunderstandings, so it may be helpful to share information about masking with your child’s school if you feel this is a factor.

The school may arrange for your child to be seen by other professionals and agencies in relation to your child’s needs: this could be the local inclusion support team, local autism outreach service, a speech & language therapist, an occupational therapist, a paediatrician, an educational psychologist, CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services) or social services (children’s disability team). Parents can also request support directly from these professionals.


Education, Health & Care Plans

Local Authorities have a duty to assess a child or young person’s education, health and care (EHC) needs where they may have SEN and may need special educational provision beyond what may be considered ‘reasonable adjustments’.

An EHC assessment can be requested by the school or college, by a professional or by parents/guardians (young people aged 16-25 can also make the request themselves).

Once a request is made, the LA must respond within 6 weeks to say whether they will or won’t carry out an assessment. If the LA refuses, reasons must be provided and the decision can be challenged via mediation or a Special Education Needs & Disability Tribunal. If the request is granted, an EHC needs assessment is undertaken and the LA will decide whether or not to issue an EHC Plan (EHCP). If a plan is refused, again reasons must be provided and the decision can be appealed. If a plan is issued, a draft must be provided for the parents or young person to consider. Only at this stage will the parents or young person be asked to name the type of provision (e.g. mainstream or specialist setting) or specific individual placement they wish to have included in the plan.


School placements & other options

There are many different educational settings which may be able to successfully accommodate PDA:

  • Mainstream schools (many PDA children may need some extra support via a Teaching Assistant and/or small group work)
  • Mainstream with an attached unit (usually an ASD unit)
  • Alternative provision
  • Local Authority special school (an ASD school or a school for children with ‘social, emotional or behavioural difficulties’ for instance)
  • Independent school (smaller class sizes can work well for PDA children)
  • Independent specialist school
  • Specialist residential school (38 week or 52-week placements)

There isn’t one single ‘ideal setting’ for a child with a PDA profile of autism but all successful placements tend to share a similar ethos: a genuine commitment to inclusion; strong support from the leadership team; a willingness to learn and adapt; a positive, creative and flexible outlook; and a commitment to working closely with the family.

There are some excellent examples of good educational practice for PDA children and there have been particularly positive outcomes in alternative placements which don’t ‘look like’ school or with flexi-schooling (a combination of some time in school with some time at home and/or in an alternative setting).

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, share information about PDA and recommended education approaches, and have several visits before deciding whether or not you feel a school can meet your child’s specific needs.

Other options

For some children, other options may be more appropriate.

If the Local Authority is satisfied that it would be “inappropriate” for a child to be educated at school, they can arrange for “education otherwise than school” to be provided – this might be home tutoring or online education – in this case the LA would be responsible for securing and funding provision.

Alternatively, parents may choose to home school their child – this is called “elective home education” and parents are responsible for all the arrangements and funding.


School refusal

School refusal – when a child is unable to attend school due to anxiety, phobia or trauma – is common with PDA, and should be treated as a health and/or SEN need.

If your child isn’t currently attending school because the school cannot meet your child’s special educational needs, the school and/or your local authority should be looking to provide the correct provision as soon as possible.

In both these cases, the situation should not be viewed as truancy and parents shouldn’t be prosecuted for their child’s non-attendance at school.

It’s the duty of the local authority to provide a suitable alternative education – in the case of school refusal due to health reasons, this should begin 15 days following the period when school refusal began.

The National Autistic Society provides useful information to help everyone understand difficulties with school and ‘school refusal’ – though please note that the strategies suggested would require considerable adaptation for a PDA child. Not Fine in School, School Refusal Support Services and Define Fine are parent-run organisations which focus on school refusal and attendance difficulties.

These are some pointers if your child is school refusing:

  • Keep school regularly updated via email/phone, keeping a log of all communications
  • Contact your GP to discuss your child’s mental health, request a doctor’s note for your child’s absence from school and ask for your child to be referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
  • Provide school with information about PDA and helpful approaches
  • Request that school provides a couple of hours of support within the home either weekly or daily depending on your child’s ability to cope – this support should ideally be centred around relationship-building and focus on your child’s interests rather than direct teaching of the national curriculum
  • As a next stage, it may be possible to encourage your child to spend small amounts of time in school during very quiet periods, such as the end of the day. This suggestion will need to remain flexible and within your child’s control. It may then be possible to build up to more regular attendance in small steps.
  • Alongside the above, apply for an Education, Health and Care assessment to have your child’s needs more accurately assessed.