Ambitious about Autism campaigns for policy change to ensure all autistic children and young people are able to learn, thrive and achieve in the early years, in education, in employment and beyond.
Here you will find latest statistics and our own evidence relating to autistic children and young people, and our view about what this tells us.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which is estimated to affect one in 100 people in the UK. However, it is likely this figure is higher. A recent study of seven million young people found that around one in 57 children in England are autistic (1.76%).
The number of children and young people receiving help for autism in schools has been increasing every year from 16,930 in 2010 to over 182,000 in 2023.
As the number of autistic children and young people continues to grow, we must ensure the education system is equipped to support them with the right funding, resources and trained staff.
The number of autistic children in schools has been increasing every year, up to 182,493 in 2023. However, the proportion in mainstream schools and academies has remained constant at around 70% for the last 10 years.
In 2023, 48,896 autistic children were being educated in special schools.
Some children will need a specialist setting to reach their full potential, but many can thrive in mainstream schools with the right support. All schools should have an inclusive ethos and a focus on getting the right support for each child, at the right time and in the right place.
The number of children aged five and under with a diagnosis of autism has risen by over 13,000 since 2010. As the number of young people with an autism diagnosis increases, we need better support to be in place for them, including autism training for the education and early years’ workforce.
92% of under 18s are waiting longer than the NHS 13-week deadline for a medical diagnosis for autism. A lengthy wait for a formal diagnosis of autism often creates knock-on delays in children getting the right education, health and social care support. In a survey of nearly 2,000 autistic young people and their families, 85% told us they want clear targets and accountability for diagnosis and support waiting times.
Parents are struggling with a lack of support after an autism diagnosis. In a survey of nearly 4,000 parents carried out by Ambitious about Autism, over 70% told us the post-diagnosis support they received wasn’t good enough. In many cases, parents reported being left “completely alone” without a follow up appointment or signposts to sources of support, for example, speech and language therapy. Different areas across England have different services for diagnosis and support can be patchy.
To support parents, Ambitious about Autism has created the Right from the Start online toolkit to help parents navigate their autism journey in the early years.
Autistic young people are also struggling with a lack of support after an autism diagnosis and there are often very limited opportunities to access help and advice. Post-diagnostic support is often tailored to the needs of parents and carers, rather than to the needs of autistic young people themselves.
Young autistic people need access to relatable information from autistic peers to help with self-acceptance and understanding what autism means for them. They need support to learn about coping strategies, co-occurring conditions, and adjustments. The focus should be on early support that can provide young people with the knowledge, skills, confidence, and motivation to live their life in a way that suits them. All post-diagnostic support services and resources should place the young person’s quality of life, happiness, and wellbeing at the centre.
Meeting other autistic people is key to post-diagnostic support. The opportunity to get to know other people who might have similar experiences provides a vital sense of belonging, solidarity, and the chance to share experiences that many autistic people may have previously believed they were alone in having. Ambitious about Autism’s Youth Network created peer resources to support other young people to come to terms with their autistic identity.
Autistic girls remain under diagnosed, compared to boys. The most recent estimated ratio of autistic males to females is 3:1. This has been attributed to girls displaying autistic traits in subtler ways than boys or being better at ‘masking’ or ‘hiding’ that they are autistic.
We should not forget that hiding your true self is exhausting and we work with many girls who have reached crisis point after years of having their needs misunderstood or explained away as something else. It is vital that diagnostic services continue to build understanding of the different representation of autism in girls.
While it is true that more boys receive support for autism in schools than girls, the number of girls receiving support for autism has increased significantly in the last few years. For example, the number of girls with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan stating autism as their primary need has more than tripled in the last decade.
This indicates that the diagnosis services are getting better at recognising autistic girls and that we will continue to see more of them in the education system in the future. This also means that all schools should be prepared for these pupils and ensure the teaching and support they offer is able to meet their needs.
Stigma, language barriers and stereotype perceptions of behaviour, mean that some children and young people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are not even considered for an autism diagnosis. Some parents have reported that they feel there is an initial tendency, especially within schools, to label their child as having behavioural problems instead of displaying possible signs of autism. They say that it can be hard to convince schools, even after a diagnosis, that autism is the cause of their behaviour.
Following a diagnosis, many of these families struggle with a lack of information and support. Many parents and carers, especially from migrant backgrounds face difficulty accessing support services and advice because information is only provided in English or contains too much jargon. Families also say that professionals treat them badly, make assumptions about them or misunderstand them due to a lack of cultural confidence.
More needs to be done to tackle the delays and inequalities experienced by families and young people when seeking a diagnosis. Professionals involved in the diagnosis process must understand the barriers and challenges autistic children, young people and their families from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds face. It’s also crucial that information is accessible and, where possible, translations are provided for people who don’t have English as a first language.
An EHC plan is a legal document which sets out a child or young person’s special educational needs and the outcomes they would like to achieve. This is usually a higher level of support than a schools Special Educational Needs (SEN) support and so the local authority will normally provide extra funding which can only be spent on the child with the EHC plan.
Local authorities must decide whether to grant an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan within 20 weeks of the initial assessment. However, in over 40% of cases this deadline is missed. This means too many children are not getting the right support in the early years of school.
EHC plans are designed to join up education, health and social care but the law doesn’t cover each service equally. Families of autistic children who also have a learning disability, sometimes alongside complex health needs, tell us they simply cannot get the social care support they desperately need. Autistic young people with mental health needs also tell us they’re moving from a package of support at 17, to suddenly being ‘dropped’ by mental health services when they turn 18. We need to fully join up the 0-25 education health and care system. This would include a specific duty on Integrated Care Boards to provide the health and care services in an EHC plan, and equal powers for the SEND tribunal in relation to health and care as it has for education.
In 2021, 11,052 parents had to appeal decisions made regarding their Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. Nearly half of these (5,498) related to decisions made about autistic children.
The tribunal process is highly stressful for parents and carers and further delays the support children receive at school. Tribunals are expensive – not just for parents but also for the taxpayer.
The majority of tribunal cases involving autistic children are won by parents or conceded by local authorities. Local authorities should be basing their decisions on each child’s support needs and certainly shouldn’t be swayed by any other considerations – such as financial pressure.
However, from our work with parents and young people, we’re concerned that local authorities’ decisions are not always based on solely on the needs of the child.
Autistic children and young people are twice as likely to be lawfully or unlawfully excluded from school than pupils who do not have a special educational need or disability.
Official statistics show that recorded exclusions of autistic pupils are increasing rapidly, having more than doubled since 2010. Latest figures show that over 5000 pupils were excluded in one year.
However, we know that in reality this number is much higher due to unrecorded exclusions – for example, when a parent is told to pick a child up during the school day but does not receive a written letter. This process is unlawful, but schools are not being held to account when they break this exclusions law. Our research found that 36% of autistic young people have been out of education when they would have liked to have been at school
Our research tells us that 82% of parents have lost sleep over finding the right school for their child, while many children miss days due to their needs going unsupported. We also know that a fifth of parents have had to give up their job or reduce their working hours due to the unlawful exclusion of their child from school. Many parents also have to battle through the courts to get their child the support they need – costing families both financially and emotionally.
The impact of school exclusions should not be underestimated – not only do children fall behind academically, but the isolation from their peers creates deep unhappiness, social anxiety, and mental health problems. Research by the University of Birmingham found that 84% of parents felt that their child’s autism was not taken account of when decisions on exclusion were made and 93% thought the exclusion could have been avoided, we need to stop this risk of exclusion right from the start by getting it right for those pupils who currently feel the sharp end of the exclusion guidance.
We would like to see the Department for Education create new National Inclusion Standards which set clear, high expectations for services about what SEND provision should be ordinarily available in each area and highlight the Equality Act duties. These standards should set out how behaviour policies can be made inclusive, with an emphasis on engaging with each individual pupil to understand their difficulties and the kind of support they need.
One of the biggest factors in determining how well an autistic child succeeds and makes progress at school is how well their autism is understood by their teachers. Nearly all parents of autistic children say that education staff should have specific training on autism. Yet only half of teachers (53%) feel they have been adequately trained to support autistic children in the classroom and 73% of autistic young people feel that their teachers do not understand their needs.
Responsibility for understanding autistic pupils’ needs cannot be placed only on school special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs). We believe that schools should follow the model introduced by the NHS, which sees all health and social care staff receive mandatory learning disability and autism training. All school staff, including teaching assistants and support staff, should be given training in understanding autism. School governors should also receive better training, especially those who are likely to hear exclusion appeals.
We want the government to publish a comprehensive long-term workforce strategy to ensure there is a sufficient, well-trained and valued workforce across education, health and care, from 0-25. This strategy needs to be backed by appropriate funding and include clear targets and dates for implementation. As part of this strategy, the government should reinstate understanding of autism as part of initial teacher training and ensure knowledge and skills relating to autism and SEND are embedded in ongoing continued professional development, including for non-teaching staff.
School is too often a hostile and anxiety provoking place for autistic children and young people. Fewer than half of autistic children and young people say they are happy at school and only 35% of autistic young people attending mainstream schools feel listened to when decisions are being made about the support they get in education.
Sadly, we know that bullying is fact of life for many autistic pupils and as a result, many experience mental health issues. Less than one in 12 (8%) of autistic children and young people think other pupils and students know enough about autism. Meanwhile, the number of autistic pupils who are persistent absentees from school has also increased in recent years.
We must make sure school is a welcoming place for all and keep these children in education so they can reach their full potential. We would like school attendance policies to become more inclusive to provide the right support to pupils with SEND. Rather than penalising absence, attendance guidance should emphasise the importance of working with persistent absentees to identify, understand and address the underlying causes of their poor attendance. The government should also encourage the adoption of a whole school approach to promoting positive mental wellbeing, so all pupils feel able to attend and fully participate in all aspects of school life.
Social isolation is sadly a fact a life for many young autistic people. A survey of over 7,000 autistic people and their families by the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that 79% of autistic people and 70% of family members feel socially isolated. Meanwhile 50% of autistic people and family members said they sometimes or often don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react to their autism.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities also report feeling lonely at school, with 43% of disabled children saying they don’t have any close friends who they could call on for help.
To help reduce loneliness among autistic young people, our Ambitious Youth Network provides a space for young people aged 16-25 to connect with others with shared interests and to talk to people who might have similar experiences to them. The Ambitious Youth Network has also helped to create online resources on making friends — including tips and tricks to make it a little bit easier.
The social cost of autism in the UK is estimated to be £32 billion a year. Early intervention not only helps autistic children and young people achieve the best outcomes but also provides the best social return on investment, reducing costs for the taxpayer.
High quality provision for autistic children in mainstream schools helps to reduce the need for costly specialist places. Similarly, investment in early mental health and social care support reduces the need for costly inpatient admissions.
Currently only 29% of autistic people are in employment, representing a huge waste of talent and potential. Increasing understanding of neurodiversity among employers and government investment in employment programmes would help autistic young people to make a valuable contribution to the economy.
Just 29% of autistic people are in full or part-time employment, one of the lowest rates of employment of all disabled groups. In our survey of over 500 autistic young people and their parents and carers, 71% of those who are currently unemployed said they would like to be in work, but less than a third were confident they would be able to find work within the next year.
This is a shocking waste, not just of personal potential and talent, but it also means businesses, and the wider economy, are missing out on the huge benefits autistic people can bring to the workplace.
Many barriers still exist preventing autistic young people from entering the workforce, including access to good quality careers advice, inflexible hiring practices and non-inclusive workplace cultures. Autistic young people tell us that being anxious about application and interview processes not being accessible to them is the biggest barrier to them finding work.
Over a fifth of the people we surveyed said they don’t tell potential employers they are autistic because they are afraid of being treated unfairly, with over 70% saying they don’t disclose they are autistic due to fear of discrimination. Even when they do disclose and request adjustments during the application process, only 16% said employers always provide them at interview.
We need more flexible solutions that will enable autistic young people to access jobs in a way that is sustainable and meaningful for them. This includes tailored careers advice delivered by professionals who understand their needs and adjustments that are understood, respected, and embedded within all workplaces.
At the moment, we lose all the gains autistic young people make in school and further education by ending the support of an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan just at the point where they leave education and look for work. We would like to see EHC plans become Employment, Health and Care plans to help support young people as they make the transition from education to employment.
Our Employ Autism programme helps autistic people join the workforce by increasing confidence in autism and neurodiversity in the workplace. The programme delivers training, resources, and ongoing mentorship to a wide range of partners across the UK, including employers, careers and employability professionals, parents, and young people.
4 out of 5 young autistic people have mental health conditions.
Long waiting lists and a lack of autism-specific mental health services are a reality for many autistic young people experiencing mental health conditions. For many, support is only available when they reach a crisis point. A survey of over 11,000 autistic people and their families found that 82% of autistic adults and 86% of families found the process of getting support from mental health services took too long.
School and education are a major part of a child or young person’s life. Getting education right for autistic children and young people is key to improving their mental wellbeing and preventing avoidable mental health problems, crises and inpatient admissions.
While long-term wholescale change is needed to adequately address the root causes of poor mental health among autistic young people, urgent action is necessary to avert this crisis. We desperately need the government to reduce waiting times and offer more immediate forms of support such as walk-in ‘hubs’ and helplines.
All mental health professionals should receive autism training and support to help them better communicate with autistic people, understand their individual needs and tailor the support they are offered.
Many of the therapies available on the NHS simply don’t work for some autistic children and young people. Talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be difficult to access due to differences in social communication. Autistic young people and their families tell us they want access to alternative therapies and treatments, beyond medication and talking therapies, which might better suit their needs, such as art therapy, social prescribing and support groups.
Latest figures show that there are 2000 autistic people and people with learning disabilities in hospital. Of these, 56% have been in hospital for over two years.
Following the Winterbourne View hospital scandal in 2011, the Government committed to moving all autistic people and people with learning disabilities inappropriately placed in hospital to community-based support by 2014.
However, this has not happened and too many autistic people remain shut away in inpatient units and excluded from their communities. These units are often many miles away from their homes, and they can be detained for years with poor outcomes.
In May 2022, the Government announced that it will introduce new mental health laws that will make it harder to detain autistic people and people with a learning disability in hospital. These will be the first major reforms to the Mental Health Act in four decades, designed to reduce the number of people being detained under current laws in England and Wales. The laws will see an end to a situation in which autistic people can be detained under the act even if the patient does not have any mental health conditions. Autistic young people have the right to live in a community of their choosing and with early intervention, these hospital admissions are preventable. Meaningful change will only come if we have better investment in early community-based support in education, health and social care so that autistic young people can live rewarding and fulfilling lives as part of their communities.