High-functioning autism and special educational needs

Over the past few weeks we have been contacted by a number of parents of children with high-functioning autism (HFA). It seems increasingly common for local authorities to refuse to make an Education, Health and Care (EHC) needs assessments of young people with HFA.

The reasons that local authorities are giving is that the young person with HFA seems to be performing well academically. This means that local authorities do not see the need for an EHC needs assessment.

What is high-functioning autism?

High-functioning autism (HFA) is an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and can appear to be very similar to Asperger’s syndrome.

Children with HFA present with the spectrum difficulties associated with ASD. Those are: social interaction, social communication and rigid thinking.

Asperger’s syndrome and HFA can appear to be very similar because one key diagnostic requirement for Asperger’s is the lack of a cognitive impairment. As children with HFA tend to have higher than average cognitive abilities, they can appear to be very similar to children with Asperger’s. However, there are key differences:

  • Children with Asperger’s do not have a language delay whereas children with HFA often present with significant language difficulties.
  • Children with Asperger’s tend to have difficulties with fine motor control. This presentation is far less common among children with HFA.

There is no clear dividing line between Asperger’s and HFA. In practice, the key issue is how the condition affects your child and what support is necessary.

What’s the difficulty?

Parents are contacting us because their local authority has refused to make an EHC needs assessment. Many are also being advised by their child’s school that there is ‘no point’ in applying for an EHC needs assessment because their child is “not bad enough”.

The reasoning seems to be because of one, or all, of the following points:

  • The local authority requires that a child or young person is performing below a particular academic level before it will make an EHC needs assessment
  • The child or young person has to be below a certain IQ before it will make an EHC needs assessment
  • There needs to be clear evidence that the child or young person needs more than £6000 worth of support before the local authority will make an EHC needs assessment.

None of these requirements appear in the law. The Code of Practice does suggest that local authorities can have regard to a child or young person’s academic progress. However, that guidance does not supersede the statutory requirements. The important point is that the local authority needs to consider each case carefully, rather than applying generic, tick-box policies.

The application of these policies is potentially unlawful. A decision whether to make an EHC needs assessment should be based on the child or young person’s own needs and the support they might require.

What should the local authority consider?

The law requires that a local authority should make an EHC needs assessment if:

  • The child or young person has or may have special educational needs
  • It may be necessary for special educational provision to be made for the child or young person in accordance with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP).

This means that the local authority only has to find  that the child, at least may, have special educational needs. A child or young person has special educational needs if they have a disability, or a learning difficulty, which calls for special educational provision to be made for them. This is further explained by our factsheet.

Conclusion

The only relevant consideration for an EHC needs assessment is whether the child or young person has special educational needs and may need an EHCP. There is no reference to funding, IQ levels or comparative academic achievement.

Children and young people with HFA are likely to have special educational needs. All children with HFA will demonstrate social interaction difficulties, social communication difficulties and rigid thinking.

If your local authority refuses to make an EHC needs assessment purely on the basis of academic achievement, that is failing to address the law properly.

I am so happy at the outcome, I don't think we would have had such a comprehensive service from any other law firm, and you took the worry away...I do not regret a single second of the whole process, apart from the bit before you got involved. 

James' mother, Boyes Turner client

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