Mother with autistic son smiling
8 Nov

Education options for autism families

Watching my son battle through school was heartbreaking. Long before he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), he seemed like a typical happy, healthy schoolboy. Sure, he was a bit wobbly at drop off and pick up, but he was waking up, getting dressed in his uniform, doing all the things he was meant to do - school work, homework, making friends, joining team sports - but as he got older it all became more of a struggle for him.

I just couldn't understand why.

My assumption was that the professionals who had trained for years to work with children would pick up on anything that needed further investigation. Instead he was naughty, although they didn't use that word. Instead they described him as distracted, forgetful, lacking in concentration. It was all about him and what he was doing wrong and me and how I was failing as a parent.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see what was happening to my little boy and I will regret forever not having him assessed for autism sooner, but surely if he was autistic one of these trained professionals would have picked up on it and made the appropriate accommodations for him at school.

Instead, he struggled through until the start of Year 7. During that year, at an even more ignorant and unforgiving school, he was left battered and broken and unable to function. The diagnosis soon followed and then, the despair.

He felt dumb, stupid, different. He was different, but he was far from dumb and stupid.

We homeschooled for a bit but I was a terrible teacher, particularly when I chose Lord of the Rings as his English text, forgetting how sad it is. Piggy! Poor Piggy. We were distraught.

Then I discovered Distance Education which was basically school online. I would supervise but it was run by teachers.

Sadly he was too mentally unwell to do much of it himself so I stepped in and completed a lot of it myself, desperately trying to get him through to Year 10 completion so he and I could finally rest and be left alone by the likes of the Department of Education who would remind me that Philip was legally required to participate in school until then.

With his Year 10 qualification in hand, we were finally able to rest. He had what I refer to as an accidental gap year during which he rested and tried to heal from the trauma of his experience and I tried to figure out where I had gone wrong and what I could do to help my baby boy put himself back together.

My own school experience was challenging and my first attempt at a university degree didn't go to plan so I deferred it and focused on work. When I returned a few years later to complete my first degree I loved it! So I did another, and then another.

After a few months of rest and recovery my son had started to show a few sparks of interest in what the world had to offer him, and in what he had to offer the world. He began enrolling in online courses, mostly programming, and loved it. By being able to focus on what he was truly passionate about, he was thriving. But according to the rules, he wasn't a candidate for university because he'd left school in Year 10.

My understanding was he'd need to complete a Year 11 and Year 12 equivalency course at TAFE, but there's no way he could do that. He wasn't able to complete work that wasn't of interest to him, that made no sense, that was taught in one way and poorly at that.

I rang my university in frustration. I said something along the lines of: "My son is 17 and so smart. He's much, much smarter than me. He wants to study something in computing but he didn't finish high school. It's so annoying that he can't get into uni. Don't you have a special entry exam or something he can do?"

Enter the university pathways...

I was told my uni and many others offered a pathway program to people like my son through Open Universities Australia. All he had to do was enrol in the degree of his dreams, complete four core subjects, complete them with a Credit result or above, and he would be allowed into the degree.

Three High Distinctions later and he is one core subject away from getting into the degree of his dreams. 

What followed was a period of mourning for all we had been through at the hands of the current primary and secondary education system, neither of which properly caters to neurodiverse students like my son.

Well, guess what? You can get into university without them.

While our kids are legally required to attend school until the end of Year 10, there are options for them and they can even go to uni if they want.

Part of me feels this information is being kept from autism families so the education system, particularly those final two impossibly difficult years, remain relevant.

News flash: They are not anymore. He's all the information you need. And remember, all that matters is what is best for your child, not what school staff say to you on your way out the door.

I remember my last meeting with those people at that horrible high school. I'd had a funny feeling they were going to let my son down and they did, and then some. The school was between counsellors at the time so I was left with the Year 7 Co-ordinator and the Religious Education Counsellor. I left my son outside, he didn't need to hear any of this shit. They sat me down and explained why my son was a terrible student, showing me examples of his work. They had spoken to all his teachers in an effort to present their case. 

Quietly fuming, I let them complete their 'bad cop worse cop' routine and then I asked: "Did any of his teachers have an issue with his behaviour? Or just his school work?"

There were no issues with his behaviour.

And with that I told them we'd be leaving the school and they could both get stuffed. While my son and I were walking to the car, I told him: "You never have to go to that school again."

You could almost see the weight lift from his shoulders.

The moral of this story is, don't ever be afraid to change schools, challenge schools, demand your child be moved into a different class with a better teacher, demand anything and everything your child needs.

Be that parent. Because then at least your child knows that in a world of adults who don't understand them, who are sometimes a bit mean to them, they have you. And while you may not have all the answers, you'll do everything possible to figure them out.

And if all your efforts to negotiate with the school and the Department of Education fail, these are each excellent options.


The first time I considered homeschooling my son was after a conversation with a mother at my children's swimming school. She'd confided in me that her eldest had been badly bullied and the school had failed to do what it needed to do to keep him safe. Added to that she'd been battling cancer. So she pulled all her kids out of school and began homeschooling them. She recommended joining some Facebook homeschooling groups for parents and told me exactly what was required.

I visited the website for homeschooling in NSW. There is a different one for each state and territory.

After completing the forms online we were visited by an assessor who, after meeting with me and hearing how it would work, approved me to homeschool my son. She even gave me a certificate!

With homeschooling, you act as your child's teacher. But it is flexible. You don't have to do it in traditional school hours. I was working full time so I asked my boss if I could start at 6am and finish at 2pm. Then I'd come home and my son and I would do 'school' for four hours, plenty of time to get his work done.

Distance Education

When he got older, he no longer wanted me to be his teacher and I didn't want to be his teacher either! So we enrolled in Distance Education which is high school online. Lots of kids access it for a variety of reasons, from those like my son who struggle in a traditional school setting to those who are working as actors, dancers and professional athletes, even those battling various illnesses, those who live in rural locations, the list goes on.

Once again your child can log on at a time that suits them.

You act as their supervisor and are in contact with their teachers regarding their performance. Access one of the sites below or contact the Department of Education in your state or territory to find the one closest to you.

University Pathway Programs

For those children who aren't able to complete Year 11 and Year 12, they can leave school with their Year 10 qualification and then access university pathways through Open Universities Australia.

The staff are so helpful. Start by calling them to talk it through, they will match your child to the best uni degree and help you enrol. And the best part is it is covered by HECS! 

Phone: 13 67 36


Article written by Jo Abi, senior writer at 9Honey, media commentator, author, mental health/autism advocate.

Visit Autism Awareness Australia for further information on schools and beyond school options for young adults.

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