As a parent of a child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) known as Trastornos del Espectro Autista (TEA) in Spanish, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is choosing the right school for your child. Navigating the different school options for children with ASD in Spain can be especially daunting if you are a foreigner in Spain, as the education and support system may be different from what you are used to.
Being an educational consultant my job is about helping families to find the right school for their child (in Madrid) and making this process as easy and stress-free as possible. Quite often parents contact me about the school options available for their children with ASD and question how support in schools in Spain compares to their home country and seek advice on accessing public (non- fee paying) schools in Spain. Most of this material is available on very un-user friendly government websites which even locals find hard to navigate. Having been through the school application process with many families of children with SEN and spoken to several autism support groups (Madrid), here are my learnings on the different public and school options available in Spain (Madrid specifically) for children with ASD. I hope that this helps many families who really are in the dark about which schools are best suited to their child and how to apply.
Firstly, it is important to know that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 established that the national government as well as the autonomous communities have a role in decision making in education system in each region. For families moving to Spain this means that education is slightly different depending on the specific area and what applies to one area will not apply to another. ‘Confederación Autismo España’ is a national federation of autism associations in Spain that aims to promote and defend the rights of people with autism and their families and is a good starting point for families of children with autism moving to Spain. They reply promptly and will share contact details of the autism support group in your specific region in Spain.
Public schools in Spain are required by law to provide inclusive education for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) including autism. This means that public schools are obligated to provide support services and reasonable accommodations to help students with autism access the curriculum and participate in school activities. Public schools may also have specialized professionals on staff, such as psychologists or special education teachers, who can work with students with autism to help them succeed. Although not always required as it depends on type of education centre / level of support, it is best to have any medical diagnosis translated into Spanish and ready if required. Any paediatrician in Spain should be able to assist with this matter.
For families of children with ASD moving to Madrid and seeking to enrol their child in public schools, there are three main options:
- Centro Ordinario con Apoyo (Mainstream education with support)
This schooling option responds to those students with ASD who can progress in their learning and integration through a normalised model and are offered, like other students with SEN specialized resources specific to each educational centre.
- Centros ordinarios de Atención Preferente (Mainstream Education with specialized support)
This option allows for the possibility of providing extensive and specialised support to certain students with ASD within a regular ambit. This option requires the involvement of all personnel at the centre:
- The centre’s management team in aspects such as the provision of necessary space or the organization of coordination times.
- The group of teachers in aspects such as adequate training on this topic and the organization and programming of the general activity of the centre.
- The tutors of the different levels in which the students with ASD are enrolled.
Additional specialised resources are assigned to each centro preferente:
- Pedagogía Terapéutica (PT) y Audición y Lenguaje (AL) – Special Education teacher and/or Speech and Language therapist.
- Integrador Social – Specialized Technician or a Social Integrator.
- Equipo de Orientación Educativa y Psicopedagógica (EOEP) – Educational and Psychopedagogical Guidance Team of the neighbourhood.
- Specific EOEP for Severe Developmental Disorders, especially in the implementation of this programme in each centre and its subsequent monitoring.
These students split their day between the support classroom (known as aula TEA) and a regular reference classroom or group. The distribution of the time spent in both spaces is defined for each student based on their needs, with the objective always being to achieve maximum participation in the reference classroom.
The ’aula TEA’ has a maximum of five students in the classroom making it quite hard for families to access this option and waiting lists tend to be long. Some schools have two or three aulas TEA but unfortunately most have just one.
Families wishing to enrol their child in either of these school options should apply in the regular application process which usually takes place in April. For families who miss these dates the late application process (el proceso extraordinario) opens in July and then again in September. Your child will have priority in a ‘centro de preferente’ but if only if there are places available.
- Escolarización en Educación Especial (Special Education Schooling)
This option is for students with ASD who are schooled in Special Education Centers who require generalized support in all areas of their development throughout the school day. Like other students with SEN who are schooled in these centres, they receive very individualised attention from the different professionals on staff. Although these centres admit students with different types of SEN, it is common for students with ASD to be grouped into one or more units based on their needs and age, in order to provide them with more specific attention. In the Community of Madrid, there are currently public Special Education schools as well as Special Education centers that are privately funded (Concertado) but have a specialized focus on the education of students with ASD. You can find more information about special educational schooling in Madrid on the Comunidad de Madrid website.
Private schools in Spain, on the other hand, may offer smaller class sizes and more individualised attention compared to public schools. Private schools may also have more resources available to provide specialized services and programmes for students with autism. However, private schools are not subject to the same legal requirements as public schools when it comes to providing inclusive education for children with SEN. Some private schools may be more selective in their admissions process and may not have the resources or expertise to support students with autism. And many others unfortunately cannot be bothered.
From my own professional experience with families, it can be a real struggle to find the right school for a child with ASD. There simply are not enough resources available. Public schools have long waiting lists and many private schools, especially international schools are not willing to support students with SEN.There is still huge room for improvement in terms of accessibility and availability of services, particularly in certain regions or communities within Spain.
Some statistics from ‘Autismo España’ clearly show how much work still needs to be done in education. In Spain students with ASD currently represent 25% of the students with specific needs for educational support in compulsory education. The lack of specific support has consequences that negatively affect the emotional well-being and quality of life of students with ASD:
- They are highly vulnerable to being victims of bullying (with figures ranging from 46.3% to 82% of students with ASD suffering from bullying at school).
- They are one of the groups with the highest rates of academic failure and dropout.
- They have fewer opportunities to pursue post-compulsory studies compared to other students with developmental conditions such as language disorders or learning difficulties.
- They often obtain academic qualifications that are below their potential and abilities, both in vocational training and higher education.
- They drop out of university studies at a higher proportion than the rest of the student body.
However there has been an increase in awareness of autism in Spain in recent years, and as a result, there has been a greater emphasis on providing support and services for individuals with autism and their families. there are several groups for families with kids with autism in Spain. These groups provide support, information, and resources for families and caregivers of individuals with autism. Some of these groups include:
- Confederación Autismo España (previously mentioned).
- Federación Autismo Madrid: This is a federation of associations in Madrid that provides support and resources to families with children with autism. They have prepared a helpful and comprehensive guide (in Spanish) for families of children with ASD which is available here.
- Asociación Asperger Madrid: This is a Madrid-based association that provides support and resources for individuals with Asperger syndrome and their families.
- Asociación de Padres de Personas con Autismo (APNA): This is an association of parents of individuals with autism in Madrid that works to promote awareness, understanding, and support for families with children with autism.
- Fundación Autismo Diario: This is a non-profit organization that provides information, resources, and support to families and caregivers of individuals with autism.
In conclusion, choosing the right school for a child with autism in Spain requires careful consideration of several important factors, including support services, teaching methodologies, accessibility, location, and inclusion. Take your time, do your research, and trust your instincts when making this important decision. With the right school and support, your child can thrive and succeed in their education in Spain.
Do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like my assistance as you take your Steps Into Spain.
Sinéad Galvin is an experienced educational consultant with a passion for helping families navigate the Spanish education system. She is the founder of Steps into Spain, a boutique educational and relocation consultancy based in Madrid, which specializes in helping families find the right school for their child.
Drawing on her professional and personal experience of Spanish schools and the Spanish way of life, Sinéad provides expert guidance to parents, ensuring they are informed and empowered to make the best decision for their child’s education. At Steps into Spain, she takes a holistic approach to the relocation process, taking into account not only a family’s educational needs but also their housing, paperwork, and general settling-in requirements.
Sinéad’s central ethos is that a happy child is a happy parent. As such, Steps into Spain strives to make the transition to a new school and country as seamless as possible, helping families feel confident and settled in their new surroundings.