One parent’s seven steps to success for her autistic son’s EHCP

stepping stones illustration with word parent's Seven Steps Success for her autistic son's EHCP

We have another useful post for you today. Many parents find it difficult to navigate the SEND system and we hope that this site can help. One parent, Fiona Jones, has written her own top tips based on how she succeeded in getting an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) for her autistic son.

She was told, as many are, that it was unlikely he'd qualify for statutory support as he was academically able. However, this is not a criterion for a statutory assessment. You can see the process using our ever-popular SEND system Flow Charts . Fiona is sharing her tips with us in a guest post today on SNJ, but first, I'm going to start off by repeating the legal test for special educational needs.

When a child or young person has special educational needs - the legal test

  1. A child or young person has special educational needs if he or she has a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her.
  2. A child of compulsory school age or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability if he or she—has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age, or
    has a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions.

My Seven Steps to Success for my son's EHCP, by Fiona Jones

My son's EHCP was finalised recently. He’s an academically able eight-year-old, in mainstream school with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Condition. Our school was pessimistic about our chances and it seemed pointless to apply. However we applied ourselves, and we were successful. This is what I did that worked for me* and I'd like to share with you.

1. SEN Basics

SEN Support” is the first level of help at school for children with additional needs and many families will be expected to try this stage before progressing to an EHCP. It isn’t always clear if your child is on the School’s SEN Register - even though you should have had it discussed with you - so speak to your SENCO for clarification, or to discuss the possibility that your child has a special educatnional need.

Keep good records (every letter, report or email) filed carefully in date order. A scanner (or photograph them) and cloud storage like Dropbox or iCloud can really help with this so you can access it wherever you are. Correspond with your school in writing/email on important matters and cultivate a good working relationship with the school staff. Ask for copies of School SEN Support plans each year. Keep notes of all meetings and phone calls too.

2. Take Stock

The SEND Code of Practice 2015 says that special educational needs can be experienced in just one or across all four "areas of need”. Using these four headings, write a brief list of the “headline” issues affecting your child. I have included examples in italics which are the sorts of challenges which apply to a child with Autism in mainstream school:

  1. Communication and interaction – e.g. core ASD difficulties with use of language, social skills, lack of self-advocacy, rigid thinking, difficulties with transitions/task initiation and using non-verbal (uncooperative, violent or odd) behaviour to communicate difficulties, etc.
  2. Cognition and learning – e.g. core ASD mind-blindness / central coherence / executive function difficulties; specific learning difficulties (SpLDs eg dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, difficulties with written expression); reduced availability for learning due to dysregulation caused by transitions/ sensory differences / changes to routine, etc.
  3. Social, emotional and mental healthe.g. sleep disturbances, feeding or eating disorders, anxiety, OCD, school refusal, self-harm, nervous ticks, poor self-esteem and stress / bad / hyperactive behaviour at school and/or home etc.
  4. Sensory and/or physical needse.g. fine/gross motor problems; motor planning, balance issues, sensory integration difficulties; personal space issues, sight/hearing issues; feeding or toileting etc.

3. Build Your Professional Team

Your list of “headlines” will define which professional evidence you will need to support your case.

Referrals to help or diagnose children with autism frequently include one or more of the following: speech & language (for speech, social/communication and/or feeding), Occupational Therapy (OT); Paediatrician, Psychology in the  form of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), specialist nursing, social care, specialist feeding/ sleeping/ toileting teams; audiology, optometry, specialist teachers / outreach etc. PATOSS keep a list of private assessors who can assess SpLDs (as listed above), if you can't access this through school. Each region differs, so check if you access via GP, school or self-referral. Children's centres can sometimes offer drop-in sessions.

Case law makes it very clear that an educational psychology (EP) report is not needed to qualify for an EHC Assessment. However, your Local Authority’s EP service might offer free drop-in sessions, which can be a useful source of informal advice or notes for your application. Professional reports and letters are essential evidence but it can take a long time to be seen and then to be issued with paperwork. Start the referral processes early and chase regularly to avoid unnecessary delays.

4. Build Your Evidence Base

In addition to professional reports, you can gather your own evidence to support the EHCP process. Small tit-bits of information can be typed up and, with the addition of a date and source, can be transformed into “evidence”.

For example over the course of a school year, my son's teacher described him being uncooperative, creating problems with peers,  damaging property, verbally perseverating, refusing to attend to topic and fidgeting. Upsettingly, these were presented in a way which suggested that I was a poor parent, but in our EHCP application – if there can be a silver lining in this sort of situation – I used them to illustrate, “long-standing stress behaviours in school” and “evidence of un-met needs”.

I also gathered direct quotes from teachers and health professionals who spoke more freely in person than they might have in a report. So it is worth listening carefully and jotting down notes of all sorts of encounters. Obviously be scrupulously accurate in your recording as one mis-quote could render you an unreliable witness.

5. Put Your Professionals to Work

When the referral appointments come through, ask professionals to advise on what support your child might need at school. Ask if they would be prepared to support the need for an EHC Assessment/Plan. Ask them to put all of this in writing to you, cc’d to the school. Supporting letters and reports can take months to arrive, so do this as early as possible. (Tania's note: once you apply for an assessment, you only have six weeks to gather evidence so remember this before you rush straight in with a call to the LA)

Sometimes letters or reports don't accurately reflect discussions. If you can return comments within a few days, polite requests requesting minor clarifications, amendments or additions are usually positively received. Try asking for professionals to be clear about their recommendations (who is to deliver help, how often and for how long and when/how will it be reviewed) as this will help improve the quality of the final EHCP.

6. Legal EHCP Essentials

There are hundreds of pages of legal advice in The Children & Families Act 2014, the SEN Code of Practice 2015 and their supporting documents. SOSSEN and IPSEA are two charities that help explain the law; their websites and helplines are invaluable. (links at the end). Use their model letters to ensure that you include all the essential legal jargon, but do consider them as basic templates to expand upon. My son’s EHC Assessment request increased IPSEA’s single page template, to four pages of dense text, plus 50 pages of evidence & reports!

However, the single most important legal issue that you need to know is the legal threshold to trigger an EHC Assessment. The two part test that the Local Authority must apply is from Section 36 (8) of the Children and Families Act 2014.  Part one of the test is that the child has or may have special educational needs. Part two of the test is that it may be necessary for special educational provision to be made for the child through the issuing of an EHC Plan. This is written in the box at the top of this post and keep this threshold in mind while gathering your evidence. As soon as you have paperwork which shows that your child “may” have SEN (a diagnosis of ASD automatically qualifies as SEN although it is better to elaborate as listed in Step 2) and “may” benefit from a Plan (a supporting letter or report from a professional seems to be essential here) you have your basic evidence. Aim to make the best case to get an “Agree to Assess” decision first time, as over 80% of those who get to this stage will go on to be awarded an EHCP.

LAs often use school spending of over £6000 to justify (or not) applying for an EHCP. However this is NOT a legal basis for a decision and what's more, it isn't person-centred. Some SENCos seem to rely entirely on spending criteria and are then surprised when their EHC requests are unsuccessful. Demonstrating how your child meets the legal tests and providing solid evidence is the best way to make your child's case.

7. Pulling It All Together

I started with IPSEA's model letter and stated our son's name, age, school, school year and length of time on SEN Support (though being on SEN Support is not a legal requirement either; some children have EHCPs before they even reach school age). I listed the professionals who had seen our son, a list of referrals that we were waiting to hear about, and those professionals that we had spoken to about our son's case without them having seen him (eg the CAMHS psychologist who ran the post-diagnosis parenting course who wrote a letter in support of our application). I included the list of SEN which applied to my son under the headings of the “Four Areas of Need” and indicated how these “limited his access to the curriculum.”

Your child has a unique story. Choose three to five of their key challenges and write a paragraph on each. Include lots of examples to show how these issues, “limit access to the curriculum” are “evidence of un-met needs” to a significant degree and how this means that your child has “delayed learning or development” and “will not fulfill their academic potential”. Highlight how children with a diagnosis of ASD are in a “high risk group for future serious mental health problems” and where your child’s problem behaviours are indicators of current or future issues. Highlight how it is essential that they are in an “enabling environment with trained staff” and have “reasonable adjustments” for their “hidden disabilities”. Highlight upcoming “key transitions” and what support might be needed. Consider requesting an EHCP so that your child can “select a school based on provision, rather than distance” – this is a particularly powerful argument as it is something that the LA cannot delegate to the school under SEN Support. It's well known that the transfer to secondary school is a key transition for children with ASD where extra support is required.

My son is academically-able so I made his case on social, emotional and sensory issues, as well as some areas of difficulty with the curriculum and management of secondary transition. You will  need to show that your child’s needs are significant and make the case for why SEN Support is not working. My son's story involves a Tier 4 NHS referral, which undoubtedly helped our application, so think carefully about how to make your child's case and the strength of your evidence.

I suggest that you scan all the reports as PDFs and attached them to the covering letter using an online service such as ILovePDF to combine documents, add page numbers and compress the file size for easy emailing. I applied as soon as we met the two-part legal test (see Step 6. above) but other professional reports continued to arrive. I continued to forward evidence to the LA right up to the six-week legal deadline.

Four weeks after the application, I suggest that you email to remind the LA that you expect a reply within the next two weeks to help keep things moving. In my email I concluded with the following which I hoped that our busy LA screener would “cut and paste” to justify their Agree to Assess:

“In your review of our evidence, I am sure that you have seen that our son has SEN (page(s) xx of report(s) xx); that our application for an EHC Assessment is supported by xx (letter dated xx) and that we therefore meet the legal criteria for EHC assessment under Section 36 (8) of the Children and Families Act 2014”.

I wish that someone had given me this list when I started on our EHCP journey, so I hope that it serves you well!

*Please note: None of this post constitutes legal advice, it is the personal experience of the author. If you believe your child has special educational needs, speak to your school's SENCo. As mentioned above, you can also find local support,national telephone advice, and read up on the law from IPSEA, SOSSEN, and our own EHCP clinic and Ask IPSEA resources.

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Tania Tirraoro

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