Autism figures have doubled since 2007

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MORE THAN 70 people attended an open day to learn more about a potential new free school for autistic children in West Sussex.

The event, held at Worthing Lesiure Centre last week, was organised by the Worthing branch of the National Autistic Society.

The number of children and young people with autism in West Sussex has doubled in the last six years and this is expected to grow further.

Jane Vaughan, national head of education development for the society, said: “We feel that young people with autism should have the same choices as young people without autism. To leave home and have to go three hours away from your home for 52 weeks a year should not be the only option.

“This is a way to set up day schools which will keep young people much more within our community which will also lead to a more fulfilling adult life.”

Ben Higgins, education lead for the NAS Academies Trust, said: “We have high ambitions for students in the free school to achieve their full potential.

“We want this to be collaborative working between parents and the local authority. It is also about being preventative and providing support to other schools. Each young person is different and responds to different interventions. We will use a balanced approach.”

Katie Jarvis, special needs schools lead advisor for West Sussex, said: “The population in West Sussex is rising and alongside any population rise there is going to be a need for an increase in school places.

“That includes some additional special school provision and we are in West Sussex planning for the future, and we already have quite a lot of children in our special schools who are on the autistic spectrum.”

The new school, which will cater for 60-80 pupils and would open in September 2015, would be the first of its kind in West Sussex.

Possible sites are still being investigated.

Zoe Green, vice chairman of NAS Worthing, has an eight-year-old son who was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, a form of autism, as a toddler.

She said: “James has just started at Palatine which is a special school after attending Thomas A Beckett First School which is mainstream. His anxiety levels have reduced as a result and his understanding is better, because I think the curriculum is at the right level.

“He is just so much happier there.”

But Ms Green, of St Anselm Road, Worthing, said that she thought James would further improve in a school specifically for children with autism.

She added: “The staff need to be totally in tune with autism, focussed, dedicated and trained.

“James is very sociable and smiles a lot but the autism can hold him back so it would be great if certain things were addressed.”