For Autism Acceptance Week 2024, our education writer reflects on the experiences of Emily Bulcraig, who has written about attending school as an autistic person in Scotland. He also explores the data on the number of autistic pupils in schools, and asks whether acceptance is yet a reality in Scotland.

Scottish Government figures confirm that there has been a massive increase in the number of pupils registered as autistic (or, more specifically, as having an autism spectrum disorder or ASD) over the last decade or so.

In 2010, the total figure stood at 6,506; in 2014, the overall figure breached 10,000 for the first time; and in the most recent census, 30,179 pupils were registered as receiving additional support for ASD – more than all of those with physical and mental health problems put together, and just a few hundred short of the total number receiving support for dyslexia.

There are only three football stadiums in Scotland that could hold every autistic pupil: Celtic Park, Hampden, and Ibrox. The next largest, Aberdeen’s Pittodrie stadium, would need to be nearly 50% bigger to accommodate them.

We are not talking about a tiny group of people – almost every school in Scotland is likely to have several autistic pupils.

Read more: What's it like going to school when you're autistic?

There are now 43 autistic pupils for every 1000 young people in our schools, up from just 10 per 1000 in 2010. These young people also represent a larger proportion of all pupils with additional support needs.

The gender gap is also much smaller than it used to be. In 2010, boys were six times as likely to be receiving support for ASD, but today they are a little less than three time as likely. This fact and others strongly suggest that it is diagnosis rates that are increasing rather than rates of ASD themselves, and should make us wonder how high they might be if people didn’t face huge waits to confirm their need for support. Either way, we can safely assume that the current figures are an underestimate.

In contrast to all of this, support for pupils with additional support needs has fallen dramatically, with specialist ASN teachers, and overall funding per pupil with ASN, both having declined – all while the number of pupils needing support has rocketed. In that sort of situation something has to give and, all to often, that something is actually a vulnerable young person.

According to the National Autistic Society, just 26% of autistic young people are happy at school. 70% of autistic people will also experience mental health problems at some time in their life.

Those figures, combined with the data from the Scottish Government’s pupil census, tell us that thousands of autistic young people could be seriously struggling in our schools. But that shouldn’t be news, because organisations like the NAS, Scottish Autism and Children in Scotland have been warning about it for years.

We have more and more people needing support, and less and less capacity to provide it. How did we think that story was likely to end?

I’ve had people tell me that schools must be ideal places for autistic children because they are so organised and predictable, with specified periods of activity and a consistent timetable. Interestingly, however, I don’t think that any of those people were themselves autistic.

For neurotypical people schools are generally seen as extremely organised and predictable, sometimes to a fault, but as Emily Bulcraig’s story makes heart-breakingly clear, the reality for those with autism can be very different, and for people like her schools are loud, complex, disorientating, and even frightening places. It’s incredibly important that we recognise that during Autism Acceptance Week.

Why? Because acceptance is about empathy, not sympathy. Feeling sorry for people like Emily won’t make things better for anyone – changing how we see people like her will.

The clue is in the name: we need to actually accept people for who they are, not their ability to fit into our pre-existing structures or pre-determined expectations.

Acceptance means being willing to recognise something fundamental: that all too often, we expect people live in a world that not only was not designed for them, but which has been built in ways that are hostile to them - and then we complain when those people do not (because they cannot) ‘fit in’.

It’s a much more subtle form of exclusion than the old-fashioned approach physically segregating people, but it’s a form of exclusion nonetheless.

And as Emily has bravely shown us, the effects are devastating.