The number of children with additional support needs is a growing concern across the country, as local authorities struggle to balance their budgets while keeping schools resourced.

A closer look at the data shows that the biggest problem areas are getting bigger every year. The Scottish Government publishes data on the number of students receiving support across 23 specific categories.

Since 2013, the total number of ASN pupils nationwide has nearly doubled, rising from 131,527 to 258,905.

This creates immediate issues by putting strain on the school and welfare systems, which need to grow alongside the rising numbers to provide adequate support to students who need it most.

Read more: Scottish Government given warning over education cuts

Students needing support for an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), English as an additional language, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and dyslexia make up the largest categories of ASN.

Data shows that the number of students receiving support for each of these needs has grown every single year for the past decade –  sometimes by as many as 5,600 pupils per year.

And since 2013, the growth in these categories has been non-stop.

There were 9,946 pupils receiving extra support for ASD in 2013. In the most recent 2023 census, that number had risen to 30,179.

This accounts for the third-largest increase in a single category over the past decade, behind only English as an additional language (up by 34,447 pupils), and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (up by 36,363 pupils).

Students receiving support for social, emotional and behavioural difficulties consistently account for the largest ASN group every year.

This is in part because the government collects data on everything that pupils are receiving support for, meaning those with multiple needs can appear multiple times across relevant categories, even though they are only counted once in the grand total.

The government's official description for social, emotional and behavioural difficulties indicates that students with a range of needs – including physical and emotional disorders – should be included in this category.

Because of the growth trends across nearly all categories, experts in children’s services have said that schools, teachers, local authorities, families and even private practices are struggling to meet the needs of ASN students.

Read more: ASN teachers down, ASN pupil rate doubles over decade

In addition to growing in number, many children’s needs will grow more complex and more severe the longer they go untreated or, perhaps worse, undiagnosed.

And the fact that numbers are increasing steadily year-on-year, rather than resulting from a single leap that could be attributed to an outlying factor – such as the Covid-19 pandemic or a change in reporting methods– is also indicative of a growing problem.

In fact, the growth in the total number of ASN pupils slowed significantly in the years during and immediately following the pandemic.

From 2016 to 2019, the number increased by an average of 15,666 pupils per year. Between 2019 and 2022, the average increase was 8,579.

In contrast, the 2023 census showed an increase of 17,396 ASN pupils, the largest single increase since 2013 and more in line with pre-pandemic figures.

This helps to suggest that the consistency of reporting, which would have been more difficult during the years of lockdown and remote learning, is a significant contributor to the growth rates. The Scottish Government changed the way ASNs are reported in 2010 in order to improve accuracy, and growing awareness, as well as changes in how each reason for ASN is defined, can also lead to growing numbers.

That is all important because identifying and supporting students while they are still in school is critical for their development, experts have said. 

Once they graduate or move on, access to key resources becomes much more difficult, if not nearly impossible, depending on their geographical location, social context and other factors outside of their control. This is already beginning to play out for children with speech, language and communication needs.

Following recent news that Aberdeenshire Council had voted to cut back on speech therapy services in schools, Glenn Carter, head of the Scotland office for the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), said that wait times could increase wait times for services and leave many more young people undiagnosed and untreated.

This creates a compounding problem.

"Early intervention is always our priority," he said. "The longer a communication need goes untreated, the more severe it can become."

That is particularly true for young children, he said. The RCSLT promotes working with new parents – and even pregnant mothers – to lay a foundation for positive communication habits as early as possible.

While it only represents one of the various identified needs, speech and communication concerns highlight how ignoring or failing to adequately support pupils with additional needs can create future problems.

Read more: Aberdeenshire speech therapy cuts labelled short-sighted

According to recent statistics, 88% of long-term unemployed young men have an identified communication need. A further 60% of young people who come into contact with the justice system also have some form of speech, language or communication need.

The current state of speech and communication support needs also illustrates clearly how wide the gap is between students' needs and providers' abilities to meet them. 

According to the 2023 data, there were 33,450 pupils with communication support needs or a language or speech disorder. That's 4,300 more than in 2022 and over 17,000 more than in 2013.

And yet, the RCSLT reports that 6,503 children are waiting to receive speech and language therapy in Scotland. 

The average longest wait for initial contact with a speech and language therapist is 13 months. And the average longest wait to receive individualised therapy is 17 months.

The situation is only expected to worsen: in the past five years, the average longest wait for initial contact has increased by over seven months; for individualised therapy, it has increased by over 10 months.

However, communication represents just one area where young people need additional support. The numbers in others are just as telling and steadily increasing.

As Stephen McGhee, managing director for Spark of Genius and a member of the Scottish Children's Services Coalition, put it, increased needs are being met by a similarly steady decline in the workforce and funding needed to provide support. 

"At the SCSC we tend to release two main sets of figures: one is around additional support needs and the other is about CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) waiting times. The SCSC releases the figures every quarter and I get phone calls from media outlets to discuss the issues. And then another quarter passes and nothing changes. 

"We've been doing these reviews for what feels like a decade and we've only seen negative numbers about children's ASN or waiting times."

The SCSC recently reported that funding for ASN has fallen by 33.9% since 2013. During the same period, there were at least 546 specialty ASN teachers. Meanwhile, the number of students in need of additional support has nearly doubled.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said that spending on additional support for learning reached a record £926 million last year.

"To help address growing demand in this area and the number of FTE additional pupils support staff has increased by 725 (4.4%), bringing the total number of support staff in Scotland in 2023 to 17,330.

“There were also 2,898 teachers across all sectors with additional support needs as their main subject in 2023, an increase on recent years.

They added that the government has committed £15 million per year to support schools with enhanced support staff provision and £11 million to support pupils with complex additional support needs directly.

But Mr McGhee said that even the numbers don't fully illustrate the consequences. There is a difference in support staff and teachers with training in specific additional support needs such as autism, dyslexia and more. 

"There are teachers within every class or cohort who have knowledge and expertise in specific additional support needs. Separate from that, there will also be teachers who have had limited training in specific additional support needs, as well as support staff who aren't teachers at all."

This means the loss of specialty ASN teachers could affect some students with specific needs much more than others. And as students have already told The Herald, living with ASN in Scottish schools can be difficult enough already.