Support for children with disability in specialised school settings


For some children with disability the best way for them to receive an education is through specialised classes, a specialised unit or a specialised school. This type of education setting often involves smaller class sizes and staff with more expertise in teaching children with diverse learning needs.

Key points

  • For children with disability who need a high level of educational and other support there are specialised schooling options

  • These include specialised classes, units, schools and dual enrolment

  • Children will likely need to meet eligibility criteria to access these types of schooling

Alongside the individualised options of specialised school settings, therapists and other non-teaching professionals may be arranged to give your child support sessions while they are at school, particularly speech and language therapies or behavioural support sessions.

We’ve put together some information you need to know about specialised schooling options if they seem to be the best fit for your child.

Specialised classes

Many private schools, independent schools and public schools offer classes specifically for students with additional learning needs.

These are available both during primary school years and secondary school years.

They have smaller class sizes, enabling the teacher and support staff to spend more time with each student, and may learn according to a different program to what students in the same year level learn in a mainstream class.

Children in specialised classes are able to learn alongside other children with similar needs to themselves, in what can be a more inclusive environment than mainstream classes.

Specialised classes may also have breaks at different times of the day to the rest of the school, so children with sensory difficulties are not overwhelmed in the school yard or so staff can keep a closer eye on children with disability who may need more supervision.

There are also different school inclusion programs run across Australia designed for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Usually the programs involve developing support strategies to help your child engage in their learning and manage their behaviour in the classroom, as well as plans for any school transitions such as from primary to high school.

They may also include professional development of teachers and advice for the school about creating an autism-friendly learning environment.

See the links at the end of this article for information about how to locate a school near you with specialised classes.

Specialised units

Specialised classes for children with disability at some schools may be separated from the rest of the school in a unit – either a separate building or a divided section of a building.

This could be for a range of reasons, including safety of students and to make it easier for staff to provide supervision.

A unit could also have more facilities which suit children with a variety of learning needs than a specialised class in a mainstream section of the school might have – for example a unit may have a sensory room and additional accessible toilets or changing facilities.

However, specialised units are becoming less common in many places around Australia, as the benefits of having specialised classes separated from mainstream classes are debated.

Common specialised units include those for students with mild to moderate intellectual disability, hearing impairments and autism or higher level complex needs and conditions.

Although the unit may be separate from the rest of the school for a majority of the time, some schools encourage inclusivity of students with disability through buddy programs or including them in school events.

It is important to get all the information you can about a specialised unit which your child may be able to attend and compare it to other education options which are available, to make sure it is the best fit for your child’s learning, social and physical needs.

Specialised schools

Schools which specialise in one specific disability or just in teaching all children with disability and high support needs can be found across Australia.

Although specialised schools may deliver learning differently they will still use the Australian Curriculum, just as mainstream schools do.

This means while your child may learn at a different rate and adjustments may need to be made to how the Curriculum is taught at a specialised school, children are not in any way missing out.

The focus of specialised schools can be a range of disabilities and some can cater for children with multiple conditions.

Most jurisdictions have schools which specialise in intellectual disability or emotional and behavioural needs, but most States don’t have schools which specialise in physical disabilities.

This is because it is expected children with physical disability can either receive the right learning support through mainstream school or through other specialised school options.

Autism Spectrum Australia also operates schools in New South Wales and South Australia with small classes, a teacher with training in autism-specific schooling, and a teacher’s aide.

These schools can be used to help children with autism transition into more mainstream school settings if it will benefit the student.

There are also autism specialist schools in Victoria which children with high support needs may be eligible to attend.

Schools for the Deaf provide learning in Auslan and English in classes about a third of the size of mainstream school classes so that teachers and support staff can deliver intensive language support programs.

The Australian Schools Directory website provides a search option for schools in Australia which can be filtered by school type and the needs which your child has.

Dual enrolment

In some jurisdictions in Australia families can choose for a child with disability to attend both a specialised school and a mainstream school, or go to a specialised school for some learning and learn the rest through homeschooling.

This can be a good option for children who will benefit from social engagement and other aspects of mainstream education, but will also benefit from a more individualised support environment, either at a specialised school or at home, to boost their learning.

Where to find more information

You can compare schools using the MySchools website under a range of different headings, but it’s also good to go on scheduled tours at your local schools and even ask if it’s possible to set up transition days to try it out.

State and Territory education department information about schooling for students with disability can be found here:

For information on part time school, distance education and homeschooling, read our information guide.

We also have information on the support which children with disability can receive in mainstream school settings.

Are you looking for a specialised school setting for your child to attend? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content

Kids 5-12 years

Teenagers 13-17 years

School transitions for children with Autism

Flexible schooling options for children with disability