Thirteen-year-old Z’s school week looks like no other. They go to forest school twice a week, circus school once a week, and get six hours of virtual learning with neurodivergent tutors.

They love it – “I got to set things on fire today at forest school which was really fun,” they say. They already have one GCSE under their belt and will sit several more next year.

Z is autistic, and struggled so much with what they call the “toxic environment” in mainstream school in Gateshead they became ill when they were 10.

Mum Nic says: “Z was underweight, covered in hives and their mental health was poor. And I thought some of these were medical, but a lot disappeared a fortnight into lockdown, at which point you know it’s not medical because nothing else changed, just the environment.”

She took Z out of school and put together a bespoke package of home education, where the youngster has flourished. "Z looks like an entirely different human being now," Nic says.

The pair describe what the difference is between home ed and mainstream, and what they would like the educational system to take on board for our Everyday Equality campaign for Autism Acceptance Week.

How are you taught, Z?

Z – I get virtual tutoring with Gecko, a charity where all the tutors are neurodivergent, and do self-led GCSE work. I’ve just come back from forest school which is really good because you get to set stuff on fire and/or fill your wellies with water, whatever takes your fancy that day. And then I go to circus school which is very good for proprioception and basically stimming it all out.

What are the best things about home ed?

Z – I get to do a lot of interest-led subjects. My tutor and I have been chatting and now we’re going to be 3-D modelling a character from a game I really like. I’ve done my Psychology GCSE which wasn’t even an option at secondary school, and I don’t have to do a foreign language which doesn’t interest me.

Nic – It was a big surprise to me that you can do a subject for six hours’ straight. Chopping and changing between different subjects throughout the day isn’t how autistic people thrive – it’s not hyperfocused, it’s not monotropic, it’s not interest-led.

How else is it different from school?

Z – Forest school is like a completely different universe. They treat the children like human beings and ask ‘OK, what do you want to do and how do you want to solve this problem?’ instead of just telling you to calm down. And it’s interesting – I can go in tomorrow, build a den, use a saw, and basically be free to do what I want.

I don’t dread it – I used to dread going into mainstream education. I was like ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this’. I used to make myself sick with anxiety some days. Now I’m like ‘let’s go! Oh wait, I need to put my waterproof socks on.’

Nic – The difference for kids who are home educated is that you’re not forced to be around hundreds of people for 25 hours a week and you have friends, but if you come across someone you don’t get on with, it’s not a problem because you don’t have to see them.

But the kind of bespoke education Z has – even electively home educating – is a privilege. Not everyone can do this. Not everyone works from home. Some people are genuinely trapped in the system until either it ends or they reach a level of burnout and crisis that’s not manageable for their families anymore and then someone has quit their job.

What do you want to do in the future?

Z - To be self-employed because I have lots of things that I’m good at and have lots of things I want to do but they change each day. So then I have the freedom to be a lip-syncing aerialist one day and the next day I’m performing something else over there.

Nic – Follow that dopamine!

What message would you like to the education system take on board for Autism Acceptance?

Z – Shut up and listen! We can tell you what we need but if you don’t listen and keep telling us we’re not doing well, it’s no surprise because we’ve told you this needs to happen in order for it to be OK.

Nic – Staff in all schools should get autistic or neurodivergent-led training and stop looking for X solution to fix Bobby who’s disturbing their class and being inconvenient to them whilst also forgetting Jenny who happens not to be disturbing their class but still isn’t alright.

I absolutely accept that we’ve had more education secretaries than hot dinners; I absolutely accept that it is a difficult job, that they are underpaid and undervalued. However, these children are not OK and the statistics around when those children become adults are frightening. If they don’t get it right, that has long-term consequences.

Nic runs Pandas Online ( providing training and consultancy, including a course called NeuroBears for children and young people about the autistic experience. Z is an advocate.

Autistic voices and experiences will be front and centre of our Autism Acceptance campaign this year as we push for Everyday Equality.

Find out more