THE number of autistic children excluded from schools in Dorset has shot up amid claims vulnerable students are being "failed" by the education system.

Department for Education data shows that in the county council area 48 children with autistic spectrum disorder as their primary special educational need were excluded from primary, secondary and special schools in Dorset in the 2015/16 academic year, up from 38 in 2011/12.

In Bournemouth 14 autistic children were excluded in 2016 – the last year for which data is available – up from seven in 2011/12.

No data is available for the Poole council area.

The figures, obtained via a Freedom of Information request by the charity Ambitious About Autism , show a disparity between the rate of exclusions for autistic children and for the overall school population.

In the case of pupils with autism, 5.5 per cent in Dorset and 4.6 per cent in Bournemouth were given at least one exclusion in 2015/16, compared with less than three per cent of the wider population.

According to the charity, exclusions can cause mental health problems for children with autistic spectrum disorder, as well as having an impact on their attainment at school.

Chief executive Jolanta Lasota said: "Schools are shutting out thousands of children with autism. The impact of these exclusions cannot be underestimated – not only do children fall behind academically, but the isolation from their peers creates deep unhappiness, social anxiety and mental health problems."

The charity has also warned that many more instances may go unrecorded, with schools known to sometimes informally exclude autistic pupils by sending them home to "cool off", despite it being unlawful.

The charity said better training was needed to combat widespread "misunderstanding" of exclusion law among teachers, while suggesting funding pressure could be part of the problem.

Across England, the number of autistic children being excluded increased by almost 60 per cent, rising from 2,825 in 2011/12 to 4,490 in 2015/16, while the number being permanently excluded more than doubled.

A spokesman from the Department for Education said that government guidance was clear that "unofficial exclusions" were unlawful, regardless of whether parents consented to the arrangement.

She also said that the department had launched a review of school exclusions.

"We want every child with autism to have the support they need to unlock their potential, no matter what challenges they face," she said.

"Thanks to this government's reforms, more children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities are getting the support they need at school and college, and the number who move on to training schemes, apprenticeships or supported internships is increasing.

"We know more needs to be done to make sure that vulnerable children are not unfairly treated.

"The review aims to explore how schools use exclusions overall and in particular why some groups of children such as children with autism are more likely to be excluded than others."