Educational Options for Children with Autism

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As with so much in the world of autism, the definition of a good educational program depends upon the needs of the individual child. Thus, while there are certain elements that are likely to be positive for any child with autism, the bottom line is all about your child's individual strengths and challenges, and whether they "click" with their teacher and setting.

To make things even more interesting, services and programs are likely to differ from school district to school district and from region to region.

One state may stress sensory integration therapy while another is strong in Applied Behavior Analysis - and since there's no "gold standard" for autistic education, children wind up being offered pot luck. Meanwhile, different families may also have specific preferences regarding therapeutic and teaching approaches, which vary greatly from district to district and from region to region.

All this said, here are some basic elements that are critical to any successful educational program for autistic students:

  • Your child's teacher (whether a special ed teacher or a typical classroom teacher) should have both training and experience in working with autistic children.
  • Your child's teacher should have both implicit and explicit support from the school administration. She should be able to access resources, training and materials as needed.
  • Your child's teacher should be able (based on her abilities and resources, and on the school's policies) to modify program and curriculum to your child's needs and strengths based on your child's IEP (Individualized Educational Program).
  • You should be able to see evidence of various different teaching styles in use in your child's classroom.
  • Other teachers, including gym, library and other specials teachers, should be able to access resources and supports as they work with your child.
  • You should see evidence that learners are challenged and supported both academically and socially.
  • Supportive therapies, such as speech, physical and occupational therapy, should all be available on site and free of additional charge.

Educational Options for Autistic Children: Questions to Consider

Mainstreaming? Inclusion? Special needs classes? Public school? Private school? Which is best for your child? The answer, of course, is -- it all depends! Some questions to consider as you begin thinking about your options are:

  • Is your autistic child verbal and engaged?
  • How are her academic skills?
  • Can he handle large groups?
  • Does she do well with a lot of sensory input?
  • Does he have difficulties with focus?
  • Has she had a tough time in typical classrooms in the past?
  • What kinds of programs can your public school offer?
  • How well do local programs fit your child's needs and abilities?
  • Are there local private or charter options that make logistical and financial sense for your family?

What the Law Requires of Your School District

If you live in the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your district provide the "Least Restrictive Environment" for your child's education.

That means that they must consider such options as mainstreaming before deciding (with your involvement) on a more specialized setting.

You may, of course, decide that your child is better off in a specialized setting -- but if you decide to work with public schools, you may have to prove that the mainstream setting is NOT working before seeking funding for a private or specialized setting.

Mainstreaming and Autism

Mainstreaming is a somewhat old-fashioned term (the newer term is "inclusion"). When the term mainstreaming is used, it generally describes a setting in which your child is part of a typical classroom with minimal extra support. Some accomodations may be in place, but in general, your child is expected to be able to behave appropriately in a large group, attend to a teacher, and do work at or near grade level.

Mainstreaming general works best for children who are high functioning and at least moderately social. It may be especially tough for children who are non-verbal, very anxious, or likely to act out when under stress.

Inclusion and Autism

Inclusion is the "new fangled" term which, in general, means the same thing as "mainstreaming with support." The idea is that autistic children are included in classrooms with typical children -- but they may have significant supports in order to be successful. Some support options include a 1:1 aide, adapted curriculum, special social groups and more.

Many parents prefer inclusion as a compromise between a special needs classroom and unsupported mainstreaming.

And, indeed, inclusion can be a terrific option in the right setting.

There are, however, a few potential down sides to inclusion. For example, autistic children in a typical classroom may suffer from bullying and teasing. If the child has a 1:1 aide, the teacher may see the autistic child as "taken care of," and focus their attention on other students. If the child has an adapted curriculum, it may actually be taught to him by the aide and not the trained, credentialed teacher.

The Special Needs Classroom

Often, autistic children are placed in a general special needs classroom in the local public school. This option may work well if the teacher is highly trained and experienced in teaching autistic children. The groups are usually smaller, there is more opportunity to work on social skills, and special needs classes are generally included in all school activities and events.

Special needs classrooms, however, are generally intended for children with typical social development who have a tough time with academics.

Autistic children often have precisely the opposite problem: they're relatively comfortable with academics, but have a tough time with social skills. As a result, the program offered in the special needs classroom may be completely wrong for your child.

Autistic Support Classrooms in the Public Schools

Some larger districts and regional educational agencies offer specialized autistic support classrooms within ordinary public schools. These classrooms are set up to meet the specific needs of autistic children, and are staffed by teachers and aides who are trained in autism and education.

Autistic support classrooms have several great advantages: they are usually very small, with a high adult to child ratio.

They offer supports, such as visual teaching tools, which are specifically selected for autistic students. And they may also include intensive speech and social skills training in their curricula. In addition, children in autistic support classrooms, like those in special education classrooms, are usually included in general school activities such as assemblies, recess, and so forth.

Autistic support classrooms, however, tend to be quite segregated from the rest of the school. Children in these classes often spend all or most of the day with other autistic children. In addition, with so much attention paid to building social skills, these classrooms may neglect your child's academic strengths and abilities. It's not unusual for teachers of children with autism have lowered expectations of their students' intellectual abilities.


Typical Private Schools and Autistic Learners

Private school. Small classes. Individualized attention. Terrific resources. Sounds great, doesn't it? But the truth is, unless your child with autism is extremely high functioning and socially competent -- or you have a very unusual situation -- most private schools will not accept your child. Unlike public schools, private schools are under no legal obligation to educate your child. And few typical private schools are well-prepared to handle any kind of special need.

Of course, it is always possible that your local community has a special private offering, such as a co-op school or alternative learning center, which is appropriate for your child. And it is certainly possible that your child with autism will develop the skills needed to attend a small private high school. But all of the pieces need to be in place for typical private school to be a viable option.

"Special" Private Schools and Autism

The Philadelphia area (where I live) boasts more than a dozen special needs private schools. Of these, only a very few are very likely to accept a child with autism. All of these accept ONLY children with autism. The others may consider an autistic child -- but will accept such children only under unusual circumstances.

The reason for this is fairly simple: most special needs private schools are designed for children with typical social skills and poor reading skills.

Autistic children tend to have problemmatic social skills and good to excellent reading skills! In addition, autistic children have the reputation of being more difficult to teach than learning disabled children -- a reputation that may or may not be deserved!

Those schools that are specifically set up for autistic children have the great advantage that everyone on staff knows and understands autism.

They may also have a wide range of therapeutic resources available on site, all of them potentially appropriate for your child.

On the other hand, of course, these schools accept only autistic children, which means that 100% of the children your child meets will be...autistic. This means no typical role models, no typical activities, and no typical community involvement. In addition, the cost of "autism schools" can be astronomical: as high as $50,000 per year or more. While it is possible to convince a school district to underwrite an approved private school placement, it is usually a tough sell -- since such schools are actually the MOST restrictive environment available.

Schools for autistic children are usually a good match if your child is either profoundly autistic -- and thus unlikely to do well in a less restrictive setting -- or profoundly unhappy in a typical setting. In fact, some children with Asperger Syndrome may do better in a school for autistic children, since they are often extremely sensitive to the inevitable teasing that goes along with inclusive or mainstream settings.

Homeschool and Autism

Because the options for educating an autistic child are limited -- and in many areas almost non-existent -- a growing number of parents are turning to homeschooling. Homeschooling is a tough row to hoe for many families, since it requires the nearly full-time involvement of one or both parents -- and may also require a significant financial sacrifice when one parent leaves home. For many families, though, the choice makes sense -- particularly if the relationship with the local school district has become very strained.

At this point, quite a few listserves and organizations are supporting parents who homeschool autistic children. And, while it may be tough to find other local homeschooling families with autistic children, it's relatively easy to find homeschool groups, programs and curricula.

One of the biggest issues faced by homeschooling families is the reaction of peers and families. Questions such as "how will you teach social skills?" and "won't you go crazy?" can make it hard to keep up confidence and energy. There are also issues related to finding and funding therapies, sports, and other extracurricular activities.

But the greatest "upside" to homeschooling is its absolute flexibility relative to the individual child. If your child loves trains, for example, you can use Thomas the Tank Engine to teach reading and math skills -- an approach that has a good chance of success!

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