Pros and Cons of Autism-Only School and Community Programs

Is autism-only the best environment?

Hands together for inclusion
 Getty Images

In an ideal world, people with autism would be fully included in the larger community. They'd have accommodations made and supports provided when necessary, and they would be accepted by typical peers.

The reality, of course, is quite different. Children with autism are, as a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, often mainstreamed (taught in typical classrooms), but it's rare for adults or children with autism to be truly part of the larger community.

It's not hard to understand why inclusion is so difficult. A child who can't follow rapid-fire verbal instruction quickly falls behind in class, on a team, or even in Sunday school. An adult who can't work effectively under fluorescent lights isn't likely to find and keep an entry-level job. And any individual who behaves oddly (flicking his fingers, rocking, making odd noises) sets off anxiety in the people around her (even if such alarms are not justified).

Meanwhile, many people with autism can and do learn to work effectively under the right circumstances and with appropriate supports. This reality begs the question: is it best for people with autism to learn, play, and work in autism-only settings?

Why Fully Inclusive Settings Are Challenging

People with autism share a unique set of challenges, most of which relate to social communication and sensory reactions to light, sound, and touch.

Most people with autism also have some level of difficulty with using and understanding spoken language. Finally, the majority of people with autism have physical difficulties with fine and gross motor skills and motor planning.

These challenges can be mild or severe, but no matter what their level they can make it extremely difficult to function well in a range of ordinary circumstances.

A few examples:

  • Just being in a room with a buzzing fluorescent light overhead can be extremely painful.
  • Standing in a crowded space touching other people can be anxiety-provoking.
  • Accurately interpreting rapid verbal instructions and translating them into action can be nearly impossible.
  • Accurately predicting the planned movements of another person and being in the right place at the right time to, for example, catch or kick a ball, may be impossible.

These challenges mean that ordinary activities, such as attending a school assembly, taking part in team sports, or following directions from a coach, supervisor, or teacher, are extremely difficult for most people with autism.

With help and support, many autistic people can compensate for their challenges or find accommodations that allow them to be at least moderately successful in typical settings. But the reality is that it takes a great deal of time, energy, and hard work for many people with autism to function well in most settings within the general community.

For many people, the solution to autistic challenges lies in finding settings where autism is accepted and alternative activities, teaching approaches, and social interactions are available.

Some of these settings even offer autism-friendly physical adaptations such as incandescent lights and lowered sound. While there's a great deal to be said for autism-only settings, however, such options do have their pros and cons.

Pros to Autism-Only Settings

There are tremendous advantages to autism-only settings, particularly (but not exclusively) for people with more severe challenges. Here are just a few:

  • In an adaptive situation, it's possible to create and implement autism-friendly tools for communication, education, and training in every situation.
  • Autism-only settings are able to spend their money on the needs of autistic students and clients, which means better technology, more appropriate furnishings, etc.
  • In autism-only settings, individuals can focus on activities that are more in keeping with their interests and abilities. Thus, for example, they can participate in independent sports rather than team sports; lego clubs rather than social societies; and so forth.
  • While people with autism don't always connect with one another on a personal level, it's not unusual for them to find that they share common interests and are able to spend social time together without stress or difficulty.
  • For parents, knowing that their child is in an autism-specific setting can relieve anxiety caused by concern over their child's level of performance in a typical school or work situation.

Cons to Autism-Only Settings

With so many "up" sides, why would anyone with autism be better off in a typical setting? There are many reasons; here are just a few:

  • In a typical setting, both children and adults can learn skills they will use for a lifetime, while in a specialized setting they may never learn to problem solve or advocate for their own needs.
  • In a generalized school setting, children with autism have wider opportunities to explore new ideas and topics and build their skills. In a specialized school, there are fewer opportunities, and all are built around the anticipated interests and needs of the "usual" autistic student (computer gaming, for example).
  • In the wider community, people with autism can take an active role in real-world activities ranging from music and sports to academics and work. In an autism-only setting, everything is artificially set up for optimum outcomes: there is no competition, and the bar is generally lowered.
  • Rather than avoiding challenging sensory situations, people with autism can adapt to or accommodate to issues such as noisy rooms or bright lights. In a typical setting, people with autism can learn to use tools (such as noise-canceling headphones and filtering glasses) that make it easier to function in the general community.
  • While autism-only settings often lower the bar for achievement, involvement in community experiences can allow people with autism to challenge themselves and exceed expectations.
  • For families, having an autistic child in a typical setting means that other community members can get to know, understand, and appreciate their child.

Is It Easier for People With High Functioning Autism?

Some people with high functioning autism and what was once called Asperger syndrome are highly intelligent, capable individuals. Sometimes they are able to function well in inclusive situations. Problems arise, however, when the situation changes or the expectations increase.

For example, a very young child with high functioning autism may do well in a preschool or kindergarten in which visual teaching tools and movement are encouraged. This is especially true in private settings where lights and sound can be adjusted and the teacher is tolerant of (and has time to address) different communication and learning styles. By first grade, however, that same child is in a typical classroom with 25 children and one teacher, expected to follow spoken direction, and provided with few visual cues. His performance plummets, his behavior changes, and even with remediation it can be hard for him to function in a setting where spoken language and social cues are key to success.

One of the more difficult realities of high functioning autism is also the reality that "invisible" disabilities are hard to accommodate. How do you accommodate for the fact that a capable student may suddenly have a "meltdown" due to frustration, sensory overload, or anxiety? It is possible to put supports in place, but autistic behaviors can make acceptance tough and bullying more likely.

The Best of Both Worlds

Fortunately, it's more than possible for people with autism to combine autism-only and general community experiences. An ideal situation combines opportunities to relax in an autism-only setting with the more rigorous and demanding opportunities in the general community. Recharging with full support can be a great way to set the stage for finding one's place in the world at large.

Sources:

Gray, KM et al. Adult outcomes in autism: community inclusion and living skills .J Autism Dev Disord. 2014 Dec;44(12):3006-15. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2159-x.

Lord, Catherine Ed. Educating Children with Autism. National Research Council, National Academy Press. 2013.

National Public Radio. Do autistic kids fare better In integrated or specialized schools? June 2014. Web.