Should My Autistic Child Attend a Public School?

There are plenty of plusses and minuses to a public autism education.

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Public schools are required to provide free education to all American children, and most children with autism do attend public school. In some cases, public school can provide appropriate educational and social settings for your autistic child. In many cases, your local public school will struggle to find an appropriate setting and provide a meaningful educational program. 

Is public school likely to be a good match for your child?

The answer is: it depends on your child, your district, your expectations, and your budget (the other options are all quite pricey).

How Do Public Schools Teach Children with Autism?

Depending on your child's needs and abilities, your child will probably wind up in one or another of these settings:

  • Typical public school classroom without special support (mainstreaming)
  • Typical public school classroom with support (1:1 and/or adaptations)
  • Part-time typical classroom, part-time special needs classroom setting
  • General special needs class
  • Specialized public autism class with some inclusion or mainstreaming
  • Specialized public autism class without inclusion or mainstreaming
  • Charter School
  • Cyber charter school

Most children with autism will receive some kind of therapies (usually speech, occupational, and/or physical therapy) in addition to their academic program. If your child is academically capable, he will be taught the same curriculum as his typical peers.

If she has moderate intellectual, learning, or attention challenges she may be taught in "slower" classes or in a resource room. If he has more severe symptoms, his program may consist almost entirely of behavioral (rather than academic) education.

What's Great About Public School for Children with Autism

There are great advantages to a public education for a child on the autism spectrum.

Right off the bat, public school is free. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), though, there's much more to a public education than academics.

  1. Your child with autism must receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). That means that your child must receive the right supports to be at least moderately successful in as typical a setting as he can handle.
  2. Each autistic child in public school (even in early intervention) must have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). In it, you and his "team" from the district lay out your individual child's goals, special needs, and benchmarks to measure progress. If your child isn't moving forward, you or your team members can call a meeting to decide what to do next.
  3. If your child does thrive in a general education setting, public school is a great way to connect more fully will new friends, other parents, and the school community as a whole.

What's Not So Great About Public School for a Child with Autism

The above description of public school may sound like heaven on earth. But of course, nothing is as good as it sounds. The truth is, as you'll hear from every school administrator you'll ever meet, "The law requires that we provide your child with a Chevy, not a Cadillac." In practice, this means that your child with autism is most likely to get an adequate education based on someone else's vision of what adequate looks like.

  1. In some cases, what looks at first like an adequate educational program really isn't. A child with huge sensory and behavioral issues is never going to do well in a mainstream setting. A child with high functioning autism is not going to thrive in a classroom filled with profoundly challenged kids. In those fairly extreme cases, it's often possible to make a case for change on your own or through an advocate or mediator. Frequently, districts will see the problem and make changes based on your child's individual needs.
  2. You may not like the autism support program offered by your district. Some districts have set up an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) program for their autistic students at great expense only to be sued by parents who are uncomfortable with ABA and prefer developmental therapies. Some districts have created autism classrooms complete with sensory integration facilities, only to have many parents object because they would prefer to have their child mainstreamed into a typical classroom.
  1. Autistic children are often targets for bullying. They behave, move, and sound different from their peers--and often lack the verbal and social skills to stand up for  themselves. This is surprisingly more prevalent for children with high functioning autism, as they are more likely to be included in typical classes and sensitive to bullying behaviors.
  2. Autistic children may find the sensory challenges of typical school to be overwhelming and upsetting. It can be exhausting to spend the day in a setting is very loud, bright, and crowded. Standing in line, coping with gym class, and reacting to loud buzzers can be too much much for some children.

The Bottom Line

There are many different ways to accommodate autistic children, and autistic children are radically different from one another. That means that there is really only one way to find out if your child will do well in a public school, and that's to give it a try. Your child might also thrive in a public setting for a period of time and then run into problems (or vice versa). The key to success is to stay closely connected to your child's experience by communicating with his teacher(s), aides, therapists, and guidance counselors on a regular basis.

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