A detailed overview of the different educational options available for children on the spectrum.
It has often been said that if you’ve met one child with autism, then you have met one child with autism. Parents can easily become overwhelmed with trying to address all the needs of their child with autism.
Anxious parents often worry about deciding on the most appropriate educational setting for their child. The educational program that is best for your child may be totally different for another child on the spectrum.
Public school classrooms
There used to be a time when students with autism did not attend public schools. The term “autism” was misunderstood by many individuals, including educators. The term had educators envisioning a child with no speech or language, sitting on the floor, repetitively spinning plates. Thankfully, we have seen a radical change in the view of most educators and also an improvement in the services that are available for children with autism.
Not every child with autism presents with academic challenges or delays. Many are able to attend the same educational programs as their peers. While some students with autism require an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan, others may not require any of these services. There are many students with autism who are able to successfully attend their public neighborhood school system.
One of the greatest benefits of attending a public school is that your child with autism will have the opportunity to interact socially with many different kinds of students—neurotypical and possibly neurodiverse.
Public school with resource room support
You may want your child to attend the public school system, but he/she may still require specialized instruction to meet academic, social, and behavioral needs. Your child with autism may require additional support with reading, writing, or math skills.
Children on the spectrum sometimes require assistance with peer relationships or behavior regulation. Other children with autism may require speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive physical education services, or physical therapy to be successful throughout the day.
Some special education teachers may do “push-in” services. This will involve the special education teacher going into the regular education classroom and working with your child in that setting. Other special education teachers may provide “pull-out” services. This will involve your child leaving his/her regular classroom and going to the special education classroom for individual or small group sessions.
Public school with functional support
Your child with autism may have various health-related needs, severe behavioral needs, an intellectual delay, or he/she may be nonverbal. If your child is attending a public school, he/she may require the services of a functional classroom either all day or for a part of the school day.
Some children on the spectrum require support with alternative communication methods, toileting skills, feeding skills, etc. Many of these students may still enjoy going to art, computer class, physical education class, or music with their peers.
Others may enjoy interacting with peers during library time, recess, or in the cafeteria during lunch. These are all great environments for children with autism, who may have a functional need to practice conversational skills.
Public school with ABA support services
Some students with autism may be fortunate enough to qualify for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services. Individuals trained in ABA therapy, such as a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA), can come into the school and assist educators with different ways to work positively and productively with children on the spectrum. Some children with autism may be on a modified schedule at school to attend outside therapy at an ABA Center—or even within their own home.
Some children with autism attend private schools. This may be the most appropriate choice for a variety of reasons. Some parents prefer private schools due to smaller class sizes; others want their children with autism to attend private school with their siblings. Keep in mind that private schools are not under the same mandate to provide your child with autism specialized instruction (or services) as the public school system is.
It is important for parents to share the fact that their child has autism with the staff at the private school. This may help them understand some of the specialized needs of your child, such as the use of noise-canceling headphones, access to fidgets, how to make transitions occur smoother, etc. Some private school teachers have had experience with other students with autism. They just need to be aware of your child’s diagnosis.
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Private schools for children with autism
A parent may want their child to attend a private specialized school for children with autism. These schools deal specifically with students on the spectrum. The staff employed at these schools are generally specialists that have been trained to deal with the academic, social, and behavioral needs of students with autism. Of course, a possible drawback of this type of educational setting may be that your child will be attending school only with other children with autism.
Some parents may want to keep their children with autism at home. This can be done for a variety of reasons. Some parents homeschool for religious reasons, while others simply homeschool because they have always homeschooled and want to keep their child in the same program at home with his/her siblings. Others may have tried public school and been dissatisfied with the results.
The biggest benefit of homeschool is that you have direct input into the daily instruction of your child, as well as being able to see his/her daily progress. If you are homeschooling your child alone, it will be important for you to involve him/her with other homeschool families so that he/she can practice social skills with other children.
Home-public school combination
You may be homeschooling your child with autism. However, your child with autism may have a specific skill in an area that you are not comfortable providing. This could be anything from music to chemistry. Even though you are homeschooling, you can still approach your public school system to inquire about the possibility of having your child attend for a portion of the day. This could allow your child to become a band member, sing in the school choir, or take an advanced math or science class.
Day treatment programs
Many school districts have established day treatment programs. These programs generally deal with children with severe autism and/or children with emotional disturbance. These programs have specialized staff who work with children with severe behavioral needs in a small group setting.
Some of these students struggle daily with self-regulation, as well as exhibiting aggressive behaviors towards themselves or others. One of the main goals for students attending day treatment programs is to provide them with the academic, behavioral, and social skills necessary when returning to their public school programs with their peers.
Some children with autism present with serious behavioral and emotional needs. They may exhibit self-injurious behaviors or become extremely difficult to maintain in their own home for safety reasons. Some parents may select a specialized residential setting. This will be a program with trained staff members, teachers, and nurses.
This type of schooling may involve the child living at the school and receiving all their specialized instruction during school or within a dorm during evening or weekends. Parents can often visit their child at the residential school throughout the year, or he/she may be granted home visits for short periods of time.
Parents have a wide variety of options available to them to effectively educate their child with autism. Each child will have his/her own unique needs, and each option should be considered and researched. The goal is to provide the best education for your child as they navigate the world to become as independent as possible.
This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism