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Academic Choices for Your Child with Autism

May 27, 2024

For parents of children with autism, it can be daunting to imagine handing our kid off to a teacher after a break. We hope these new adults in our child’s life understand our child just as well as we do.

Selecting the right academic environment for your child may make the transition easier to deal with. When it comes to academic choices for autism, it is important to understand all available options. Here are some of them.

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1. Public school

Public schools cater to a wide population, and there is a wealth of special education services. Teachers typically possess the necessary qualifications and experience required to understand children with special needs. 

Important bonuses, such as before/after school care, transportation, and lunch, are generally provided.

Your child may qualify for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP is a document that acts as an agreement between you and your child’s teachers, outlining the services and methods that will be used to help your child reach their potential.

The IEP is revised yearly and will follow your child to each public school they attend. This ensures predictability and consistency in your child’s education.

Public school can be tough for a child with autism. Long days and crowded classes can be hard for kids who are sensitive to their surroundings. Plus, your child’s success often relies on standardized exams and grades, which might not show their true abilities.

Many parents find they must over-advocate for their child in the public school environment because there are so many students assigned to one teacher. The only major interaction you will have with your child’s teacher is during conferences, which only occur a few times a year.

2. Charter school

Charter schools are public schools funded by the government. They must meet all or most of the same regulations as your local public school. However, you elect for your child to attend that particular school instead of being assigned to it by your address.

This gives you greater freedom in selecting a school environment with which you are comfortable. Each school is unique in its mission, curriculum, methods of teaching, and standards of mastery.

Charter schools may base themselves in arts or science, require training in music, or integrate two or three different languages into their curriculum. Charter schools are often led by local parents and community members, so parent involvement is high.

Female classmates learning together at their desk during a class at charter school https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/educational-options-special-guide/

Because they meet the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) standards, charter schools will cater to special needs students and follow an IEP.

Some schools may have a highly alternative curriculum that may not appeal to your child’s strengths or interests. For example, if a child struggles with English, speech, or social communication, interacting in Spanish or Mandarin could be equally or more difficult.

Charter schools are often unpredictable. They are only funded if they meet certain performance goals. If these goals are not met, the school can be closed at anytime.

Limited funding also means the charter school may lack important facilities such as a gym or playground, and services such as before/after school care may not be offered.

3. Private school

A private school is a great option if you feel your child requires a specific academic curriculum that operates independently of public school requirements. Many private schools offer highly specialized programs focusing on art, science, or religion.

For students who excel academically or who want to study within a certain academic or religious context, private school offers the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers.

A major drawback of private schools is that certain documents, such as the IEP, are not guaranteed.

Some private schools offer a disclaimer that students with special needs may not receive all the services that would benefit them. This means it may become your responsibility to find additional resources outside of school, potentially at out-of-pocket costs.

Private schooling is also the most expensive educational option. Expect large tuition bills and a general need for fundraising.

4. Homeschooling

Many parents of children on the autism spectrum choose homeschooling because it provides a highly controlled environment for the child. As the parent, you decide the length and structure of the school day, the material covered, the amount of social interaction, and the special services your child can access.

The one-on-one attention is a highly desired benefit. It allows you, as the parent, to get immediate feedback on your child’s success. However, homeschooling can be a challenge for a family with parents who work, especially outside of the home.

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As your child’s sole educational resource, you are not only responsible for teaching, but also for lesson planning, curriculum, grading, and supplemental instruction as well. These responsibilities can add up to much time outside of the “school day.”

Likewise, costs for learning materials will come directly out of your pocket. Some parents also find the lack of a third party, such as a teacher, intimidating.

Many children with autism have social challenges that will require some extra work outside of one-on-one academics. Joining local groups of local homeschooled students can help facilitate that important social interaction your child may need. Social media is a great way to initiate those connections.

5. Online school

Online school is similar to homeschooling because it occurs at home or outside a traditional school. Known as “virtual education,” these programs let your child learn from a licensed teacher who offers a personalized curriculum using different multimedia tools.

A major benefit to online schools is that they are usually tuition-free, and many programs begin as early as Kindergarten. Some programs offer virtual clubs to help your child connect with peers, and you may even have technology resources delivered right to your door.

Online school provides the comfort and freedom of homeschooling without the extra impact on your wallet. Although it is similar to homeschooling, online school will be more structured, too.

Instead of managing your child’s education, you will take on a more observational role. Some programs refer to this role as a “coach.” 

While technology is a great learning tool for many children with autism, it is important to remember the computer screen is a highly visual tool. Children with visual sensory preferences may find the computer excessively distracting.

6. Family school

Family schools are becoming popular as a middle ground between public schools and homeschooling. They let children attend school part of the day and do the rest of their learning at home. Parents are responsible for homeschooling, guided by school materials. 

With smaller classes, teachers get to know each child well and can tailor the material to their needs. Family schools often let students choose what they learn, fostering their interests. 

Shorter school days can be easier for special needs students, and parents stay in close touch with teachers. However, family schools must still follow local, state, and federal rules, including standardized testing.

A young boy learning from home https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/educational-options-special-guide/

They might not offer electives like art or PE, and facilities may be limited. Demand for family schools is high, leading to long waitlists.

Family schools might not have special education teachers on site, which can limit access to services like speech or occupational therapy. Your child’s IEP may not be recognized. 

Schedules vary, requiring parents to manage part-time attendance and homeschooling. Some schools also have parent-training programs outside of school hours.

Academic choices for autism

When selecting an environment for your child, it is important to recognize the priorities of you and your family. Does your child need one-on-one interaction? Do you need an environment that provides special services? Are you comfortable with IEPs or standardized testing?

Remember that what works for someone else’s child may not work for yours, so allow yourself time to fully explore all the available options. Advocate for your child when you feel his/her environment is not the best, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your local community resources when weighing your options.

This article was featured in Issue 60 – Sensory Tools For The Future


Q: What are the academic needs of students with autism?

A: Students with autism often require individualized educational plans that include tailored instructional strategies, visual supports, and predictable routines to enhance learning. They benefit from social skills training and sensory accommodations to foster a conducive learning environment.

Q: Does autism affect academic performance?

A: Yes, autism can affect academic performance due to challenges with social communication, sensory sensitivities, and sometimes co-occurring conditions like ADHD or learning disabilities. However, with appropriate support and accommodations, many autistic individuals can excel academically.

Q: What are the academic options for autism?

A: Academic options for individuals with autism include specialized programs and schools tailored to their unique needs, offering individualized education plans (IEPs) and support services. Mainstream schools often provide inclusive education with accommodations and support from special education professionals.


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