When a child with autism reaches the age of five or six, it’s time to think about school. Although, early intervention should have been in place and working with your child already, this is another time that your decision will affect you and your child’s life permanently.
Choosing the right school is a very hard task. You will need to make the decision if you will send your child to a public school where they have either an autism unit, or just a special education unit. Or you may consider to send them to a private school.
Most parents enroll their child in the local kindergarten. Parents of children with autism do have the option of allowing their school district to make decisions on their child’s behalf — based on evaluations, tests, and most likely a combination of available resources and finances.
I advise every parent to take an active role in determining their child’s school placement. Do your research about the school that is available in your area, ask the school if you can visit the unit, and sit in the classroom to see if it will serve your child’s needs. Speak with the teacher and voice your concerns. Ask your questions and do not be shy about your particular needs and wants. You must remember that you are your child’s only advocate and if yo do not stand up for their rights, that no one ever will. I learned to be a fighter, and when it comes to Amin’s needs and rights I do not take things lightly.
You may think that the ideal setting for your child is a typical classroom with typical peers, but that’s not always the case for children with autism.
More and more private schools are opening which specialize in serving children on the autism spectrum.
These schools are expensive since they build in full-day therapeutic interventions including speech, occupational and physical therapy as well as academics. Tuition can easily be as high as $45,000 per year. These schools might be a good choice for your autistic child if you can afford the high tuition. Here in Florida you may want to consider the McKay scholarship as well, which can help with the affordability of these facilities.
Autism-only schools serve both high and low-functioning children with autism, and can do a great job at both ends of the spectrum. They also have low teacher to child ratio, which is always preferred in these kind of setting. In private school, once they evaluate your child they let you know what they recommend in terms of having the child as one-on-one or one-to-two or even one-to-three ratio. (this means one child per teacher, two students per teacher, etc.).
Autism-only schools are often set up based on a specific therapeutic philosophy. There are private schools which spend the majority of the day implementing applied behavior analysis/verbal behavior, others dedicated to teaching through Floortime, and some focus mostly on Relationship Development Intervention.
The down side of an autistic private school is the environment that they are creating. At school, children experience ONLY people who understand and care for them, and their peers are all autistic. So when you are choosing a private school you need to make sure that their inclusion strategy is well defined for your child, and that they will have plenty of opportunity to be around “typical” children.
Some questions that must be considered before you make your decision based on your available options:
If you decided to put your child in a typical class room…
Is your autistic child verbal? If they are already using words, then they will likely to do well in a typical setting (based on social, sensory and emotional issues).
How are their academic skills? Some autistic children are advanced, well beyond their typical peers, while others are far behind.
Can they handle large groups of kids? (lets not forget that class sizes are 20- 21 children/per class) Is your child able to handle the loud noises and occasional chaotic environment?
Do they do well with a lot of sensory input? Bright lights, loud noise, children running and playing. It may be possible to minimize these issues, but if your child is very sensitive they may need a quieter setting.
Is your child easily distracted? Elementary class rooms are full of colorful posters and drawings. It might cause them to be distracted and consequently not to be able to focus.
If you should decide to look for a specialized class room…
What kind of program does the school offer for your child? Some schools have a general special education classroom that includes autistic children as well as other children with various disabilities, while others have dedicated autistic units. There are schools that have no special settings, but integrate all children into typical classes supporting the special needs children with a one-on-one aide.
Once you’ve learned what options are available, and you have evaluated your child’s particular strengths and needs, you’ll be better prepared to make smart choices for your child’s educational setting. Another important issue to consider are the special education laws and their significance for kids with autism. This will be discussed, God-willing, in another post. Till then ….