Autism is a spectrum, and each child has different needs, strengths, challenges and abilities within that broad diagnosis. It makes sense, then, that children with autism benefit from different educational programs.
The greatest success in schooling will come when you find the right match between your child and their teachers and the school’s educational philosophy. What works for one child with autism won’t necessarily work for another, and crafting an individualized education can take time and resources.
Luckily, there are many options to choose from in the United States when it comes to fostering learning in those with differing abilities. It may take a significant effort and a lot of time researching these choices to find the right school for your child, but most families are within reach of at least a few.
Understanding Your Rights Under the Law
In the United States, the rights of disabled students to receive an education are protected by federal law. IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, mandates that your local school district must serve your child’s needs, regardless of how severe your child’s challenges are. Additional costs are not considered an excuse not to provide services, and local schools are obligated to provide an outside option if they aren’t able to offer an appropriate program on their own campus. Children with Autism are fully protected under the law.
What’s more, IDEA specifically mandates that children should be educated in the least restrictive environment, making inclusive education the gold standard whenever and wherever possible. Parents are involved in making choices for their children in an annual meeting with school officials to develop an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan.
Choosing the Right Educational Environment for Your Autistic Child
Knowing that your local public schools are obligated to provide an appropriate education can be a huge relief, especially if you are concerned about the cost of moving into a new district or affording private school. Still, if you are unhappy with your local school, there are other options available, many of which will serve autistic children well.
To make your decision, it’s a good idea to research your nearest options and set up a time for a tour. While on campus, note the facilities and any accessibility issues, and spend time with staff to get a feel for their philosophy. You should be invited to ask as many questions as you like, so take notes to compare your choices later.
Common school choices include:
Your local public school’s quality can vary widely depending on where you live, but it’s usually the first option to look at. If your schools have a strong inclusion program, your child will be encouraged to participate in many of the same activities during the school day as their peers, but they may be pulled out for special education services during certain subjects or portions of the day for additional support.
It’s also possible for your child to be educated entirely in a special program within your public school. This could be a special education classroom within your neighborhood school, or it could be a special magnet school within your district.
Private schools typically tout smaller class sizes and more individualized attention, both of which are crucial for many autistic students’ success. However, private schools are not required to follow the same federal laws as public school, since their source of funding does not come from local taxes. This means private schools are not required to accept children with special needs, and many do not.
Still, it is possible to find private schools devoted specifically to serving students with physical and learning challenges, and these can be a wonderful option if there’s one near you.
University-Model Schools are a hybrid educational model that combines classroom learning with a more individualized program at home. This model has students visit a central classroom a few days a week for group lessons, then follow an individual plan of learning at home on off-days.
This model allows parents to provide strong, hands-on guidance on the home learning days, and that can be combined with other therapeutic programs due to the flexible scheduling.
If the idea of those days at home appeals to your child, you can fully tailor their learning by homeschooling them. This is an option many parents prefer because it protects children from bullying and allows those with very strong interests in a particular subject area to pursue their passions.
While homeschooling can work well for your child, you may wish to join a local co-op to get ideas and pool resources. The drawback of homeschooling a child with special needs is that parents may feel burnt out, but a support group can ease that burden.
An increasing number of online programs are geared for learners with differing needs, and these can be an excellent replacement for a brick-and-mortar school for an autistic child, especially if they are advanced in one or more subject areas.
Online classes can also be a useful supplement for homeschooling parents once they get beyond their comfort zone for various academic subjects, like trigonometry or chemistry.
There are many educational options out there for your child, so don’t be afraid to look around and ask a million questions to find the right one. And if at first you don’t succeed, keep looking — there’s no rule that says you can’t change gears in a few years if your child’s needs change.