The downside is slightly more complex. Preschools specifically designed for children with autism are quite rare, and tend to focus on just one type of intervention. Public options are likely to offer intensive Applied Behavioral Analysis -- a therapy which, while it is often effective, is about as much fun as memorizing the dictionary. Private options are expensive, and even harder to find -- though they may be more likely to implement play-based therapies like Floortime and RDI.
On top of these issues are your own feelings. Many parents are uncomfortable with the idea that their special preschooler is out of the house, away from typical peers, and already living a "labelled" life. While these feelings probably shouldn't steer your decision-making, they're bound to make a difference in your attitude toward the school.
Types of Specialized Preschools for Children with AutismThere are several different types of preschool programs for children with autism. In least to most restrictive order, they include:
- Public programs designed for "special needs" in general, and offered as part of an early intervention program
- Public programs specifically designed for children with autism, and offered as part of an early intervention program
- Private programs designed for autism or for general special needs and incorporated into a typical preschool
- Private programs designed exclusively for children with autism
The great upside to private settings is - they're private! That means they -- and you -- can pick and choose therapeutic approaches, number of hours, staff training, and more. Of course, they cost a fortune and may be a good long drive from your home.
General special needs classrooms can be positive settings for kids with autism. The upside is that many kids with "special needs" are socially typical. And those with ADHD and similar issues are often a good match for autistic children because they are more outgoing and engaging than the average child. The downside is that the setting may be too stimulating, the other children too rowdy, and the teacher too general in her training.
Specialized autism settings can be terrific for a child who has severe sensory issues and/or a child who needs intensive early intervention. They often offer one-on-one attention from an adult, and focus all day long on the "core deficits" of autism: lack of social, behavioral and language skills. The down side is that your child will have an extremely limited range of social experiences: they will interact solely with autistic children and therapists.
The Bottom Line on Specialized Preschools for Children with AutismThe bottom line: If a public, generalized special needs preschool is available to you free of charge, it's well worth your time to visit. Be sure the school meets basic preschool criteria: It should be clean and well maintained, food and medical supplies should be stored appropriately, staff should have appropriate credentials and background checks, and equipment should be age-appropriate and in good condition.
If all these criteria are met -- and you are comfortable with the school's therapeutic philosophy -- you are among the luckiest parents around.
If these criteria are not met, it's time to expand your search. Start with the local school district and autism agencies. Talk to parents. Check into your local Autism Society chapter. If you have a favored therapy -- ABA, Floortime, RDI, etc. -- touch base with the national organization and ask about preschool options in your area.