You've been told your child with autism should be in a good preschool program. It should have a low teacher:student ratio, and ideally it should also have specialized services for children on the autism spectrum. Sounds great, right? But how do you find such a school?
Time Required: Up to Six Months
- Start by determining whether preschool is the best option for your family. Many families with young children on the autism spectrum choose home-based programs, and several well-regarded therapeutic methods rely on parents as therapists. If, after thinking it through, you're sure that preschool is the best choice for you and your child, move on to step two.
- Decide what you want in a preschool for your autistic child. Typical families look first at convenience and cost, but these factors may not be your biggest priorities. Perhaps you're most concerned with having your child included with typical youngsters. Or maybe you're anxious to have your child in an intensive program designed just for children with autism. You may even have a particular therapeutic approach in mind. Once you know what you're looking for, move on to step three.
- Find out what your state, region and local school district offer in the way of free, public preschool programs. A good place to find that information is in Finding Help for Young Children with Disabilities: A Parent Guide from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. In addition, call your school district. Ask around. Join a support group for parents of children with disabilities, and collect ideas. Then, make a list.
- Visit as many preschools as you can. Even if something sounds awful on paper, it may be worth a look. And even if something sounds perfect, it may turn out to be a dud. Go beyond a conversation with the preschool director, whose job is to make you love the place. Observe classes in action, get parent references and call them.
- Hone your list. At the very least, the preschool you choose should be clean, safe, and well maintained. All staff should go through background checks. Groups should be small (ideally a 3:1 child:adult ratio, but no more than 5:1). Classroom staff should have specific training in and experience with autism education. School administrators should have a plan in place for managing difficult behaviors, benchmarking progress, and troubleshooting in the event that your child is not progressing.
- Decide whether you want the free public preschool options available to you, or whether you want to go the private route. If you do decide to go for a private preschool, find out how you can access public services in a private setting (often, publicly funded therapists will visit your child in his private preschool). If you decide on the public route, you will develop an individualized plan that will include therapies and goals.
- Visit your top choice schools with your child. Watch to see how staff interact with your child, and how your child reacts to them. Remember that no matter how pretty the school or how charming the director, the bottom line will be your child's experience. You may find that the best setting for your child won't be the biggest, most up-to-date, or prettiest preschool in town.
- Choose a first and second choice setting for your child. Ensure that you will be allowed to observe your child in preschool, visit when appropriate, and otherwise take part in your child's daily life. Keep a close eye on proceedings, and get to know your child's teachers, aides, and therapists.
- Wait a few months. Your child will take a while to adjust to a new setting, and teachers and therapists will take a while to get into their stride. Then assess the match between the school and your child. Is it working well? Are you seeing problems? Remember that you, the parent or caregiver, are in charge of your child's experience and that you do have choices.
- If things are going well, be sure to thank the staff profusely. Buy them holiday gifts, and take an active role as a parent. If things are going poorly, put your concerns into writing. If you can't resolve your concerns over the next 6 to 8 weeks, it's time to think about your second choice school.