These days, many communities offer “special” programs, camps
, and activities available for kids with developmental, behavioral, and learning differences. There are special needs sports programs, music programs, art programs, and dance programs. There are even special needs leagues and competitions.
Because you have a child with autism, however, you will need to check out each program very carefully before enrolling your child. Chances are, the special program you’re considering will be more expensive than the corresponding “typical” program – and, while it may have all kinds of terrific features, those features may or may not be right for your child. That’s because autism, unlike many other disabilities, can mean almost anything, from “high functioning and eager to participate” to “non-verbal and unable to follow spoken direction.”
How do you determine whether a program is right for your child? These questions will help you to make a good decision. Even with all the vigilance in the world, though, you may make a mistake and choose a program that’s a poor match for your child. But if you’ve asked questions and made a smart decision, you’ll walk away with a greater understanding of your child and his needs, along with a positive relationship with a community organization. And, if your child is like mine (and like most other children, with or without autism), he or she will grow and change. What didn’t work this year may be a great match next year.
1. Is this opportunity interesting to my child – or just to me?When my son was about eight years old, I succumbed to peer pressure, and tried to get my non-athletic son involved with team sports. I was thrilled to find that there was a special soccer league forming nearby, specifically for boys with autism. While I stood chewing my nails on the sidelines, my son spent his time wandering the perimeter of the field, absolutely uninterested in anything the coaches were offering. Your experience may be completely different, but it’s important to pay attention not only to your own feelings but – more importantly – to your child’s.
2. Do you really need a “special” program?If your child with autism is particularly gifted in one area or another, and has few behavioral issues, it may be possible to enroll him in a typical program. Our son Tom, for example, is a terrific clarinet player, so needs little or no special accommodation in band. No, he doesn’t hang out with the other musicians, but he is a valued and respected band member.
3. Are the special accommodations right for your child?There are programs for children with autism that provide tremendous support and structure (possibly more than your child needs), and programs that offer almost no special accommodations at all. Any of these programs may or may not be right for your particular child at this particular point in her development.
4. Who is on staff?
If your child has severe issues, you’ll almost certainly want to know that the staff includes individuals with solid knowledge of and training in behavioral interventions
. You may want to hear that there are therapists on staff who can work with your child on speech
and social skills
. On the other hand, if your child is higher functioning, a small, structured, non-therapeutic program may be just right.
5. What is the facility like?Most autistic children have a tough time functioning in chaotic settings, and many programs for children are set in loud, multi-use buildings or fields. If there are three programs going on in the YMCA pool – including a “special” swim class -- your child with autism is likely to become overwhelmed.
6. What are their policies for managing problems as they arise?
What are the policies for managing melt downs
, anxiety, social withdrawal, and other issues that are likely to come up for a child with autism? If there are no written policies, you might want to reconsider your choice, or help to write the policies. A worst-case scenario could potentially involve your child being physically restrained or kept in isolation.
7. What is this program’s reputation?
Ask around. If the program is local, you may know parents whose children have taken part. If not, ask for referrals. If the program is brand new, find out about the larger organization that’s running the program. Is it “the lady down the street” or the local branch of the well-respected Boys and Girls Clubs
8. How can a parent be involved?How can a parent be involved? A good program for children with autism will allow parents to observe, and will gladly listen to input and suggestions. Never say yes to a program that will not allow you in the door once you’ve paid your money.
9. Can you visit before enrolling?Any reputable program will say “yes,” both to a parent and to a child. In an ideal world, you’ll have a chance to see your child take part in the program before you sign on the dotted line.
10. What if something goes wrong?Even the best laid plans can go awry, so it’s important to have a Plan B. If your child is having a poor experience, or his abilities don’t match the program as well as you’d hoped, can you get a refund?