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Educational Options for Children with Autism

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Updated April 17, 2009

As with so much in the world of autism, the definition of a good educational program depends upon the needs of the individual child. Thus, while there are certain elements that are likely to be positive for any child with autism, the bottom line is all about your child's individual strengths and challenges, and whether they "click" with their teacher and setting.

To make things even more interesting, services and programs are likely to differ from school district to school district and from region to region. One state may stress sensory integration therapy while another is strong in Applied Behavior Analysis - and since there's no "gold standard" for autistic education, children wind up being offered pot luck. Meanwhile, different families may also have specific preferences regarding therapeutic and teaching approaches, which vary greatly from district to district and from region to region.

All this said, here are some basic elements that are critical to any successful educational program for autistic students:

  • Your child's teacher (whether a special ed teacher or a typical classroom teacher) should have both training and experience in working with autistic children.
  • Your child's teacher should have both implicit and explicit support from the school administration. She should be able to access resources, training and materials as needed.
  • Your child's teacher should be able (based on her abilities and resources, and on the school's policies) to modify program and curriculum to your child's needs and strengths based on your child's IEP (Individualized Educational Program).
  • You should be able to see evidence of various different teaching styles in use in your child's classroom.
  • Other teachers, including gym, library and other specials teachers, should be able to access resources and supports as they work with your child.
  • You should see evidence that learners are challenged and supported both academically and socially.
  • Supportive therapies, such as speech, physical and occupational therapy, should all be available on site and free of additional charge.

Educational Options for Autistic Children: Questions to Consider

Mainstreaming? Inclusion? Special needs classes? Public school? Private school? Which is best for your child? The answer, of course, is -- it all depends! Some questions to consider as you begin thinking about your options are:

  • Is your autistic child verbal and engaged?
  • How are her academic skills?
  • Can he handle large groups?
  • Does she do well with a lot of sensory input?
  • Does he have difficulties with focus?
  • Has she had a tough time in typical classrooms in the past?
  • What kinds of programs can your public school offer?
  • How well do local programs fit your child's needs and abilities?
  • Are there local private or charter options that make logistical and financial sense for your family?

What the Law Requires of Your School District

If you live in the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your district provide the "Least Restrictive Environment" for your child's education. That means that they must consider such options as mainstreaming before deciding (with your involvement) on a more specialized setting.

You may, of course, decide that your child is better off in a specialized setting -- but if you decide to work with public schools, you may have to prove that the mainstream setting is NOT working before seeking funding for a private or specialized setting.

Mainstreaming and Autism

Mainstreaming is a somewhat old-fashioned term (the newer term is "inclusion"). When the term mainstreaming is used, it generally describes a setting in which your child is part of a typical classroom with minimal extra support. Some accomodations may be in place, but in general your child is expected to be able to behave appropriately in a large group, attend to a teacher, and do work at or near grade level.

Mainstreaming general works best for children who are high functioning and at least moderately social. It may be especially tough for children who are non-verbal, very anxious, or likely to act out when under stress.

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