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Public School and Autism Education: Pros and Cons

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Updated April 09, 2014

Public schools are required to provide autism education, and most children with autism do attend public school. Depending on your child's needs and abilities, and the needs and abilities of your public schools, your child will probably wind up in one or another of these settings:
  • Typical public school classroom without special support (mainstreaming)
  • Typical public school classroom with support (1:1 and/or adaptations)
  • Part-time typical classroom, part-time special needs classroom setting
  • General special needs class
  • Specialized public autism class with some inclusion or mainstreaming
  • Specialized public autism class without inclusion or mainstreaming
  • Charter School
  • Cyber charter school

What's Great About Public School for Children with Autism

There are great advantages to a public education for a child on the autism spectrum. Right off the bat, public school is free. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), though, there's much more to a public education than academics.

Your child with autism must receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). That means that your child must receive the right supports to be at least moderately successful in as typical a setting as he can handle.

And there's more! Each autistic child in public school (even in early intervention) must have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). In it, you and his "team" from the district lay out your individual child's goals, special needs, and benchmarks to measure progress. If your child isn't moving forward, you or your team members can call a meeting to decide what to do next.

Of course, public school is also the place where your community meets. It's the central focus of most kids' lives. And, if your child does thrive in a general education setting, public school is a great way to connect more fully will new friends, other parents, and the school community as a whole.

What's Not So Great About Public School for a Child with Autism

The above description of public school may sound like heaven on earth. But of course, nothing is as good as it sounds. The truth is, as you'll hear from every school administrator you'll ever meet, "The law requires that we provide your child with a Chevy, not a Cadillac." In practice, this means that your child with autism is most likely to get an adequate education based on someone else's vision of what adequate looks like.

In some cases, what looks at first like an adequate educational program really isn't. A child with huge sensory and behavioral issues is never going to do well in a mainstream setting. A child with Asperger syndrome is not going to thrive in a classroom filled with profoundly challenged kids. In those fairly extreme cases, it's often possible to make a case for change on your own or through an advocate or mediator. Frequenty, districts will see the problem and make changes based on your child's individual needs.

But what happens when the program is barely adequate but not very good? That's when things get trickier. After all, every child with autism is different, and every parent with an autistic child has a different vision of what their child needs That means that it's extremely difficult to set up a single, solid autism program that suits the entire autism population.

Some districts have set up an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) program for their autistic students at great expense only to be sued by parents who are uncomfortable with ABA and prefer developmental therapies. Some districts have created autism classrooms complete with sensory integration facilities, only to have many parents object because they would prefer to have their child mainstreamed into a typical classroom.

While, in theory, the IEP does not describe a place for your child but rather a program, the truth is that your child's physical placement, teacher(s) and therapists will define his public school experience. So if your district has an existing autism program that you just happen to feel is wrong for your child, you may have a problem.

Sure, you can take the district to court but you'll have to prove that your child would NOT do well in their program or that your child WILL succeed in a different setting. Not only will you be fighting the people who you hope will care for and properly educate your child, you'll also need to put out a great deal of money in lawyers' fees.

In short, the cons of the public school system exist only when parents and schools disagree about the best way to educate a child. Is that likely to be the case in your district? If you have yet to enroll your child, then only time will tell.

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