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.
If you have a child who has autism, you will face many questions about how to make the best educational choices. Education can be a difficult challenge for both the parents and teachers of autistic children. But the more informed you are, the better equipped you will be to make decisions about the education of your child as they arise.
The Importance of Education for Autistic Children
Experts agree that early intervention is one of the most important parts of successfully educating children with autism. If autism is diagnosed early, educational interventions can improve outcomes in autistic children by helping them with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and behavior.
IDEA: A Program for Autistic Children
The U.S. federal government has a special education program specifically designed to meet the educational needs of autistic children. The program, backed by a law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has served more than 100,000 school-aged children who have autism.
- Autistic children have the right to free public education.
- Children with autism must have access to an individualized education program specific to their disability.
- Students with autism and other disabilities will be included in academic assessment programs.
- Autistic children and other children with disabilities are to be placed in the least restrictive educational environment, which means they should be educated alongside their peers who do not have disabilities.
Even if your child is not yet of school age, there are early intervention and preschool programs for which most children with autism are eligible. These programs can be administered in your home and in schools and other community settings. In many cases, these early intervention programs can help prepare your child for success in a regular classroom.
Your Child’s Individualized Education Plan
You can find out more about the IDEA law from the U.S. Department of Education.
No single program is right for every autistic child. What services your child receives will depend on his individual needs.
Some of the educational services your child may have access to include:
- Special education taught by teachers or aides. Just as with other children, the goals of education for autistic children are to enable them to be as independent and socially responsible as possible.
- Speech therapy. Since many autistic children have serious problems with verbal communication, speech therapy can help with speech development.
- Psychological counseling. Psychological counseling can help children deal with emotional problems that are associated with autism.
- Behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy can teach children about appropriate behaviors.
- Occupational therapy. Occupational therapy can teach children how to engage in tasks and play that are appropriate for their developmental stage.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy can help children with autism by improving their motor skills.
You will work closely with your child’s school staff to design the most appropriate educational program for your child. This program will be created with your child’s needs in mind and is called an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. It is important to stay in close communication with teachers and school administrators to evaluate your child’s progress and discuss options for adjusting the IEP. Though the right school program can be wonderful for your child, continuing to be his advocate with the school administration will help ensure your child receives all the services he is entitled to.
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. You can learn more about mainstreaming and autism in another post we will do for you!