By Professor Margot Prior, OTARC Adjunct
Having a child who is starting school is a big transition for every family. But imagine if that child had an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – what a very big challenge that can be! What school will the parents choose?
Broadly speaking there are two choices:
- a mainstream school where the child will be amongst a large number of typically developing children and perhaps a small number of children with a variety of disabilities;
- a “special school” which can be one set up specifically for children with an ASD, or one set up for children with developmental delays or learning difficulties, including some with an ASD. These schools usually have a smaller number of children and a lower teacher to pupil ratio.
Most parents ideally want their children to attend mainstream school if possible, but some prefer the perceived greater shelter and individualized attention their child can get in a special school. There are pluses and minuses for each choice.
It feels more normalizing to choose a mainstream school but the risks are that your child can “get lost in a big crowd” and not have his/her needs met unless that school is very well resourced and has special expertise in educating and caring for children with an ASD. There are relatively few of these and placements can break down if the child has behavioural issues and is very isolated.
A special school is more likely to have teachers with autism training and expertise, and aim to provide more individualized care and teaching. But in choosing a special school some parents fear that their child might pick up more autistic or non-adaptive behaviours or regress in development. However, we don’t have evidence that this is a consequence of special schooling – some typical kids have problem behaviours too.
In both settings teacher burden is high and family stress can be constant as they and the child struggle to cope with a complex environment.
Common concerns are:
- insufficient school funding to provide for the needs of all children, and especially for children who require lots of 1 to 1 help;
- bullying, which can be a problem especially for vulnerable children;
- having to be bussed or driven to a school which may not be close to home. This can involve early starts, long journeys, and unruly pupils en route;
- how to provide a balanced curriculum – how much weight to give to teaching social and communication skills, and how much time is left for the three RRRs;
- how to obtain the special services needed, such as speech, psychological and occupational therapies, which are in short supply and shared across many needy children.
- how to find time for teachers and parents to communicate and collaborate about what the child is learning and doing, so that new skills are practised at home as well as at school.
The most important thing to remember is that there is no “best” way of schooling for children with an ASD. As each child with an ASD has different needs and strengths, the best way is to try to match the strengths and resources of the school with the particular needs and capacities of the child. Rest assured, schools and teachers do want the best for the child and will put in their best efforts to realize his/her potential.
It is also important to continue to campaign vigorously for a better educational deal for children with an ASD and other disabilities, as Australian parents have done for 50 years now.