Pros and cons of mainstreaming an autistic child

Ashley, 20, remembers when her little brother, Brody, was born – she was 10 by the time the little bundle of joy joined their family, and she was fiercely protective of him from the beginning.

“I think I noticed that he wasn’t typical pretty early,” she shares. “He wasn’t responsive the way I guess I thought a baby should be, or a toddler, even. He didn’t respond to his name, he didn’t want to be held, he was just, like, disconnected, almost. He had tantrums, which was the most emotion we got out of him, but he never seemed… I don’t know, sensitive? He was just in his own universe all the time.”

Roger and Bailey, Ashley and Brody’s parents, agree.

“We summed it up to (his having) a different personality,” says Bailey, who confides that her pregnancy at 40, although a surprise, was met with excitement. “It had been a long time since we’d had a baby in the house and it was like starting all over again. A lot of parents say that about their (typical) children – you know, oh, Baby #1 was so loud and Baby #2 is just so sweet and giggly. And we did the same. Ashley, we thought, was just a really social baby, and Brody was just… formal.”

Brody was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder shortly after turning 4; while kids his age were being registered for preschool and kindergarten, Brody’s parents were regularly seeing a therapist to deal with the stress and strain that accompanies having a child with special needs.

“It was really painful because it’s hard enough to know what to do when your child doesn’t have any kind of mental or physical challenges,” says Roger. “Here we were trying to fight through the guilt of being embarrassed about having a kid who walked on tiptoes everywhere. Or he’d just lash out at someone when he was frustrated. On top of that, Bailey and I were not agreeing on how to parent, on how to handle these challenging moments.”

“In the back of my head, I was already worried about how he’d function in society – in the classroom, specifically,” says Bailey. “I couldn’t picture it. I was getting so depressed wondering how I could protect my son but also provide him every opportunity for success, even if it meant he may have to struggle.”

Can an autistic child go to a ‘normal’ school?

In Roger’s and Bailey’s case, the decision to mainstream – placing a student with special needs into a regular education classroom -- came after much soul-searching and a lot of research.

Brody was enrolled a year later than his peers, which was a conscious decision on the part of his parents. They wanted to ensure that plans would be specifically customized for him, and that he would thrive in a classroom setting, not suffer.

“We looked into classroom sizes and what kind of environment he would be in,” says Bailey. “The school we decided on had 23 kids (in the class), one teacher and two teaching assistants. One of the assistants actually told us she had an autistic sibling of her own, so that gave us further comfort.” 

Read what some challenges that may surface here.

The choice to mainstream doesn’t always come easily to parents of children on the spectrum. Parents are encouraged to examine and discuss their own child’s deficits and abilities, and how to support their child’s needs within the pros and cons of a school’s program. By working with therapists and school officials, the most optimal choice for the student – to mainstream or not to mainstream – could become clearer.

“After meeting with other parents of kids with autism, we found out we were kind of lucky,” says Roger. “We’ve heard stories. Some teachers don’t want any kids with any kind of disabilities in regular classrooms – they either think it’s a disservice to the kid, because they can’t give them full attention, or they’re nervous that they can’t provide the best care for that child.

“Conversely, we’ve heard that there are some people who specialize in autism that think the best place for these kids is in a classroom, as long as there are staff available who are specifically trained for that particular disability.

“So we’ve come to figure out that there are pros and there are cons to mainstreaming, and there’s no solid wrong answer. It’s got to be what’s best for your child.”

Pros of mainstreaming

There are many pros to mainstreaming, and they include increased self-esteem, social interaction, the breaking down of long-held stigmas (and an increase in tolerance), and academic advantages.

Self-esteem. For your child, there’s power in knowing that they’re in the same classroom, learning the same things, and engaging in the same activities as their non-autistic peers. Even if they’ve identified that they’re different – that their social skills may need improvement, or that they think or behave differently – it still goes a long way to know that they’re blending right in with other students of differing abilities and strengths. Not only is this a powerful thing for the child on the spectrum, it’s also a great benefit for the typical child.

Social interaction. Being mainstreamed means that your autistic child will learn important things like patience, compassion, forgiveness and giving. Your child’s non-autistic peers will in turn learn acceptance, collaboration and tolerance. Having kids with a variety of strengths and challenges creates a supportive culture, one that they’ll take with them through their years in classrooms and beyond. Find some tips about verbal communication here.

Breaking down of stigmas. Although autism is getting its fair attention, and society is beginning to learn more and more about the disorder every day, there are still some students – and adults – who’ve never been exposed to it. They may only know what they know from what they see on TV or online, and that information may not be accurate. By mainstreaming autistic children, it increases public education and exposes a bigger portion of the population to all kinds of people. Students without disabilities will learn how to accept and love those who have them, and those with disabilities will learn better how to integrate and feel involved.

Academic advantages. Although there may be teaching assistants available to help your autistic child ingest and understand the content delivered in the classroom, mainstreaming means that all students are benefiting from the same curriculum. Accommodations and modifications may be made, but the same topics are discussed, which means that the autistic child is given the chance to learn something they may not have been able to had they been limited to a special education space.

Cons of mainstreaming

Some will argue that there are cons to mainstreaming. Some of those include academic disadvantages and social disadvantages.

Academic disadvantages. Although educators will do their best to accommodate children with special needs, the child may not be able to keep up – which means they may feel left out, or feel as if they’re not good enough. While some teachers have the assistance of associates who can help in the classroom, other teachers have to make a go of it on their own and provide special assistance and attention, which takes away from the time they have to give the class as a whole.

Social disadvantages. While we picture a tolerant world – with a tolerant classroom to start – it’s not always so. Some kids will be mean. Some will think that the child with special needs “gets away” with things other kids can’t. This could result in a classroom with many disruptions, and it could lead to your autistic child feeling again, left out, criticized, ridiculed or blamed.

So what’s the right thing to do?

Ultimately, while it’s your child, your family, and your decision, the direction we’re headed is one where all kids are taught in the same environment, provided the same opportunities, and given as many chances to succeed as possible. But this comes with a lot of work, not just for the teachers, but for students, parents and peers. 

Find more pros and cons of mainstreaming here.

There are ways to support an autistic child in mainstream school. Your entire system – made up of your family, your child’s therapist(s), educators and other school officials – should carefully think out what the plan is for your child specifically. You must monitor your child’s progress and continue to develop a plan over your child’s entire academic career so that they have a good, solid chance at success.

If you’re considering mainstreaming your child and would like guidance, and you live in the Fredericksburg or Fairfax, VA area, visit us at


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