What are the pros and cons of sending a child with autism to mainstream school?

As the parent or caregiver of a little one with autism, you may not yet be at the stage that you’re considering schools. Or perhaps it’s just around the corner, and you’re not sure if public school is where it’s most appropriate for your child to receive their academic and social education.

How do we know if public school – or mainstream school, as some of us call it – is right for our child?

There are a few things to consider when thinking about enrolling your child in mainstream school: your personal expectations, your school district, your budget, and of course, your child.

First, let’s consider the kinds of school settings you may consider for your child:

  • Neurotypical public school with no special support
  • Neurotypical public school with support (either one on one or with some adaptations)
  • Part-type neurotypical classroom, part-time special setting
  • General special education classes
  • Specialized, public autism classroom with some mainstreaming
  • Specialized public autism classroom with no mainstreaming

The curriculum taught to your child will depend on your child’s academic capabilities – for one with severe symptoms, their education may be based almost nearly on behavioral education as opposed to academic, but if your child has moderate challenges, they may be taught in a special education space. A child deemed academically capable may be given the same curriculum as a neurotypical child, with some adaptations.

The advantages to mainstreaming a child with autism are plenty; it’s not just about academics. First of all, public school is free of charge, which lessens the financial burden on families, and a child with autism is entitled to receiving appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible. Any autistic child registered to learn in a public setting is also entitled to an IEP, an individualized education plan, which contains benchmarks for learning, specifically tailored to that child’s needs and goals. Also, in public school, a child will be able to socialize, connect, and learn about and with other members of the community.

But there may be cons to public school as well. It may not be a match for your child, especially if they have a major sensory and behavioral challenges. Some school districts are just not able to achieve specific goals or plans, even with the child’s best interests at heart, because of budgetary or administrative restrictions. There may not be an autism support program provided in your district, or sensory integration facilities (which some parents are in full support of, while other parents decline to use).

Bullying may also be a reality in some mainstream schools. Kids with autism often behave differently from neurotypical kids, and may not be able to stand up for themselves or speak out about how this feels.

And finally, the sensory challenges of neurotypical classrooms may prove to be too much for the child with autism, with all the sounds, lights, colors, and sheer number of kids and adults in the halls.

So how we do if public school is right for our child? Well, there’s no absolute, single way that works, other than being open-minded and trying out what might be best for our own child, in their own time.

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