Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts nearly 2% of American children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Some children with autism will greatly benefit from autism-specialized schools, but these educational facilities might not be right for everyone with autism.

As a spectrum disorder, there are varying degrees and severities of autism, resulting in different levels of care. Some children may struggle to function in everyday life without a high level of support, while others can work more independently within a mainstream environment with a lower level of care.

As explained by Autism Speaks, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that mandates all children with special needs have access to “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE). This means that autistic children must be provided with services in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) possible. This often means public school or a more mainstream environment.

Public school systems and services are not always sufficient for autistic children. As a result, parents often seek out an autism-specialized school that can be tailored to support the needs of autistic children more directly.

An autism-specialized school offers more focused services that are designed specifically for autistic students, taking into account the unique challenges and strengths that are common with ASD. These schools can be expensive, and they may isolate children from society, which can potentially make it more difficult to integrate back into the community.

Ultimately, there are many pros and cons of autism-specialized schools. It’s up to parents to decide which environment will best benefit their child. Your child’s treatment team, including their doctors and therapists, can weigh in on the decision.

What Are Autism-Specialized Schools?

As private organizations, autism-specialized schools have more flexibility in what they can offer students and families. These schools often provide a wide variety of services on site, which can include:

  • Speech and language therapy.
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Physical therapy.
  • Behavioral therapies.
  • Special education services.
  • Tailored curriculum.
  • Community involvement.
  • Transitional services.

Public schools are required by law to support autistic children through an Individual Education Plan (IEP), and autism-specialized schools also provide these plans. Each child will have their own IEP, which specifies their educational needs and required services. This helps to ensure that children are receiving the right kinds and levels of services and support.

Autism-specialized schools can provide a less traditional format and structure that can be highly beneficial to an autistic child. Since autistic children often struggle with communication and sensory issues, these issues may result in behavioral problems unless they are effectively managed. In a mainstream school, a teacher may simply not have the bandwidth to manage these issues.

An autism-specialized school recognizes the specific needs of autistic children. These programs can often be more understanding and supportive, offering more resources than a public school can offer.

Choosing the Right School for Autistic Students

There is a wide range of autism-specialized schools. Most are private schools, so they also have their own sets of regulations.

When searching for a school for autistic students, look at their credentials and licensure. Schools can be accredited nationally and approved by their state’s board of education. This can help to prove their commitment to excellence and quality.

People who want to teach children with autism typically need a bachelor’s degree in education and often a master’s degree as well. Some states require certification and licensure in special education. Staff and teachers can also choose to be certified through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

Autism-specific schools employ many professionals other than just educators. Other staff members include professional, licensed, and specially trained:

  • Occupational, physical, and behavior therapists.
  • Speech-language pathologists.
  • Behavioral specialists.
  • Special education teachers.
  • Pediatric psychologists and psychiatrists.
  • Community advocates.

Benefits of an Autism-Specific School

There are many benefits of an autism-specialized school to consider.

Overall, an autism-focused school can offer specialized services and pay more attention to the needs of an autistic child than most public schools can. Public schools are often stretched thin budget-wise, and autism-specific services and education can be expensive.

While laws mandate special services for autism, parents often have to advocate for their children. The services autistic students are offered may only be what is most “appropriate” for the general situation and not quite what is necessary for the child. Public schools may apply more of a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to autistic students versus tailoring the services to the exact needs of each child.

A private autism school will usually be more focused on the direct needs of your child. Pros of these schools include:

  • Smaller class sizes. Children with autism may be overwhelmed by large classes and the high level of sensory overload that comes with them. This issue can be managed more effectively in a specialized school where class sizes tend to be much smaller.
  • Autism-focused structure. Children with autism benefit from set routines with planned transition periods. In a mainstream school, these transition periods may not be built in, leading to difficulties for autistic students. In addition, autism-specialized schools employ specific behavior plans for each child to help them succeed academically and socially. Autistic students in public schools may have IEPs, but they generally won’t have the level of specialization that they will have in schools that are dedicated to teaching students with autism.
  • More highly trained staff members. Schools for children with autism usually employ more licensed professionals to work with children on an individual basis. Since they have more qualified people on campus at any given time, students tend to get more one-on-one attention from therapists and educators. Staff members have training and experience in working with children with autism.
  • Educational freedom. Children with autism are often highly intelligent in one or more subjects. A specialized school can allow them the freedom to study within their academic abilities and areas of interest instead of sticking to the requirements of a particular grade level.
  • Specialized resources. Children can learn communication and social skills alongside standard educational pursuits. They will also learn tools for functioning independently in everyday life and transitioning into society upon graduation. The curriculum and resources are dedicated to children with autism rather than the general population.
  • Acceptance. It can be helpful for a child to work alongside peers who are similar to them. In a mainstream school, autistic students may simply feel different than their neurotypical peers, and this can be isolating. Autistic schools can help students to feel less lonely and more relaxed. This feeling of acceptance can boost confidence and self-esteem, resulting in fewer behavioral issues as a result.

Public schools can often fall short when it comes to supporting an autistic child. An autism-specialized school can provide a safe, nurturing and supportive environment that can set your child up for long-term success.

Cons of an Autism-Specific School

The biggest concern over sending your child to an autism-specialized school is related to potential isolation.

While autistic children can often feel misunderstood and even face bullying for being “different” in a public school, some parents fear that by sending them to a school with all autistic children, they may not learn the necessary social skills to integrate into society. An autism-specific school can provide a tailored environment, but it also shields students from the outside world. This may not help a high-functioning autistic child learn how to navigate the real world.

Children with less severe forms of autism may benefit from an integrated model where they can receive services in a public school setting while learning how to adapt to this mainstream environment. In a public school, autistic children socialize and learn alongside neurotypical children, and this provides many opportunities for learning. Public school can also provide a better connection to the local community, which can allow parents of autistic students to build relationships with neighbors and find sources of local support.

Autism-specialized schools are frequently very expensive, and they may be outside of a family’s budget. Public school is free, and the law says services for autistic students must be offered there. For many families, it makes sense to first try public school before seeking out a more costly specialized option.

The Ease of Specialized Schools

Even though federal law says that public schools must provide resources and services for autistic children, it does not say exactly what must be provided. Since one-on-one and specialized support can be costly, many public schools are simply not able to provide what a severely autistic child needs to thrive.

Autism-specialized schools can be like a one-stop shop, providing all of the specialized services and resources that your child needs in one place. This can save the parents of autistic children immense amounts of time and energy searching for these services on an individual basis.

Parents may not be able to visit multiple places for speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, educational services, and behavior therapy. They can rest easy knowing that their child is receiving comprehensive treatment services in one location. While these specialized schools are costly, the results and ease make them well worth the investment for many parents.

When to Choose an Autism-Specialized School

If your child is experiencing behavioral and social issues that are interfering with their ability to learn and grow academically, a switch to an autism-specialized school can be beneficial. A child’s needs can change as they mature. While a public school may work initially, if problems arise, it might be time to transition to a specialized school.

Each state and each school district has their own method for helping autistic and special needs children. Some offer a higher level of support than others, so there isn’t an across-the-board answer of which type of school is best. The final decision will depend on the level of autism, your child’s personality, the resources available at your local public school, and what works best for your family.

While specifics vary between schools, an autism-specialized school can usually provide a more personalized approach. Your child is cared for on a personal level, and you don’t have to worry about your child falling through the cracks of an overworked system.

Again, there are pros and cons to both public school integration for autistic children as well as specialized school programs. The choice will really depend on your child, their needs, and the programs available in your area.

As a parent, you know your child best. Stay in close contact with their teachers, support specialists, doctors, and therapists. Get their opinions on what they think will work best for your child. If you find the current environment isn’t right for your child, don’t be afraid to make a change. You may find your child thrives when you make that adjustment.

References

Facts About CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. (August 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Your Child’s Rights: Autism and Schools. (2020). Autism Speaks.

Schools & Districts. (2020). International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

Do Autistic Kids Fare Better in Integrated or Specialized Schools? (June 2014). NPR.

Why Model Autism Programs are Rare in Public Schools. (July 2017). Spectrum.

10 Ways to Support Students on the Autism Spectrum. Scholastic.

Teaching Students With Autism — Guide for Educators. National Education Association.

Special Education Services Received by Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders From Preschool Through High School. (November 2015). Journal of Special Education.

‘This Is What We’ve Always Wanted’: Perspectives on Autistic People’s Transition From Special School to Mainstream Satellite Classes. (November 2019). Autism & Developmental Language Impairments.

‘I Felt Closed In and Like I Couldn’t Breathe’: A Qualitative Study Exploring the Mainstream Educational Experiences of Autistic Young People. (September 2018). Autism & Developmental Language Impairments.

Do Inclusion Policies Deliver Educational Justice for Children With Autism? An Ethical Analysis. (July 2019). Journal of School Choice.