Three types of schools exist to help American students prepare for the future.
Public schools, of which you are likely familiar, are paid for with your taxes. The states regulate private schools, but you pay tuition out of your own budget. Finally, homeschooling options let you transform your home into a classroom.
Which option is best for your child? The answer depends on availability, your budget, and your child's autism severity.
Are Public Schools Right for Your Family?
Public schools represent the most traditional form of education for American students. If you left home for school each day and never heard your parents discuss tuition or fees, you likely attended a public school.
Public schools are common. For example, in 2018, more than 67,000 public elementary schools served children in the United States compared to more than 20,000 private elementary schools.
In most cases, you won't directly choose your child's public school. The institution will be selected for you based on where you live in the state. Forget about interviewing administrators and touring the grounds. The state will choose the school, and your child will attend.
Public schools do come with benefits, including:
- Cost. Taxes cover public school costs. Parents expect incidental fees, and often, you must supply a child's pencils, papers, and other learning tools. But you won't see a bill for tuition.
- Added services. Children with autism are entitled to a free and appropriate education. School districts craft plans to support a student's strengths and limit deficits, and you won't be charged for that specialized help.
- Special classrooms. If your child is profoundly impacted by autism, placement in a special education class might be appropriate. Here, your child has access to additional learning support from trained experts.
Public schools can come with drawbacks, such as:
- Lack of specificity. Experts say few public schools offer well-rounded autism programs that adapt to a child's unique needs. Some don't support sign language or other novel communication forms, and some don't provide one-on-one attention from aides.
- Poor training. Researchers say students with autism are restrained 25 times more often than their neurotypical peers in public schools. Teachers with autism education could use other techniques to help their charges. Without this training, they may resort to unhelpful methods that could harm children.
- Low oversight. Children can be cruel, and they point out differences when they see them. Children with significant autism may not notice taunts from peers, but high-functioning children might feel the slights acutely.
Think of public schools as a middle-of-the-road option. Some low-functioning students do well here, as do some high-functioning students. Plenty of people with autism fall through the cracks of these large institutions.
Are Private/Charter Schools Better Options?
Parents dissatisfied with public school, but unable to tackle homeschooling, might opt for private or charter schools. They'll pay a staff of teachers and administrators to educate their child, and the work will happen outside of the home.
The majority of private school options are religious in nature. Less than 15% of them are nonsectarian. For some families, that's ideal. An environment filled with talk of a higher power might deliver a more compassionate educational environment, they reason.
Private schools don't represent the wild west of education. States oversee the programs, and facilitators must prove that they meet requirements or face the risk of closing. Each state's rules reflect the unique policy perspectives at work within their borders, so families moving from one location to another might see dramatically different results.
Benefits of private/charter schools include:
- Specialization. Some charter schools revolve around autism. All students have the disorder, and all staffers accommodate the special needs of these young minds. Parents aren't required to lobby for change. It's delivered to them.
- Supervision. Parents expect a quality education in return for the fees they pay. Private schools must compete for students. Small class sizes and quality teachers are common in private schools, and that could reduce bullying risks.
- Options. Parents can pick and choose the school that seems right to them without being forced into an institution based on geography. For many people, this is a major benefit.
Private schools do come with drawbacks, including:
- Segregation. Choose a school focused on autism, and likeminded peers will surround your child. This may not prepare your child for a life surrounded by neurotypical individuals after graduation.
- Buyers must beware. No two people with autism are exactly alike. A school that focuses strictly on autism may be ready to handle a low-functioning child, but a high-functioning student may feel unchallenged. The reverse may also be true.
- Cost. Private schools can be remarkably expensive. One autism-focused school in Oregon, for example, charges about $30,000 in tuition per year. Parents who choose this school must be prepared for the financial impact.
Private schools are typically chosen by families with high-functioning autistic students. They want the child to have a tailored education, and special-ed classes in public schools don't seem effective. Parents who can't cover the high fees may not feel ready to take advantage of the benefits.
Should You Homeschool Your Child With Autism?
During the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, almost every parent became a homeschool teacher. Schools closed, and parents had no option but to continue the lessons at home. For some parents of children with autism, this wasn't a new idea.
About 16% of families that opt for homeschooling do so because the child has a special-needs issue such as autism. And 15% of parents choose this option because the child has a physical or mental health problem.
The benefits of homeschooling include:
- Time together. Parent-teachers spend all day, every day with their children. Their bond grows ever stronger.
- Tailored lessons. Parents can choose what to emphasize during their courses, and that could enhance a child's learning. For example, parents of children fixated on trains could use train schedules, maps, and engine parts to demonstrate key lessons.
- Everyday learning. Parents who homeschool can make lesson plans out of anything, including raising animals, gardening, heading to the museum, or shopping for groceries. For active autistic children who can't handle all day in a classroom, this is ideal.
The drawbacks to homeschooling include:
- Cost. Parents pay between $50 to $500 per student on average for a year of homeschooling expenses. Higher costs involve options like tutors, online courses, and extracurricular classes. Both high-functioning and low-functioning students may need these benefits to learn, and these extras can greatly expand the overall budget.
- Few social opportunities. A child learning at home has no peers to relate to. Some high-functioning students miss peer feedback when stuck at home with parents all day. Parents may need to make an extra effort to create socialization opportunities for these children.
- Parent isolation. Teach your child, and you won't have much time to develop a career or maintain workplace friendships. Since you are dedicating so much time to your child, it can be tough to carve out your own opportunities.
Children all across the spectrum can benefit from homeschooling. However, parents should be aware of the time and costs involved with this option. It’s not a reflection on you as a parent if you feel this idea is not right for you.
Tips to Follow as You Choose
Your child needs a good education, and as a parent, you must pick the option that's right for your child and your family. It isn't always easy.
As you think about the school your child should attend:
- Know your child's autism severity. Autism is a spectrum disease. Some children have significant autism behaviors, and others do not. A child with poor social skills and a history of bullying might enjoy homeschooling, while a child who enjoys social environments might like public schools more. You know your child better than anyone. Assess their strengths and weaknesses, and consider which schooling environment will work best for them.
- Watch your budget. Some of the options we've explained come with a hefty price tag. Your family also has other fees to attend to, including housing costs, utility bills, and groceries. Don't let the education option ruin your budget. You may be able to pick and choose some options to balance the budget. Maybe public school works best for your family’s budget, but you can allocate some funds to extras like tutors or special education programs.
- Listen to your child. Plenty of children with autism have communication challenges, but they all have something to say. Let your child tell you more about the education option that seems right to them. Listen to feedback.
- Experiment when needed. You can move from one option to another if you find that your first selection didn't work as well as you thought it might. Don't be afraid to change when something isn't working. It can take some trial and error to find what works best for your child.
If you feel overwhelmed, ask your child's care team for advice. Your child’s pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist, behavior therapists, or other therapists can weigh in on what they think is best for your child. They have different insight and may be able to shed light on factors you hadn’t considered before.
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