Autism & Education: A Guide to Navigating Schools & More

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Every child deserves a quality education. The best classrooms mix the practical with the artistic, and they give children a safe space to grow and experiment.

For many children with autism, the public school system runs those classrooms. These students may spend their days in mixed classrooms, or they may mingle with other students in special education classes.

Other students enroll in charter schools or autism-focused programs. Some children consider their kitchen part of their classroom, and their homeschool programs prepare them for the future.

Graduation is the goal of any education program like this, and most students with autism emerge with diplomas. A select few may continue their education in college, but they may need added support to succeed in that new and unusual environment.

How Many Students Have Autism?

Experience can separate exceptional and mediocre teachers and aides. The more frequently these professionals work with autistic students, the more likely they'll be to make adjustments for the next student. Based on current statistics, most teachers are at least somewhat aware of autism.

Researchers say close to 14% of students fit into a special education category in the 2017–2018 school year. Those students had a variety of issues, including:

  • Learning disabilities.
  • Speech impairments.
  • Developmental delays.
  • Intellectual disabilities.

But researchers say more than 10% of all disabled students had an autism diagnosis. That makes autism one of the most common issues teachers see in these classrooms.

Children mainstreamed into standard classes often need accommodations due to issues such as:

  • Preference for routine. Unstructured times, including lunch breaks, can cause stress and anxiety.
  • Processing time. Children with autism need more time to succeed when answering questions.
  • Social deficits. These students want to make friends, but they may have trouble connecting. Some are bullied by other students.
  • Sensory sensitivities. Loud, busy, and bright classrooms can be stressful for some students with autism.

Tantrums result when these students are overwhelmed. Sometimes, that leads to disciplinary action. Students know this, and sometimes, they save their outbursts for their return home. Friction with the family often results.

Despite these challenges, many students with autism learn to succeed in school. Researchers say close to 75% of students with disabilities emerge from their classrooms with a regular high school diploma.

Your Child’s Rights in Public School

Early intervention programs screen children for autism, and with that diagnosis, the need for treatment becomes clear. Often, when children enter school, they've been working with therapists for months or years. The school system should support them as they pursue a traditional education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, commonly referred to as IDEA, mandates a state-funded education for all children, and the program must meet a child's unique and individual needs.

Under the IDEA rules, schools must offer an education that is:

  • Appropriate. The program must be tailored to your child, and graduation must be the goal.
  • Free. Families shouldn't have to pay for the education a child needs. Taxpayers handle the bill.
  • Open. Your child is entitled to experience the "least restrictive environment" that allows for academic progression.

When your child enters the system, you'll help to develop an individualized education program (IEP). This spells out what your child needs, how the program will work, and how success is measured. Your child's plan might include:

  • Individual tutors who help your child through the day.
  • Entrance into a special education classroom.
  • Access to an autism specialist.

Typically, teachers deliver the majority of care. Unfortunately, researchers say special education teachers often don't know how to build a program to support their students. Often, these teachers are generalists, and they don't know the ins and outs of autism.

Families can help. Open up a dialogue with your child's teacher and other critical officials at the school. Explain what your child needs, and outline your concerns. Ask for conversations about supporting your child, and offer help when you can. This collaborative approach could surround your child with necessary care.

If you feel your child isn't getting an appropriate education, you can advocate for your child through:

  • IEP review. Request an analysis of what your child needs and what happens daily.
  • Negotiation. Open a dispute with the school, and work with a mediator to come to an agreement with the district.
  • Hearings. Request a due-process hearing if you're still not satisfied.
  • The complaint process. Write down your concerns and submit them to the state educational agency.

Advocates say school districts often win these disputes. However, by opening a conversation and highlighting your willingness to talk for your child, you could come to some kind of settlement that benefits your child.

Other School Options Exist

For some parents, fighting with the school district is futile. When they reach the end of their ability to work within the system, they look for alternatives.

Many families are in this situation, and new school opportunities are emerging to help autistic students. They include:

  • Pilot programs. In states like New York, researchers and autism specialists are developing new classrooms made just for students with autism. Every day, these students are surrounded by aides who work to meet their needs.
  • Charter schools. Some communities have institutions devoted to teaching students with autism. These separated environments cater to the specific needs of students with autism while remaining academically vigorous.
  • State-to-state moves. Some communities offer flexibility that others lack. Moving from one state to another could give families access to classrooms not available in their current location.

Any or all of these solutions come with a big price tag. Some families simply can't afford to pay private tuition, and some just can't pack up and move somewhere else for the school year.

But for families with means and flexibility, these can be good options for continuing education opportunities.

Should You Try Homeschooling?

For your child, home is a safe space. You work hard to control variables and build a secure environment. For some families, it's impossible to duplicate these steps in a classroom. Instead, they transform home into a school.

Homeschooling options for autism come with plenty of benefits, including:

  • Flexibility. Incorporate repeating and simplified instructions. Eliminate verbal cues, if your child prefers. Take breaks as often as you'd like.
  • Focus. Home in on your child's interests and abilities, and use them to guide lesson plans and approaches.
  • Understanding. Don't explain what your child needs to someone else. Apply the knowledge you already have to keep your child engaged.
  • A controlled environment. Among parents who homeschool their children, 91% cite a concern about the school's environment as a primary reason for their decision. At home, you have control over everything.

Use your own lesson plans and techniques, or lean on a vetted approach, such as Charlotte Mason homeschooling. Find a program that works for your family, and apply it in a way that you see fit.

Remember to check with your State Department of Education about requirements. You must meet state rules.

Homeschooling your child also comes with a financial impact. You can't earn a living when you're spending every day as your child's teacher. You must also purchase all the materials for your child's classroom. Some states offer some reimbursement for parents who homeschool their kids.

What About College?

For traditional students, high school is a jumping-off point. Long before graduation arrives, the search for the right college begins. Autistic students can follow this model too.

Experts say that students with autism have low college graduation rates, and that's due to a difficult transition between high school and college. Some colleges have programs made just for students with autism, but they are both rare and expensive. Heading out of state to enroll in a program like this can be hard for autistic students too, as they lose the security of the community they've built at home.

Start the conversation long before the first day of class. Tell your child's school:

  • More time is needed. Students with disabilities are entitled to extra time on exams. Students may also get deadline extensions. Ask how these needs will be met.
  • Social check-ins are beneficial. Most college dorms come with proctors who connect with students as peers. Ask if your child's proctor has experience with autism.
  • Mental health supervision is required. Ask about the school's mental health clinic, and ensure your child can have regular appointments.

Most of all, keep open lines of communication with your student. Explain how college will change the physical distance between you but not your connection. Talk regularly to ensure all is well.

Education Is Critical

As you schedule another meeting with a teacher or fill out another enrollment form, you may begin to wonder if all of your hard work is worthwhile. Know that it is.

Researchers say more than half of people with autism are unemployed in adulthood. Education could help to shift those numbers. The more students learn in the classroom, the more prepared they'll be to tackle great jobs in the community.

References

Special Education: Definition, Statistics, and Trends. (December 2019). Education Week.

In the Classroom. (April 2017). National Autistic Society.

Students with Disabilities. (May 2020). National Center for Education Statistics.

Your Child's Rights: Autism and School. Autism Speaks.

Special Education Teachers Serving Students With Autism: A Descriptive Study of the Characteristics and Self-Reported Knowledge and Practices Employed. (2011). Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Inclusion in the Classroom. (March 2018). Organization for Autism Research.

Rights at School. Autism Society.

Schools Continue to Win Most Special Ed Disputes. (June 2020). Disability Scoop.

What School Could Be if It Were Designed for Kids With Autism. (December 2019). The Atlantic.

Autism Charter Schools: Legally Vulnerable or Viable? (May 2015). Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality.

Is Homeschooling a Good Option for My Child With Autism? (November 2014). Autism Awareness Centre.

Homeschooling. National Center for Education Statistics.

Homeschooling Your Child With Autism. The Autism Community in Action.

College Students With Autism Have Low Graduation Rate. (November 2017). The State Press.

Students on the Autism Spectrum Are Often as Smart as Their Peers—So Why Do So Few Go to College? (April 2016). The Hechinger Report.

College on the Autism Spectrum. (May 2018). Higher Education Today.

How Colleges Can Prepare for Students With Autism. (May 2018). Spectrum.

Autism Statistics and Facts. Autism Speaks.