One of the options introduced to me in the search for the best school for my autistic son, was the idea of a satellite class. It took a while for me to understand how these classes were run and their benefits. So to help others speed up that learning process, I’m going to share what I learnt. As usual this comes from a New Zealand perspective and experience. The way these classes are run will no doubt vary between countries, and even between local regions, but this should still serve as a relevant introduction to the concept.
A special needs satellite class is run by a special needs school, but within the grounds of a mainstream school. The special needs school itself is the “base school”. Classes within the base school are organised primarily by the need of the student, rather than focusing on age (as mainstream schools do). This is true of the satellite classes too – for example the class my five year-old child attends has children aged through the full primary school age range, not just new entrants.
The special needs school catchment area is typically a lot wider than your usual mainstream school. Within that large area the special needs school might run multiple satellite classes at multiple mainstream schools. Whether a child attends the base school, or a satellite class, is not a question of how close a family lives to each option, or what the individual family chooses. (For example, the satellite class my son attends is particularly far from where we live, there are many schools between here and there, even the base school is closer.) The most challenging and high needs students are looked after at the base school, the more able students attend the satellite classes, usually after a year or more at the base school where they will learn skills such as sitting still, paying attention and following basic instructions.
The satellite classes are also grouped according to the ability of the individual student – not all students sent to satellite classes have the same level of ability and need. For example, considering the level of need and ability of our son, we were told to choose between two particular satellite classes at two mainstream schools. We visited both and chose our preferred one – which matched the opinion of the principal of the special needs school too.
So what then is the benefit of sending a special needs child to a satellite class? My initial instinct was it must be about the child learning “normal” behaviours from the mainstream children. This was incorrect. They are not in the same classes as the “normal” children (at least not initially), though they do spend playtime in the same area, and do other group activities with the whole school, such as an exercise program at the start of each school day. The special needs children can be integrated into mainstream classrooms if they show particular skills and abilities which mean they can learn effectively within that environment for specific subjects (say, they’re very good at maths and can follow a teacher’s instructions).
One of the benefits of removing these children from the base school, rather than to help them learn from “normal” children, was to remove them from picking up bad behaviours from (more challenged) peers at the base school. I have done a previous post dealing with myths and confusions around this socialization question, so I won’t repeat all that here. It is directly relevant to this discussion though, so do have a look if you’re interested.
Though the satellite classes are staffed and run by the special needs school, they look like and fit into the mainstream school where they are physically based. For example, my son’s ORS funding goes to the special need school to pay for the extra support he needs (see my post here about ORS funding), and we don’t pay school fees to the mainstream school. However, we do pay for our son to wear the school uniform for the mainstream school, and that money goes to the mainstream school since we bought it from them. We exist between the two schools, and I feel a rather equal sense of belonging to both at this early stage: If someone asked me what school my son went to, the correct answer would be both – he’s enrolled at the special needs, but he spends everyday at the mainstream school.
Because of the distance required to get my son to this class where he best belongs, we had the choice between being paid for the petrol or having a taxi service funded for our son – either a single taxi or a group taxi. Again, this is funded from the special needs school. We chose to let our son go in a group taxi with his class friends; a nice way for him to start and end each school day. The taxi picks him up and drops him off to our door, very handy to say the least.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, one of the major benefits of being with a special needs school is they can pool the funding attached to the special needs children, allowing them to maximise the resources available to all the children. They also deal with the funding and associated bureaucracy on a daily basis, as well as of course having an excellent understanding of the types of challenges faced by children with various conditions. So they know what they’re talking about and don’t leave you with that lost and worried feel that we got from the local mainstream school when they were faced with directly taking on our son.
Only a month into my son’s first year at school, I know we still have a lot to learn about how this all works, and the benefits and draw-backs. At this point though, I am confident that we have sent our son to the best class available, in the best set-up. We are very impressed with what he has already learnt, and happy with how much he enjoys his school days. The best schooling option will vary from child to child, an autistic child might belong at a special needs base school or in a mainstream school, homeschooled, private or public, the great thing is to be able to make those choices. And for us, the best choice was this wonderful thing called a satellite class.