At the end of my son’s first term of school, I am now in a position to reflect on whether we made the right decision to send him to a special needs school, instead of a mainstream one. I’ve also now attended his first IEP (individual education plan) meeting, with his head teacher, and three main therapists, so I know how they think it’s going too. (Those three main therapists – all provided by the school – are a speech therapist, occupational therapist, and physiotherapist who also deals with his orthotics.)
I had heard so many depressing stories from other parents about what it was like to have their autistic children in mainstream schools; always fighting for their child to be understood and supported, and having to constantly visit the school to deal with what the school perceived as problem behaviours. But that it was for the best since their child was “integrated” with “normal” children. I’d heard the opinions that special needs school were just places that difficult kids were dumped, like a babysitting service that wouldn’t challenge the child, where my child would undoubtedly pick up bad behaviours from other special needs children.
I don’t have to spend my time at my son’s school fighting for his future; his teachers and therapists are as passionate as I am about supporting and advancing him. I don’t have to endlessly explain his behaviours and challenges; they understand some of them even better than I do (and believe me, that really is saying something). They are not a “babysitting service”; they are teaching him maths, spelling, swimming, dance, art, basic life skills like cooking, you name it, it’s all there and more, and we’re seeing the flow-on benefits and skills at home.
His classroom is inviting and full of visual guides to help the students through their day; a lovely place for him to spend each school day. But he doesn’t just stay in the classroom; they take the children on field trips to shops and to watch plays and to parks too (if you have an autistic child, you know what a challenge that must be, but they do it and do it well!). He loves school, so much that he runs to his classroom every morning with a huge smile on his face, and hops into his chair eager to start the day.
I am breathtakingly happy: With my son’s progress, with the school itself, with his teachers’ and therapists’ attitudes and understanding of his challenges and his strengths. And he’s happy too. I wouldn’t swap our choice for anything, and I would fight tooth and nail to keep him there. But I don’t have to, because he has the right to go there until he is 21 if he needs to and if we want him to.
I’ve learnt that he’s excelling at maths, to the point that they’re going to introduce him to the mainstream maths curriculum slowly to see how he takes to it. I’ve learnt that he’s particularly struggling with his fine motor skills, and is performing in the bottom 2% for his age for “visual motor integration”; that it’s affecting his progress in writing and self-care skills. From talking to his teachers I now better understand how he learns, and indeed how he hides his learning deficits. They’ve done in-depth reports detailing where he is developmentally, and plan to do more to further complete the picture of where he is and how we need to help him get where he’s going.
I trust them with him, with his happiness, his safety, and his learning. It feels so intensely wonderful to trust other people with my child, in a way I never felt I could before.
We have a wonderful relationship with the teachers and therapists; they recognise the hard work we put in for the past five years, and the ongoing work at home. And we of course recognise the amazing dedication they have to our son. They’ve surpassed all my expectations for a special needs school (a public one at that), and they’re helping my son to surpass my expectations for his long-term prospects too. It’s a long road ahead, with no guarantees, but I’m glad they’ll be with us on that journey.
If you’re interested in further reading about the choice between a special needs and mainstream school for an autistic child, see two of my previous posts: “Socialization as a reason to mainstream special needs children” and “A Right to the Wrong Education?“.
At present, I think I feel much like you do. I feel like my daughter would be “dumped” in a mainstream (preschool in her case) setting and not the other way around. When we were having her evaluated at 15 months old, we were also looking for daycare situations so I could go back to work part time. We even got to a point where we attended an orientation at one site. And it was eye opening. Things like say, lunch, for instance. “Oh they sit in a chair with the other children.” Well what if my child doesn’t sit? “Well when they see the other children doing it, they eventually learn to come”. Or napping at school… mmmhmmm. Or fire drills, which are mandated by law. How do you get 6-12 kids under 2 out of the classroom? “Well we take their hands, or have them hold hands, and exit the building.” Well what if a child doesn’t HOLD hands? When we got the same answer, we knew they were not prepared for my daughter, nor was she prepared for their program.
When we got offered a 5x per week 1/2 day program very shortly thereafter, we were thankful to say the least. We have 3 teachers (1 team leader), PT, OT, Speech Therapist, all of whom I cannot say enough about. AND last years’ teachers still call me or stop me in the hallway to tell me how proud they are of her! She LOVES to go to school – the routine and structure are good for her, but it’s also FUN.
That’s fantastic Melissa!
I received a wonderful text the other day from my son’s previous education support worker (she worked with him at kindergarten) to say she’d seen him at his current school and he’d run up to her to give her a big cuddle. She still adores him too. There are a lot of wonderful people working in special needs education 🙂
I’ve always felt like you do. I was pushed by the experts into a typical school setting with autism support and tss support for my non-verbal child with classic autism.
Our public school is coming to the realization that this difficulty with educating our children with autism is beyond their scope. I’ve had physhcologists and psychiatrists tell me to use an autism school as a last resort. I should have listened to my instinct. This Fall, our community is opening a school for children with autism where they will actually get the one on one help they so desperately need. I hope it isn’t too late.
Never ever too late, I firmly believe that, and have read much to back it up. The emphasis on early intervention with our kiddies, is fair enough, but goes too far when it tries to say that if you don’t get in early it’s going to be too late to make any big differences. That idea is being challenged at the very least by the fact that our children develop slower and differently; judging the importance of early intervention based on models of the development of neurotypical children is a questionable approach.
I would very much love to hear about whether you get your child into the autism school, and how you and your child find it. All the best, whichever road you go down.
This sounds so good! Honestly I think the teacher’s attitude makes the biggest difference, and each child needs to be met where they are. I don’t think there are any programs similar to what you’re describing here in our area, at least not public ones. There is a special needs class, specific to autism, that uses a portable building on my daughter’s campus. From my brief observations it seems to be geared specifically to those with greater needs. I don’t think there is a good “middle ground” that my daughter would fit in. That she has been able to do well in her mainstream class is testimony to our early intervention efforts (which though delayed have been effective), her super teacher, and her own drive to do well. I sometimes wonder what we will do if she starts to struggle more, but for now we are pleased. One thing that is interesting is how my daughter sort of bridges the two classes. She sometimes sees the “autism class” kids on the playground and is just as happy to play with them if they are willing as she is with the “normative” kids…never realizing how exactly she fits between those two worlds. It doesn’t bother her, for instance, that some of the children use communication books instead of verbal speech.
That’s an interesting comment about bridging the two worlds KDL. I’ve seen and heard a lot about the difficulties with schooling options for children with higher functioning autism; how they don’t quite “fit” in either special needs or mainstream, and especially how the government won’t sufficiently fund help for them because they’re not “severe enough”, yet clearly need the assistance. It does seem that the best current option for those children is providing sufficient support for them to integrate into mainstream without being seen as “problem children”, or easy fodder for bullies, rather than trying to work them into a special needs school. It makes me think that a school dedicated to autistic children – from every part of the spectrum – really does make a lot of sense as a third alternative.
Thanks for writing more about this. Here there are special classes, but not schools (aside from a few private ones).
My son attends a “satellite class” ( https://autismandoughtisms.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/special-needs-satellite-classes/ ) which is run entirely by the special needs school, but situated within a mainstream school. Are the special classes where you live run entirely by the main school, or are they staffed and funded separately? I’m always interested to hear about how other areas provide services for our kids.
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