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Are Autistic Students Usually in Special Ed Programs at School?

Autism is a condition in some people related to how they develop. Autism specifically involves the way a child communicates and socializes. Children recognized as having this condition fall on what is called the autism spectrum. Autism affects people if various ways and to different degrees. The nature of this condition results in an important question: Do schools typically place students in autism into special education programs? As with many matters associated with the unique educational needs of individual students, an accurate response to this question necessitates more than just a yes or no answer.

Related resource: Top 25 Master’s in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Online

Application of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The starting point to determine where a particular student with autism will be placed in school begins with the application of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. IDEA mandates that a student, including one on the autism spectrum, is to be placed in what legally is known as the “least restrictive environment.” In other words, a student on the autism spectrum is to be “mainstreamed” in school whenever possible. A student on the autism spectrum should be placed in a “general” classroom.

Case-by-Case Determination on Student Placement

Ascertaining into what type of classroom setting a student with autism is placed is undertaken on a case-by-case basis. The decision-making process involves teachers, administrators, parents, and other professionals as needed. The objective is to develop an educational plan specifically designed to optimize the learning and socialization experiences for a child.

There are students on the autism spectrum that can be placed in a mainstream classroom with the need for only minimal supplemental support or accommodation. Again, individuals classified as having autism are on a spectrum with different abilities and needs.

There are also students with autism that can succeed in a mainstream classroom setting with more supplemental support and assistance. For example, the addition of the services and assistance of an educational paraprofessional to work with a student with autism may permit that young person the ability to succeed in a mainstream classroom.

Finally, there are cases in which a student with autism is best served through placement in a classroom that offers specialized support, assistance, and services. These types of classroom settings are what historically has been called “special ed.” This includes the use of online education options, according to Forbes magazine.

Special Ed Classes are Not “One Thing”

In many school districts, special education programs are not “one thing.” In other words, there is not one type of special ed class into which students with all types of unique needs are placed. Rather, some districts have developed what fairly can be called specialized special ed programs. As an aside, the ability of a district to develop a multifaceted special ed program does significantly depend on financial resources. Some school districts in the U.S. are better able to implement a multifaceted special ed program rather than take something of a proverbial “one size fits all” approach.

Public School vs Private School for Autistic Students

Public and private schools offer different experiences for an autistic student. They each have their strengths and weakness.

Public School Advantages/Private School Disadvantages

Cost: Public school is free whereas the costs of private schools are often prohibitive for many families. A regular private school is expensive (e.g., $20,000 or more) and a private school that specializes in special education or autism is sure to cost substantially more. However, the IDEA states that students with disabilities are entitled to a free education. Therefore, if the public school system in your area is unequipped to provide a suitable education for an autistic student they are obligated to pay for a school that can. Of course, proving that the public school cannot furnish a proper education is not going to be easy.

IEP: If a child is recognized as autistic, they are entitled to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This provides them with a team of professionals that are concerned with making sure the child receives an education suited for their needs. Having an IEP entitles them to services and accommodations that they would not otherwise receive and increases the likelihood of educational success. It is basically a guarantee that someone is paying attention to their needs.

Realism: Public school is a much more realistic environment than a private school. Autistic children will encounter a cross-section of the population that reflects what they would experience in the real world. Because public schools follow a least restrictive environment policy, autistic children are mainstreamed when possible, helping them prepare for real-world social interactions.

Private School Advantages/ Public School Disadvantages

Lack of Resources: Public schools don’t always have a lot of resources and this may affect the quality of education. For example, teachers may be so overwhelmed that they do give children the attention outlined in their education plan. Unfortunately, just because a student has an IEP does not mean it is going to be followed. Parents of autistic students in public school settings may have to be proactive to ensure their child is receiving the necessary services. Sometimes, you do get what you pay for.

Harmful Social Interactions: Public schools are frequently quite large. They have a lot of students, many of whom will have little education or compassion for autistic peers. That means that they are more likely to be subjected to bullying and social rejection. Further, in a large school, autistic students may get lost in the crowd and experience social isolation. Private schools, in contrast, are usually smaller and more inclusive, helping autistic students feel more comfortable.

What is an “Appropriate Education”?

The IDEA states that all children with disabilities are entitled to an “appropriate education”.  The definition of appropriate is not spelled out and the quality of the education varies according to the particular school district. The truth is that some children will be part of a school that emphasizes top-notch autistic services while others may be receiving the bare minimum to be considered “appropriate”.

As research into autism continues, and as a growing number of educators become better informed about the spectrum, students with this condition appear to be better served in schools across the United States. This trend towards better understanding autism and more effectively addressing the needs of students with the condition is expected to continue apace into the future.

ABA Program Guide Staff

March 2020

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