All parents have felt that knot in their stomachs at the start of the school year. Trusting someone else to love and protect your child is scary.
But for parents of an autistic child, the fear is more like a throat clench. Autistic students are more at risk than their non-autistic peers for bullying, abuse, punishment, meltdowns, physical aggression, unrealistic expectations, lack of appropriate educational accommodations, elopement, and the list goes on. However, there is hope for your autistic child to thrive in a general education setting, and here’s how.
Consider where your child is right now. Do they have the skills to be an independent learner? If not, it may be best to wait until they do and look at other options.
During the IEP transition meeting from ESE PreK to kindergarten, the staffing specialist hit me with the shocking news that my son would be placed in a general education setting with minimal support. At that time, he was an eloper, couldn’t eat or toilet independently, engaged in physical aggression, and had limited ability to verbally communicate. So, no, not happening. Instead, for kindergarten, I chose to give him time to build the skills he needed by attending a full-time in-clinic ABA program, and I registered him as a homeschooled student. Best decision we ever made.
If your child is ready for school, but you aren’t sure they are going to get the support they need to be as successful as possible in a general education setting, consider other options first. In many communities, you can find autism charter and private schools. Additionally, some public schools offer self-contained special education classes.
After the full year of ABA and homeschooling, my son was ready for the next step. For him, that was a wonderful autism charter school. With the support of a stellar teacher and two paras, he flourished both academically and socially. The secure campus meant he was safe. On-site behavior analysts, speech, and occupational therapists meant he received all the support needed in one place. Additionally, he was surrounded by peers he could see himself in and I loved that! To continue building his independent functioning skills, he also attended an after-school ABA program.
Let’s Do This!
You’ve put in the hard work. Your child has reached the point where you are ready to let them spread their wings! Congratulations! But there are a few things to consider before enrollment.
- Hire a Special Education Advocate
This is the number one most important thing you can do for your child. A special education advocate is an expert in how to get the most effective accommodations for your child. Ask other parents for referrals. Make sure you have an advocate at the very first IEP meeting.
- Full Psychological Evaluation
Before that first IEP meeting, schedule a full psychological evaluation for your child. Even though the school may also complete an evaluation, a private provider’s eval will be more extensive and can also determine your child’s IQ and diagnose any co-existing conditions that could impact their education. This is valuable information for the IEP team in creating your child’s education plan.
- Visit the School
Request a visit with the school to meet with administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, and any other adult on campus your child will interact with. Here you can get to know the school-team and explain your child’s strengths and challenges. Additionally, you’ll want to ask specific questions that pertain to your child’s individual needs.
At the beginning of this school year, my son was initially placed in a self-contained setting. But within one day, the teacher and ESE specialist called and told me he was ready to be in general education. Within two weeks of school, we had his first IEP meeting of the year, identified the accommodations he’d need for success, and the switch was made.
Before he joined the class, I requested a meeting with the school team and asked for a tour. I gave his classroom teacher a copy of my book Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder which I wrote to teach non-autistic children about their autistic peers. Equipped with a clear understanding of autism, the class was eager for him to join. The teacher assigned him a buddy for support, and he’s already had several play dates with new friends.
Yesterday, my child who used to hit, kick, and bite, came home with a Citizenship Award for exemplary behavior. And just today, I got an email from his teacher that he was the only one in the class to get a two-digit multiplication problem correct using his number line.
I admit, I was a nervous wreck the first day he attended general education. But halfway through the school year, I’m glad that we took the time, baby steps, and preparation and planning to get him here.
All kids need is a little help, a little hope, and somebody who believes in them.