Educating Your Autistic Child

One of the major issues facing a parent of an autistic child is what type of schooling should the child have. We know that there are many models: inclusion, self-contained, homeschool and within each model there are variations. So how do you pick which one is best for your child? Honestly, I can only say by trial and error. I know its unbelievable right? Everything we do with our children is trial and error; trial and error as to the type of therapy, trial and error with the medication or alternative therapies, and now trial and error with their education. You get annoyed after awhile, that there are no hard and fast rules for anything when dealing with an autistic child. What worked one day may not work the next. Just when you think you have everything figured out then there is a new challenge which makes the old behavioral plan no good. Ok, it’s not like we don’t’ change and adjust for any child, it’s just that with an autistic child the change and adjustment period is not about you, it’s about them, and like changing to daylight savings time, may take weeks and cause a lot of sleepless nights, meltdowns and angst.

Listen, we make choices for our children and we do the best for them no matter what. We decide to take chances sometimes and then have to follow through. How do you decide what is the best form of education for your child? I think it’s like anything else we do for them, we need to see how they handle the situation and if there is sufficient growth and if the personnel who are there to help them really know what they are doing.

When we moved to our school district, collegeman was only 5. He was terribly disabled at the time. He not only could not handle a regular classroom, he couldn’t walk down the corridor in the elementary school, eat in the cafeteria or play in the gym. The world for him was spinning out of control and we needed to bring his world back to center. We tried a regular kindergarten classroom with a para. But it did not work. He just could not adjust. Our school district then sent him out of district to an autism specific program.

What is an out of district program? Put simply it is when they send your child, at district cost, to a program out of your school district because they cannot educate your child. Under the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) your child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). That is where that term that everyone throws around comes from. But it is more than just a simple term. It is why the districts do what they do for your child. So because they could not educate collegeman appropriately in district, they sent him to a wonderful program not too far from home in another school district.

It was all autistic children; collegeman was the highest functioning among them. The classroom was only eight students with a teacher and an aide in the room. Each student has their own desk, but it was more like a cubicle. There were no distractions and no one could bother each other. They each had their own level of work and they received support for each of their academic issues. There was also a speech therapist on hand and an occupational and physical therapist for those that needed it. They also did community skills training with the children.

They would take the children to the local supermarket once a week and have them go shopping for items they would eat for snack that day. I ran into them one day, and I could tell you that it was an amazing sight to behold. There they were, eight little children, walking in a straight-line, flanked by two teachers, happily figuring out what special treat they would get. No one fussed. No one melted down. Everyone was appropriate and everyone seemed to have a good time.

Now there was also plenty of group time in the self-contained class every day too. There was story time, where the teacher would take out story boards that simply told the story in the book she was reading so all levels could follow along. There was also lunch time. The class ate together at a table in the room. None of them could handle the cafeteria. The teacher, I remember her well to this day, her name was Jean, a kind and lovely patient woman if there ever was one, would take some of the children to the cafeteria who bought their lunch and then they would all sit around and eat together. She told me that collegeman started a trend that year. No one had ever tried to talk during lunch. But collegeman would ask everyone if they enjoyed their lunch. It may have been the same question every day, but it started a pattern and a trend that kept going. Jean told me that one day, one of the other children brought collegeman back packets of ketchup from the cafeteria because he knew that collegeman liked ketchup on his turkey sandwich. It’s the little miracles you know, that make you cry.

At the end of the school year, there was a carnival at the elementary school that the entire school went to, even the children in the self-contained classroom. They all marched on the field and got to have ice cream at the end of the special program. I got there early and watched as collegeman and his friends from class marched to the field and back, with no hint at all that they were not part of the regular school. Jean saw me and came over and gave me a hug. She proudly said, “You can’t tell which one are our kids, can you? “a hint of joy and pride in her voice, of a job so well done. Funny I can see her face to this day. Where ever she is I hope all is well with her, for she deserves blessings.

The district next decided to bring collegeman back in district and create their own self-contained program. They actually hired another teacher from the program that collegeman had been at, no not Jean, but a lovely woman who ended up being collegeman’s special education teacher for three years and highschoolboy’s for first grade. The class had five children in it with all levels of disability. They interacted with a regular first grade class during specials, like art, music, recess and gym. In fact, from this class we requested that the town recreation center and the school district create a summer program through the town camp for children with disabilities.

The truth is that the town under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had to allow and provide access for our children to the town camp. But they had no idea how. The school district had to provide extended year services for our children, but our children were all too high functioning for the regular county programs, so we moms came up with this idea. We wrote a letter to the special education department of the school district and a simultaneous letter to the town camp. Well the rest is history, last time I checked there were over thirty children in the extended year/summer camp program which had started out with four from collegeman’s self-contained class.

Now the self-contained/summer program was such a success and the behavior such a nonissue that the district decided to try a total inclusion program for second grade. There are many versions of inclusion. The one that was settled on for our district is the one where the special education and regular education teacher share the room, and the special education teacher is there for support of the designated children. Their job is to modify and create access for the special needs children. There can also be an additional aide in the room, if an extra pair of adult hands is needed. That is basically the model that collegeman had until he reached high school. In middle school the special education teacher presentation was modified a little because as he got older he didn’t need the services of a special education teacher all the time, but there was definitely the support para there, just in case.

For Highschoolboy everything was very similar except that he was never in a self-contained classroom. He, luckily, was never as affected as his big brother. But we also knew what to look for and were able to get him that all important early intervention that collegeman never had. Oh HSB still has his moments, that is for sure, anyone who reads this blog knows that, but the inclusion model that was created by our district has worked for both of the boys.

I do have to tell you that our district does still send children out of district if necessary. There are even those that are placed in residential if necessary. I have several friends whose children are in residential. I can honestly say it was a gut wrenching decision for all of them. It is not an easy thing to acknowledge that at some point you cannot help your child. That in fact they might be better off in someone else’s hands. But I know my friends children are thriving, learning, growing and becoming happy young adults. My friends know that they did the right thing by their children and that is what really matters in the end.

I honestly cannot tell anyone about homeschooling, while I have many twitter and facebook friends that homeschool I cannot discuss it in anyway, except to say that it is best for their children. Their children by all accounts are happy and thriving. They are learning, growing and becoming the persons that they are destined to be.

Listen, we do for our children what we can and provide for them the best we can. Whether the decision to homeschool, place them in self-contained, inclusion or semi-inclusion programs depends upon your child and those around them. We have experienced several different versions of educational models for the boys. Each one had its benefits and each one has its draw backs. Each year we tweaked the programs and fixed what was wrong and continued with what was right. These programs worked for us but they may not work for yours. What works for your child is best decided by you. Don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

Until next time,


3 Responses to Educating your autistic child

  1. (You may need to re-set your margins – font is different from the previous post. The text is off the page on the right.) Just saying. Barbara

  2. Came to read your article, and the right side is all cut off. Hope you fix it soon! :>)) Seemed like a really good article..but…

  3. We're very 'semi' around here.

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