Choosing a School for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Kristina Chew

My son Charlie has been in both public and private placements. He is 13 years old now; he started attending school — a special education preschool classroom in the St. Paul Public School District — when he was just around 2 years old. Looking back, he’s been through most every kind of placement, from special education classrooms located in a public elementary or middle school, to a small private school only for autistic children, to a large public center for some 200 children with autism and other disabilities.

Again and again, we have found ourselves looking for a school for Charlie. Too often, we have thought we have found “it” — a school, a school district where the right program and supports and staff seem to be in place, and then things started to seem not so good, and then to fall apart. At no point have we simply found a school and been able to say “this is it,” though we’ve come close to such in regard to his current placement at the large public center. We initially felt a lot of hesitation to choose a separate placement for Charlie, where all the students have disabilities and many are on the autism spectrum and there are no opportunities for interacting with “typical” children. As it has turned out, Charlie has (so far) seemed quite content at the center, a reminder to me that the best criterion for knowing if a school is right is based on how your child responds.

Please note: While some aspects of what follows are particular to New Jersey, I am hopeful that much of what I’ve noted here about choosing and assessing schools may be more generally applied.


Schools for Children on the Autism Spectrum

You’ve gotten past the ‘early intervention’ stage and it’s time for your child to start going to school. Indeed, you sense that it’s time for your child to be in a school setting in addition to, or rather than, a home program, so that he or she may have opportunities for interacting with other children and be more independent and because it’s just time for your child to be in school, with other children. Perhaps your school district has a special ed preschool program that, from what you’re told and what you’ve read, uses the same sort of teaching methodology (perhaps Applied Behavior Analysis, which is pretty much the norm for autism programs in New Jersey where we live) and provides speech therapy and occupational therapy.

But, in doing your research, you’ve heard about this other school, a private one, that uses ABA too and is directed by someone whose name you recognize from some articles you’ve read and they’re holding an open house and you have this feeling, you must check it out.

Your local autism organization is one source to start with, to identify school programs. Also helpful are other parents of children with disabilities — indeed, I’ve often found them the best sources of information, especially as regards getting a feel of what different schools are like.

  • In-district.Your child attends school in a school in your public school district. Depending on your child’s needs, this school may or may not be your ‘neighborhood’ school; the district may have a program that suits your child’s educational needs that is out of your ‘zone.’ Transportation is provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) regardless of how far (or close) you live from the school.
  • Out-of-district. Your child attends a school that is not in your town. Such placements may be public (such as ‘centers’ run by a consortium of districts, or a county) or private schools.
  • Public. Your child attends a program that is run by your local school district and located in one of its schools.
  • Private. Your child attends a private school for children on the autism spectrum. Teachers and other staff members are employed by the school, rather than being employees of the school district. The school staff decides which children will be accepted into the school. Often, the school only has places for a specific number of students.
  • Non-Public Schools (NPS). These are not, strictly speaking, private schools; a child can only attend a NPS when funded by your school district of origin. Acceptance is based on need and the number of places is (or is supposed to be) dependent on the number of children who need such a placement.

Some charter schools have also been created for children on the autism spectrum. Besides ABA, other methodologies that schools might include DIR-Floortime, Verbal Behavior, and RDI (Relationship Development Intervention).

Assessing Schools

It’s imperative to see the classroom, program, school that your child will be in. Like many things, this is easier said than done.

(Caveat: Here in New Jersey, you have to live in the district before you can see a public school program. You can’t, that is, check out a program and then decide to move into a school district. This makes sense from the school district’s perspective — programs ought only to be for residents of a town. But, before one makes the huge decision to pack up and move of course one would like to know what a program is like, rather than simply relying on word of mouth.)

When you look at a school, it’s important to try to set your philosophical and political views aside, or at least to keep them under wraps, and focus on the people who will be teaching your child. How are the teachers interacting with the children? What is the ‘feel’ of the school? What is the noise/sound level at the school? A noisy school is not necessarily a bad one and a very quiet one (where you could hear a literal pin drop) is not necessarily the best, even for a child with sound sensitivities (who may prefer some ‘background noise’). The question to be answered is, is this a good school in and of itself? A place where students are educated, are respected and accepted for who are they; a place where teachers seek to teach students based on their individuals needs and not according to some unwavering pre-determined methodology and curriculum?

Private schools here in New Jersey have monthly open houses during the school year. Some of these schools being the ones that, according to a May 6, 2000 New York Times article, people come from Greece, Italy, and Israel to have their children attend, getting one’s child a spot has been said to be harder than getting into Harvard. Going to one of these open houses can be something of a tense experience, with everyone feeling that they’re trying to be on their ‘best behavior’ to garner a spot for their child.

Introductory sessions at the numerous private autism schools I visited all follow a general format, with a lecture/presentation by (usually) the school’s director followed by a tour. Given that these schools all had the teaching methodology and staffing that we were looking for — plus some of the schools are housed in some very nice facilities — what differentiated one from another?

It’s the atmosphere, the mood in the air, that — after all those school visits and after all the different placements Charlie has been in — that I’ve learned to look for. In visiting a school, I put out my sensor for a combination of acceptance merged with hope, with the sense that students are students and people first; for an aura of kindliness and caring.

I did feel this at one (quite famous) autism school. It was definitely an ABA school; the atmosphere was welcoming and warm. Other ABA schools I’ve visited seem more (if I may use the word) sterile, with most of an emphasis on having the students adhere to strict criteria for behaviors at all times. The introduction at the former school was highly informative and clearly indicated the experience of the director; still, there was a casual tone and an openness that was carried over to a tour of the school. Rather than lead us from classroom to classroom, visitors were allowed to go to whichever classrooms they wished, on their own. The director noted that we might see students upset and tantrumming and that this was routine; that students there had behavior challenges and the staff could deal with it, and in a humane way.

At the other school, and generally at most schools, visitors were required to stay together and visit rooms on a schedule so there was much more a feeling of the visit being controlled, as if to make sure that we didn’t see anything we oughtn’t.

For us, the right school has nothing to hide, is open about you visiting, asking questions, and making inquiries and even suggestions.

A Checklist

The first things that most people think about in considering schools is the academic program and the training of teachers. But other factors need to be taken into account, in particular:

  • How are ‘behaviors’ handled?
  • How open is the school? What is the visiting/observation policy? Is there a limit on how often you can visit? Can you simply drop in to see your child in his or her classroom?
  • How will the school communicate with you? A communication notebook? Email? Will there be a note every day regarding your child’s activities? Or fewer times? How will you get reports from the speech therapist, OT, PT, as well as the adapted physical education (APE)  teachers and music and art teachers?
  • What is the nurse’s training in addressing the health and medical needs of children on the autism spectrum?
  • How are staff supported? What kind of staff development is offered?
  • What is the policy for substitute instructors, when a head teacher, aide, therapist is absent?
  • Do you sense that the staff really wants to have your child there?

The building/physical setting of a school also needs to be taken into account. Once upon a time, I didn’t think this was important, but recent experiences have shown me how significant the physical setting can indeed be. First, many children on the spectrum, my son included, have sensory issues: Charlie is hyper-sensitive to sound and can hear noises in a neighboring classroom or down the hall or up in the sky and may have behavior problems as a result; due to his limited language, he is not able to explain that he has such problems. This sound sensitivity was an extra challenge for Charlie when he was in a public school autism program, with his classroom located in a large middle school. Also, being able to walk and move around has been crucial to help my son ‘manage’ his behaviors. In a public school, my son’s access to places to walk was severely limited. There were of course many children throughout the school in classrooms and Charlie crying or some such was quite noticeable and, for middle school students, not the usual sort of way to express frustration etc.

A separate school means severely reduced opportunities for interactions with other children. On the other hand, because he has access to lots of places to walk and even, if need to be, to lie down (Charlie’s sleep habits are sometimes irregular and he will be up very early or go to sleep very late, and still get up very early). There is a gym, a track, and a swimming pool. The school is in a huge building designed somewhat like a shopping mall, with open space at the center and classrooms around the edges in a circle. It’s an open layout that seems reassuring for him (Charlie seems less comfortable in small and confined spaces, though when he was younger he sometimes sought these out).

Teachers, Therapists and Training

I’ve included teachers and their training in a separate section as, in our experience, it is the teachers and the aides who spend the majority of the school day with your child who are key — are the most important. 

  • What is the training and educational background of the teachers?
  • How long have they been teaching and in what sorts of settings and programs?
  • What kinds of supports and supervision do they receive?
  • What kinds of professional development?

That said, sometimes the best teachers my son has had have not come out of a ‘traditional’ educational course in school.  Just because someone has an educational degree, or even one in special education, does not necessarily mean they will be a good teacher. Teachers and aides might have majored in psychology or history or other fields. A very young teacher may have the credentials and ‘book knowledge,’ but there’s no replacement for actual experience. On the other hand, an older teacher may not have the same energy and enthusiasm as someone who is starting out.

The Issue of ‘Appropriate’ Placement

Ideally, the school that your child attends will be the one that you have determined to be the most appropriate for her or his educational needs. There are a few potential obstacles, however:

  1. The school may have a restricted number of spots.
  2. Your school district may not agree on the placement.

A school district may disagree about a placement on the grounds that it is not ‘appropriate’ for your child. In many cases, the reason for the objection may well be, ultimately, economic: The school district may have its own in-district program in mind that, on paper, may have the sort of educational and therapeutic methodologies that you may be seeking for your child, but you may find that it is actually not the right setting for your child, due to the ratio of staff to students, or the physical location and set-up of the classroom, or other factors. Too, who oversees the program that your son will be in and provides training for the aides and teachers? Is there a behaviorist on-staff or does the district have an outside consultant? And how was this consultant chosen?) How are behavioral issues addressed? What is the district’s policy on the use of restraints and seclusion?

Also, a school district may well object to an out-of-district placement at a private center due to the costs: If that placement is approved, the school district is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) to finance both the tuition and transportation. The latter can be a significant part of the bill, and more so if the private placement is not located near your residence.

If, after having seen the in-district program offered by your school district, you do not deem it appropriate for your child, and if you have found a placement that you think is, you will have to prove to your school district why the placement that you have found is appropriate. This might be a point at which you decide to retain the services of an advocate and a lawyer who specializes in special education law, as you may face a legal battle with your school district over what is ‘appropriate’ for your child. If you and your Child Study Team do not agree about the placement, you may have to go into mediation, with a hearing officer learning about your side and that of the school district. If no decision results from that, you may have to go into due process and face a legal battle and, in some cases, even go to court.

Ideally, this will not happen, everyone will agree that they need to ‘do the right thing’ for your child, and you can focus not on legal issues, but the real heart of the matter — making sure that your child has the education she or he needs to achieve her or his full potential, to learn and to grow, and to lead a good life.