How to choose the best school for your child with autism

There are extra factors to consider when it comes to getting a good education for a kid with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Here’s how to find a school where your child will thrive.

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When it comes to education, every parent has hopes, dreams and plans for their child. And every parent of a newly diagnosed child on the spectrum quickly realizes those dreams and plans are going to have to be adjusted—in some cases, dramatically.

One of the first things parents realize is that while their kid may be ready for school, school may not be ready for their kid. “I tell parents, it’s not about your vision for your child—it’s about their needs and whether or not those needs are being met at the school they are at,” says Linda Mastroianni, a mother of two boys on the spectrum. A resident of Beloeil, Que., Mastroianni is also a parenting coach and the founder of Speaking Autism, an education, resources and advocacy consulting firm for parents. When it comes to education, her main advice is to trust your first-hand experience and instincts.

“You know your child best,” she says.

What to look for in a school

It may be helpful to think of yourself as a consumer when you are choosing a school. In other words, kick the tires. Arrange a visit. Ask to see the school in action. Observe the classroom, as well as the other students and the teacher your child might be with. Be sure to meet with the principal, too. Take into account things like whether the school has a sensory room or, at least, a learning centre where an overwhelmed child can go to regroup or decompress. Travel is another consideration. Children on the spectrum can have a hard time with long bus rides.

Mastroianni also recommends bringing your child along on a visit to the school you are considering. That way you can walk through the building together and see how your child reacts to the environment.

“I believe the online community helps a lot of parents, but I’m not fond of people who post things that are not credible to hook vulnerable, unsuspecting parents into their scheme,” says Mastroianni. “But for choosing a school, it can be invaluable. You can put out a message saying, ‘I’m looking at a certain school. What can you tell me about it?’”

Mainstream vs. adapted schools

Another tough choice will be whether your child is best suited to a mainstream school or an adapted one. Mastroianni still remembers how hard that decision was to make in the case of her younger son.

Cover art for the TP autism guide ebook The Now-what Today’s Parent launches first autism eBook for Canadian parents“My older son was able to continue in a mainstream school with support. But once my youngest was approaching junior high, I knew that would not be an option for him. It was a difficult decision, but we chose an adapted school. I wondered, Is this where he belongs? But once he made the change, my son was happy. He was doing great.”

For better or for worse, where you live will often be the most important factor in choosing a school—and it’s a factor not always in your control. Amy Spurway has three daughters on the spectrum, and her older twin daughters ended up going to the same school their father attended in Dartmouth, NS. Nostalgia was not the reason. “We really didn’t have a lot of choice. You go to the school in your area.”

In Amy’s case, this has sometimes meant disregarding the advice she’s received from the school board’s outside autism “specialists.” While they have focused on extinguishing her daughters’ problematic behaviour, Amy is more inclined to see those behaviours as her children’s way of communicating. “We were lucky that teachers and others in the school didn’t fight us on this. Instead, they respected the level of insight we have into our kids and into what makes them tick.”

Anne-Marie McElrone also lives in Dartmouth and has a teenage son with Asperger syndrome. She sees an advantage to living where she does, as opposed to being in a bigger city. “We want a place where people know Ryan, our son.”

Marguerite Schabas lives in Toronto and is the mother of four boys, one of whom, Peter, is on the spectrum. He’s five and just about to start school.

While Marguerite dreaded the prospect of shopping around for a school for him, she also knew her family was in a lucky and rare situation—they had lots of choices. As a result, Peter is attending a French school in the Ontario system because Marguerite, who grew up and was educated in French in Montreal, has a francophone background. Peter is non-verbal, and Marguerite figures he might end up speaking French before he talks in English.

It was at a preliminary meeting at the school that Marguerite became convinced she’d made the right choice. “Peter’s senior therapist came with us, and she asked the people at the school if we would be able to bring his applied behavioural analysis therapists into the school. The answer was a resounding yes. I know that’s not the case in a lot of schools.”

Read more:
Why integration isn’t working for special needs kids—or their classmates
I worry my special-needs son is lost in the school system

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