“Is public school not right for some children with autism? Is homeschooling a better option? Do parents need to follow their gut on such decisions?”

I sensed that behind this parent’s highly generalized questions lurked the desire for a pre-supposed answer: he wanted me respond in a manner that validated a position he held. Maybe he wanted that validation for himself, or maybe to fortify his position with family members or professionals.

Overly general questions invite exquisitely complex answers, and sometimes those answers require us to listen to what we don’t want to hear. I could not give a thumbs-up or -down answer to the question about public vs. private schools vs. homeschooling for children with autism because there is no clear-cut answer. I confronted the same question throughout my children’s educations, from preschool through college. It was a moving target that required us to make changes ranging from simple to dramatic as my sons traveled their developmental trajectories.

If we considered all public schools and all children with all degrees of autism, Asperger’s or ADHD and ran all the combinations and permutations, we would find that some public schools don’t serve a child with a particular kind of autism or ADHD well, that some do so beautifully, and that some serve some portions of the spectrum better than others. The same goes for private schools, though it must be noted that private schools aren’t mandated by law to serve all learners. Homeschooling is an increasingly popular option whose viability may vary as homeschooling laws differ from state to state. Within those laws, some parents teach very effectively, while some aren’t up to the job. It all comes down to people. The principal or administrator of a school dictates the overall attitude of the school, and the individual teacher is the most critical variable of all. That’s why I never homeschooled—I’m no teacher, and further,  it was important to me to implant the knowledge in my sons that there are many adults in the world, not just Mom, who could have a meaningful impact on them.

Exposing my sons to the socialization of the school setting was a strong consideration, and even within that, there were variables. Large school/large classes, small school/large classes, small school/small classes?  The question was particularly acute for my son with autism. If a public school, what factor of inclusion would be in play, that is, how much of his day could successfully be spent in the general education classroom and how much in the resource center? If a private school without special education resources, where would I need to take him to avail him of the speech and occupational therapy services to which his IEP entitled him, and how would those take-outs affect his daily routine?

Whether public or private school, numerous factors go into determining whether a school is a good fit for a particular child. What is the school’s overall culture in terms of dealing with bullying and teasing? What is the school’s policy on parent visitation to the classroom; are you welcome to drop in any time or will you have to jump through hoops to be able to observe your child’s classroom? In what ways are parents involved in the school? Does the district or school offer parent development workshops? What is the average tenure of the general education teaching and the special education staff? Is the resource room located in the main stream of the school, or tucked away in a little-seen corner? Does the district or school offer autism training and support general education and special education teachers? What is the school or classroom culture regarding inclusion in general and autism, specifically? How will the school keep you apprised of your child’s progress—daily, weekly, quarterly, yearly? Does the school embrace or try to deny your child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act?

With all these questions in hand, I shopped diligently for a school for my son with autism. I looked at every public and private school within a 25-mile radius of our home. We found an outstanding public school that welcomed different learners and we moved into the district. It may be the single best decision I ever made. The elementary school bent over backwards for him. Middle school was tougher but I believe they did the best job they could for him. Public high school—no. Having sent our older son through our neighborhood high school, we judged that it did not have the resources necessary to prepare our son with autism adequately for adulthood. He attended a private high school focused exclusively on different learners, and he graduated as valedictorian. A hybrid public and private school experience, calibrated at every developmental stage, was crucial to his success. Today, he’s doing well in a community college that actively supports students with learning differences. (2017 update: He completed an Associate’s Degree at the community college and went on to complete a certificate at a four-year college. Today he works full-time at a job with full benefits with a company that actively supports workers of all abilities.)

My reader asked, do I think parents need to follow their gut? My reply: “I believe you are asking whether YOU should follow your gut, yes?” To this parent and all others asking whether they should follow their gut on the school question, I must once again answer a question with several more questions:

Has your gut served you well in the past?

To what extent are your gut feelings supported by facts, or are they predominantly emotional, perhaps contrary to logic and rationale?

If you follow the part of the gut that says a particular school isn’t right for your child, is homeschooling the only option, or are there alternatives you haven’t considered?

Finding the right school for your child with autism will be a critical factor in his success. Vital decisions like this are seldom all-or-nothing, so be comfortable with your gut telling you when change is necessary, but cast the net of your imagination wide in coming up with a slate of possible solutions.

© 2013 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
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