Navigating School Services

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When a child with autism goes to school, there are essentially two options: He may be placed in special education classes, or he may be “mainstreamed” with the rest of the children.

Mainstreaming is best understood not as an end in itself but as a means to better learning. It works most effectively when the pupil can be expected to make meaningful educational gains when exposed to a curriculum that is developmentally within his grasp. When this is not done, school aides are often left to run a separate day-to-day program to help the child accommodate to the curriculum.

Some parents are concerned their children will not learn age-appropriate social skills unless placed in the mainstream. But children with autism do not learn to ‘act their age’ by simply being placed with others. They need to master skills incrementally to engage with a class’s curriculum. When this is not possible in a mainstream classroom, special education may be needed.

In the special education classroom, a qualified instructor undertakes the substantial task of identifying alternative ways to learn. Teachers must use different methods to reach children with different levels of intelligence and language skills. Parents may supplement the special-education curriculum with after-school programs to help their children acquire social skills.