All children, regardless of ability, have the right to receive a free education in the least restrictive environment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
What does this mean for kids with autism?
When possible, they may transition from an autism school to a mainstream school for all or part of the day.
This transition can be scary for parents, though, as you wonder if your child is ready to succeed in a different academic environment without the support provided by the autism school.
Transitioning from an Autism School
Rest assured that educators do not make a transition recommendation lightly. They evaluate each child individually and look for several abilities and coping skills as they decide if your child is ready to transition from an autism school to a mainstream school.
Assessment Areas for Transitioning from an Autism School
Because school exists primarily to educate children, your child must be ready to meet the academic demands of the classroom. Educators will evaluate your child’s capacity to successfully do the following:
- comprehend the coursework
- study and pass tests
- meet in-class and homework expectations
- adjust to different teaching styles
Additionally, your child must demonstrate that he is on track academically with other students in his grade level. Most children can catch up quickly if they’re a little bit behind, but the educators will evaluate any academic gaps and the placement options to ensure your child can successfully close the gap and fit in academically with his peers.
Your child’s current grade in school matters, too. Third grade marks a switch from learning to read to reading to learn, and in early middle school, teachers raise expectations and offer less oversight. Your child must be capable of handling these unique grade-specific demands before he can switch schools.
A new school environment introduces your child to dozens of changes and experiences, both physical and sensory, like…
- different transportation to and from school
- new building
- new academic challenges
- different peers and teachers.
- varied class sizes
- unfamiliar building aromas
- different alert or bell sounds
The evaluation team will consider how well your child solves problems, rises above discouragement and frustration, tolerates change and embraces new experiences. Your child’s resilience, anxiety levels, and ability to handle and respond to change factor into her readiness for the challenges of this new step in her education.
A child with autism may exhibit a variety of negative behaviors when faced with challenges, uncertainties, sensory triggers and other variables. Before transitioning to a mainstream environment, your child must demonstrate that she can handle the new school without significant outbursts, meltdowns, elopement or other inappropriate behavior.
A mainstream school may allow fidget tools, some physical movement, and other accommodations during classes, but in general, your child must possess coping skills and demonstrate acceptable behavior that supports a calm and safe environment for herself, peers and teachers.
The social setting differs vastly in a mainstream school versus an autism school. Large class sizes, crowded hallways, and different social expectations can challenge your child.
Before a mainstream transition, your child should understand community expectations and exhibit acceptable social behavior. He should also know how to make friends, manage bullying and control impulses.
While your child’s social skills will continue to mature with time, the presence of these and other social skills indicates to educators that he is prepared socially for the mainstream transition.
With fewer supports, more peers and less direct oversight in a mainstream environment, your child needs adequate communication skills. Not only must she be able to talk to teachers and peers in and out of class, but she must also be able to speak up and advocate for herself.
Her communication and self-advocacy skills, including her willingness to participate in discussions, ask for help, make her needs known and read body language and nonverbal cues, affect her ability to navigate a new school environment.
Most mainstream settings feature limited teacher assistance, which means your child should be fairly independent and able to self-soothe and exercise self-control.
While an aide or Personal Care Assistant (PCA) can be assigned as part of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), your child will primarily face school alone, and educators will ensure he can handle the academic, social and behavioral demands he will face.
Alternative Options to a Full-Time Mainstream School
Based on your child’s needs, he may be ready to transition completely or gradually to a full-time mainstream school. Placement options that ease your child into a mainstream environment include:
- Move from a classroom of eight students to a classroom of 12 students in the autism school.
- Attend a mainstream art, Phys-Ed or math class.
- Join an inclusion class in the mainstream school.
- Receive academic and emotional supports such an aide, tutor, occupational therapist and Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in the mainstream school.
Making the Transition from an Autism School
Before recommending your child’s transition from the autism school to a mainstream school, educators will evaluate several coping skills and abilities to discern your child’s readiness for this big change.
You, too, can offer insights and observations as you choose a school environment that will encourage your child with autism to learn, grow and succeed now and into the future.