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Mainstreaming or Special Schools? Which One is Best?

Forty years ago a child who was non-verbal, aggressive, resistant to forming relationships and prone to repetitive behaviors was more likely than not labeled “retarded” and shunted off to a special education classroom. Kids who exhibited less-severe behavioral issues such as communication disorders, mood swings, language disability, hypo-activity, lack of affection or mood swings were generally thought of as “weird” and either ignored or bullied.

Today professionals and society recognizes that many of these individuals are autistic and experience any of the multiple forms of autism that exist across the spectrum. Educational alternatives vary for kids who have been diagnosed with Autism. These options range from holistic activities and classes to  mainstreaming and inclusive-type activities.

Some of the most popular educational frameworks for autistic kids include mainstreaming,  autistic support classrooms and schools which exclusively serve children with Autism.


Mainstreaming is a technique that generally works best for children who are high functioning and somewhat social. Non-verbal or anxious children, or kids who act out when under stress are generally not good candidates for mainstreaming classrooms. Mainstreaming, or inclusion, refers to a setting in which the child with Autism is part of a typical classroom but still has extra support. This is suitable for children who are capable of adapting to and functioning in a typical classroom environment with typical classmates.
Autistic Support Classrooms

Larger school districts often offer autistic support classrooms in some of their schools. These classrooms have been set up to meet the specific needs of children who fall into the autism spectrum. The teachers and staffs are trained to educate autistic children. These classrooms also offer additional services including speech, physical and occupational therapy. The staff spends time on social skills training and uses visual teaching tools which have been specifically selected for autistic students.  Since these classrooms are located within the school building the students of autistic support classrooms are included in school activities such as in assemblies, recess, etc. Many parents object to these types of classrooms because they feel that, by spending all or most of the day with other autistic children, their child doesn’t derive the benefit of learning to live in the “real world. In addition, so much attention is paid to building social skills that autistic support classrooms may be neglecting the students’ academic strengths and abilities. Parents are concerned that, in specialized autistic classrooms, the teachers have lowered expectations of the children’s intellectual abilities.

Special Schools for Autistic Children

Special schools that are set up for autistic children have staffs who know and understand autism. The schools are able to offer a wide range of therapeutic resources on site. These schools accept only autistic children, meaning that 100% of the children in the school are autistic. Some parents object to this type of setting because their autistic child will not have typical role models, activities or community involvement. Schools for autistic children can be a good match for a child who is profoundly autistic or unhappy in a typical setting. Asperger’s  Syndrome children, for instance, may do better in a school for autistic children because they are often sensitive to teasing that goes along with inclusive classroom settings.

Regardless of the type of classroom a parent chooses for a child, the most important element in creating a successful classroom experience for the child is the teacher. A creative, effective and caring teacher will make the difference in any child’s life, regardless of whether the child has special needs or not. As educational reformer Lowell Milken notes, “The most direct and enduring way to reach the mind and imagination of the learner is through the mind, imagination and character of the outstanding teacher.” All children, both typical children and those with special needs deserve such a teacher who guides each child as the child grows to his maximum capacity.


Disclaimer: Choosing which educational setup is best for your child with Autism is a very important decision and cannot be made solely based on information in this article. Professional assessment of the child, along with professional guidance by a therapist or other expert in Autism, is recommended for parents who need to make this decision.

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