Deciding on a School for our Autistic Son

Our final decision (if they take us) is an ABA based school called Woodbury.

Initial Plans (ha!)

I have had many requests recently to talk about what school I will be sending Michael to in the future. It’s been a tough decision process (for all of us I’m sure!).

When Michael was born the intention was to send him to the local public school. For those of you not in Australia, here we have what is called Primary School which is years K-6 (ages 5-11 roughly) and High School which is years 7-12 (ages 12-17). For high school I enrolled Michael into a few private schools but they were more of a Plan C, in case the local public high school and selective school were out.

Plans Modified

Once Michael was diagnosed, and once we realised that he also had a moderate intellectual disability, that option became less and less likely. So we went to different playgroups and preschools for children with special needs. Some were autism specific, some were not. Honestly they were not terribly useful for Michael. I spoke to some of the parents that had been attending for a year. One mum told me ‘I know it looks like a waste of time but after a year my son did learn a few things’. I thought – well a year of quite a lot of hours of almost one on one time with a special ed teacher, you would HOPE he would learn more than a few things.

Our experience of special needs settings

The problem with a lot of the places we attended was that their approach was much more suited to a high functioning child (who has the toy play and functional skills but just needs help with social aspects. They used the same approach to teach that any mainstream classroom would, no reinforcement, and the only difference really was a higher teacher to student ratio. I figured it would be much more useful for my child to be in a mainstream preschool with a private therapist there to make sure he is engaged at all times. At least in a mainstream preschool he had a chance to observe and imitate a wide range of peers. In this kind of special ed setting he spent the entire time stimming or running back and forward while the teachers stuck toys out at him occasionally. And it was exactly the same with any other kids there that had higher support needs.

Now I am not saying that all special schools are like this (I know they aren’t) or all special needs preschools. These specific ones that we tried, were. It is so so important to always actually go and try schools before you decide on what is a good fit for you. And it was not the fault of the teachers. They were lovely and tried really hard. And many parents have told me that for their kids it worked very well, and they were able to fade to mainstream. But for us it was a terrible fit. It also meant it was very difficult for us to get the 30+ hours a week of therapy that are so important for Michael.

Plan for now – mainstream preschool then Woodbury

Next year Michael will attend a mainstream private preschool for two mornings a week, with a private shadow, and spend the rest of the time in therapy. It will be a good chance for us to allow him to spend some time around children his age without overwhelming him and without detracting too much from therapy hours.

For primary school though our main plan is to send him to Woodbury. Woodbury is an ABA based school located about 25km (that’s 15 miles) away from us. It is a special school staffed with therapists of all types (speech, ABA etc). It’s very small and only has about 15 children there in total – they usually only attend for a couple of years and then are able to fade to a mainstream school either with an aide or without. But it does go from K-6 for those kids that need more support. It costs about $20,000 a year, plus the government contributes a certain sum per student and the parents do a lot of fundraising all year. If you want to donate or find out more about them, you can find them here:

Hopefully Michael will be able to attend there from the age of five. It will be a big help to us because it will mean he gets a lot of good quality therapy hours without me needing to hire five different therapists. If he does get in. I know I will feel very lucky if it does work out because I know how many families and children struggle with schools. Of course we don’t know if he will be accepted. The only other option for us at age five is to keep him in preschool an extra year, do a couple of mornings a week, and spend the rest of the time doing therapy at home. Then try again for Woodbury the next year. I do hope that one day he can be ‘mainstreamed’ with a well-trained aide, but I would prefer to wait until he can understand sentences and can learn meaningfully in that kind of environment. At the moment, that is definitely not the case.

I don’t think ahead. Because it is useless.

As for high school, that will probably be a rather dark and dreary process for us. I have enrolled him in a couple of places because here you have to do that at birth, but am not thinking about it. There’s no point, since we have no idea what he will or won’t be capable of, or even what attitude each school will have at the time. This depends a lot on the principal. And maybe we will have to go with a non ABA based special school, and hope it will be a better fit in high school. It’s pointless to speculate about this, just make sure that he is on wait lists so that my options are open.

For now we keep chugging on with therapy, and wait and see.

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