Why A Mainstream School is Right For My Autistic Son

Before Michael’s diagnosis, I had his school all figured out. I had researched, exhaustively, every public school in Sydney. I had then decided (mostly based on their proximity to the city and their NAPLAN results) which ones were acceptable for Michael. Now I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all their relative strengths and weaknesses. This includes debating scores (no, really!), how good they are at choir competitions, and whether they are overcrowded. My knowledge of high schools is similar.

I am like this because I am a control freak. I can admit it. I’m ok with it. But also because I have gone to about seven different schools in my life and let me tell you, the school matters! It can make your child miserable or leave them happy and wanting to learn. It can be the source of bullying or be the place where you make your most valuable friendships. Research shows that the influence of a child’s peers on their life (especially in primary school) can be greater than the influence of their parents.

I planned to send Michael to our local public school. Then when he got into a selective school and got a full scholarship to a good private school (well, I got both, so I didn’t really contemplate the possibility that he might do neither) we would make an informed decision together as to the best course of action. Then he would study actuarial studies at Macquarie University. It was all totally logical. Obviously it probably wouldn’t have happened even without any kind of special needs.

Then after the diagnosis I had to contemplate the likelihood that  Michael would not be getting into a selective school. In fact he might not be able to go to a mainstream school at all. Possibly he would end up at one of the many great special schools that were all around us.

I know that many parents have chosen to send their kids to special schools and have only good things to say about the experience. We are very lucky here in Australia, especially in the part of Sydney that I live, in the number and quality of special schools.

Don’t let this post’s title fool you. I change my mind at least three times a day about the school my son should go to, whether mainstream or special or somewhere in between. I know many parents whose children currently attend special schools. Their kids have made great strides there, and more importantly are very happy.

However what has really annoyed me in my quest so far is how much everyone has pushed and prodded encouraged me in the ‘special schools’ direction. Despite there being NO EVIDENCE that special schools or special classes have ANY ADVANTAGE over mainstream for a child with a disability. And tonnes of evidence that in fact both of these place the kids at a disadvantage, both academically and socially. I have emailed and talked with almost every private school (and most public schools) in Sydney. whether all boys or co-ed. I have come to the conclusion that it is simply shameful how poor and under-resourced our fancy private schools are!

Recently I was talking to a teacher in one of these private boys schools. It was the type of school that have five pools and ten tennis courts. They said they would not have the resources to accommodate Michael’s special needs. At most they could offer him extra tutoring in a couple of subjects if he was having trouble with them. They then directed me to my local public school which has more students enrolled than capacity, and demountable classrooms. Apparently, they’re way better able to handle his occasional need for privacy and special care. Whether or not I would have ever afforded it or wanted to send him there anyway is not the issue. The fact that they just dismissed the suggestion (in the politest possible way) is.

I’m sorry, I know sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but it has been really getting to me for about six months now. Not that I mind sending my son to a public school. I doubt that the kids are any different between private and public schools, but the smaller class sizes and large amounts of staff in a private school make it easier to enforce good behaviour and keep a lid on bullying. I know that bullying will be an issue for my son, probably wherever he goes. But I did not think it would start with the teachers!

Until recently, I would have gone quietly in the direction they were sending me. I was already researching housing in the Hills area and planning on sending my son to Woodbury – an ABA based school in Bella Vista. It might still happen, at least for a couple of years, depending on what kind of progress he makes. Although I would think of that more as a way to get his early intervention hours up, not as a long term solution. It looks like a fantastic school that has improved the lives of many children that attend it.

And then I started reading the studies. I think they pretty unequivocally prove that my son would have a higher chance of graduating, would get higher results in every field, and even better long term mental health outcomes, if he was included as much as possible in a mainstream school. For a much better summary of these studies than I could ever do, please read this article by Dr Robert Jackson from Edith Cowan University.

For those of you interested in reading long studies and statistics, or if you have masochistic tendencies (it is not for me to judge), the link to one such study is here. It is a report into the special education system in Massachusetts. For those of us not too familiar with the geography of the USA it is a state in New England. Its capital is Boston and it has a population of just under 7 million people.

Brief Summary of Report

Briefly, the reports concluded that the students that were fully included in mainstream settings consistently outperformed students that were not. This held across all backgrounds, ability levels, socioeconomic circumstances. Just like in Australia, the options for including such students in a mainstream setting were limited (especially in high school). When they existed, and with the proper support, they did very well.

In Australia, as in Massachusetts, most children with autism will be included in a mainstream classroom. Usually in a public school. The problem is that this may occur without sufficient levels of support. Public schools struggle to handle the load and private schools can often offload the responsibility onto someone else. The report identifies about 6% of children with disabilities being in (mostly private) special schools. This is similar to Australia. The sample size of students educated ‘separately’ in the report is over 30,000.

It is likely that there are important ways in which students in special classes or special schools are different to students in a normal class. The study used what is called controlled multilevel regression analysis to try to compare similar students. For example, to compare a child with mild autism at a special school, with a similar child fully included in a public school.

Of course no two students with autism are the same. This is why in the end these decisions will have to be made by the parents.

The differences were quite significant. Of all students with a learning or communication disability, the odds of them graduating increased 5 TIMES (!!!) if they were included for at least 80% of the day in a mainstream school. And all students, no matter what type of disability, had a higher chance of graduating if included in a mainstream school.

But my child learns differently.

Believe me, these thoughts are familiar to me. My son hasn’t even started preschool, and I’m already having them.

Yesterday, I was doing shape sorting with him and he was struggling so much. I would give him one shape at a time. I would wait for him to try to figure out where it went, and he would fail almost every time. The only one he could do was the circle. The others he would try to stuff into the circle hole as hard as he could, over and over. He didn’t even look at the shape itself, or the shape in the shape sorter. He tried to do the entire thing by feel.

Then I checked what was developmentally appropriate. This was a stupid thing to do, and I will never ever do this again. I read all these mummy blogs where kids did this with very little trouble at the age of 14 or 16 months. At 14 months a typical child will be putting all the shapes in, and saying their names! And my son will likely not get to this stage for years!

How can a kid like this learn in a mainstream setting? Even children with mild autism find it hard. How can my son learn anything at all?

The use of private shadows in mainstream schools

What we are doing with Michael is hiring a private shadow, which is a therapist trained in ABA therapy who will accompany him to school and make sure that he is engaged and learning.

This has been one of my only criteria when choosing a future school for him to attend. Whether public or private, they must be willing to accept a private shadow. It will not come as a surprise that very few schools are happy to have a total stranger, privately employed and ‘supervised’ by an outside psychologist, come in and tell them what to do. But some have had great experiences with private shadows in the past and are willing to try again.

A private shadow can be there to help him interact with his peers – something he would love to do, but finds it hard to initiate – and then help him draw back when it is getting too much. She (usually they are women, although some therapists are men) can encourage him to communicate his needs. A shadow will know what he is capable of doing. She will be able to help break up difficult tasks into steps. At the same time she can make sure that he is involved in the activities of his class.

Schools put together whole teams to help children with special needs. I am positive that for my child at any rate, since we have chosen ABA therapy for him, a private shadow is the best way to provide him with the support he needs. It will not replace with the rest of the ‘team’. The intention is to fade their presence until perhaps it is no longer required. But it is a way to include him without burdening the teacher.

But aren’t inclusive schools expensive?

Every time I have heard of a child dropping out of a mainstream school and enrolling in a special school, it is never the parent fault. Or the school’s. Often both have tried everything. The resources are just not there.

It can be very hard for a parent to keep their child supported in a mainstream setting. But it is just as expensive to keep them in a special school. The cost is just not dumped on individual parents to the same extent.

I read on the website of one special school that it costs about $70,000 per year to educate a child there. About half of this is provided by the government. The rest is on the shoulders of the parents – through fees, and through the enormous amount of fundraising they do all year.

Looking at the evidence, I can’t help but think that the system may function better if a child simply had a certain amount of funding, based on need, and could choose how to spend it. Then the parents would be better able to decide what is best for their child.

Our Future

I do not know what the future will bring for my son. I do not know if graduation will even be an issue for us. Maybe we will be much more concerned about him ever learning to read, or write. But I know the kind of society I want him (and my other children, should I have any) to live in. I don’t want it to be one that is segregated by class, by ability or by any other feature.

Schools should reflect the society at large. School is where he gets to practise, in a safe setting, the skills that he will need to use once it is finished. These skills will involve interacting with other people that may or may not have special needs or all varieties. Maybe also making friends, following instructions. Hopefully preparing him for a future in employment somewhere.

And frankly if we want neuro-typical children to grow into adults that are accepting of difference, they should go to school with children like Michael. How can they learn about something that they see only on a ‘charitable’ school trip for a couple of hours where they learn all about how ‘lucky’ they are not to be anything like him? How can they understand his difficulties, see his talents, be charmed by his gorgeous smile, in such a short time? If I do end up sending my son to a special school, while I am sure he will be happy and lucky to attend it, it will be a great loss to all the ‘normal’ kids that could have been his classmates.







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