8 Types of Schools for Autistic Kids

When it comes to autism and education, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As with so much in the world of autism, the definition of a good educational program depends upon the individual child.

Autism spectrum disorder has two core features doctors use to make a diagnosis: social communication and restricted, repetitive, and/or sensory behaviors or interests. Among people on the spectrum, there is a wide variation of functioning levels.

Most autistic children need some degree of classroom support, but the needs will vary greatly from child to child. Like neurotypical children, some autistic children have more intellectual challenges than others. Some people with autism are able to hold a conversation, while others are non-verbal or suffer from mutism in certain situations.

This article discusses the different challenges children with autism face in a school setting and the various educational options available. It will also provide tips for advocating for your child within the school system and factors to take into consideration as you enroll your autistic child in school.

Teacher working with young students
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Challenges

Each child with autism is unique, but there are some common areas where many people with autism struggle. Sensory challenges, emotional regulation, executive functioning, and social skills are factors to consider when determining the best school setting for a child.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Schools can be a hotbed of sensory processing problems for people with autism. Loud noises like rowdy kids in the hallways, echoing gymnasiums, class bells, and fire alarms can be jarring. Various strong smells—from the classic musty, old school building smell that greets you at the door to mysterious food smells wafting from the cafeteria and odorous locker rooms—can irritate autistic children.

Add in humming fluorescent lights, uncomfortable clothing, and having to sit still when your legs want to run, and traditional school settings can be a real challenge for some people with autism.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation does not come naturally for many people with autism. Anxiety, anger, excitement, sadness, and other emotions can feel overwhelming. Some people with autism will react in ways that do not conform to traditional classroom settings.

Some examples:

  • Running out of the classroom and possibly even the building, known as eloping
  • Shutting down and putting their head on the desk or hiding under the desk
  • Having loud, emotional outbursts, such as screaming, crying, or sobbing loudly where other students can hear

A child with autism who struggles with emotional regulation will need emotional support in the classroom. This is often a classroom aide who your child considers a safe person.

Intellectual Capabilities

Autistic students have a wide range of intellectual capabilities. Some children have very high IQs while others have learning disabilities. A child's ability to learn can help determine the type of classroom or school best suits each child.

Some autistic students require special education classes, while others do better with advanced learning opportunities that keep them engaged in the classroom.

Social Skills

Social skills that come naturally to neurotypicals may confuse people with autism. This can affect a child's ability to participate in the classroom fully. As a result, autistic students face some social challenges.

It can also impact making friends on the playground and other social aspects of school. Research shows children with autism are at an increased risk of bullying from other students.

Options

There are various educational opportunities for students with autism: a general education classroom, a resource classroom, a special education classroom, or an autism-only setting. Some autistic students thrive in an inclusive class, while others are better in segregated situations. It all depends on the child.

In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your district provide the "Least Restrictive Environment" for a child's education. That means the district must consider options such as inclusion before placing the child in a more specialized setting. If you feel a child would be better off in a specialized environment, you may need to prove that the more inclusive settings are not working before the district funds tuition for a particular school.

Children with autism often qualify for an individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan that allows classroom accommodations. However, just having a medical diagnosis of autism does not automatically qualify a student for accommodations. The district's child study team will determine whether the student requires additional support.

Inclusion

Inclusion—a newer term that replaced mainstreaming—describes a setting where a child is part of a typical classroom with minimal extra support. Some accommodations may be in place, but in general, the child is expected to be able to behave appropriately in a large group, follow the teacher's directions, and do work at or near grade level.

Inclusion generally works best for higher functioning and at least moderately social children. Inclusion settings may be especially tough for children who are non-verbal, very anxious, or likely to act out when under stress.

The benefit of inclusion is that the child is placed in the standard education program with their neurotypical peers. The drawback of inclusion classrooms without additional support is that an autistic child may feel the need to mask their autism, a process that can be very tiring and may not be able to be maintained. This can result in autistic burnout and depression.

Inclusion With Support

For autistic students who are bright but flounder in an inclusion setting, the proper support can help them to be successful. Support options are spelled out in the IEP or 504 plan and may include a 1:1 aide, adapted curriculum, reduced homework, modified social groups, and more.

Many parents prefer inclusion with support as a compromise between a special education classroom and unsupported mainstreaming. Inclusion can be a terrific option for many autistic students with the proper support.

Inclusion with support does have its downsides. Autistic children in a typical classroom may be more likely to suffer from bullying and teasing. If the child has a 1:1 aide, the teacher may assume the student is taken care of and focus their attention on other students. Adapted curriculum may be taught by the aide and not the trained, credentialed teacher.

Special Education

Autistic students are sometimes placed in a special or disability education classroom in their local public school. This option may work well for students with learning disabilities if the teacher is also experienced in teaching autistic children.

The benefits of special education settings are that the classes are usually smaller, there is more opportunity to work on social skills, and students are generally included in all school activities, electives, and events.

However, special or disability education classrooms are generally intended for children with neurotypical social development who have a tough time with academics. Many autistic children have the opposite problem: they're comfortable with academics but struggle with social skills. For many autistic students, a special or disability education classroom may be the wrong setting.

Autistic Support Classrooms

Some larger school districts offer autistic support classrooms within their public schools. These classrooms are set up to meet the specific needs of autistic children. They are staffed by teachers and aides trained in autism and education.

Autistic support classrooms have several advantages: they are usually very small, with a high adult-to-child ratio. They use teaching tools geared toward keeping autistic children engaged in lessons, and the curricula often weave in speech and social skills training. Students in autistic support classrooms are also included in general school activities such as assemblies, recess, and electives.

On the downside, autistic support classrooms tend to be quite segregated from the rest of the school. Children in these classes often spend most of the day with other autistic children. Plus, with so much attention paid to building social skills, this setting may neglect your child's academic strengths and abilities.

In addition, autistic support classrooms often use applied behavioral analysis (ABA) techniques to train autistic children to behave like neurotypical children. While ABA therapy may be effective for some children with autism, a 2018 study found that people with autism who were exposed to ABA therapy had an 86% greater likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Private Schools

Private schools may offer small classes, individualized attention, and terrific resources. This may be a good option for an autistic student who is extremely high functioning and socially competent. However, most private schools will not make any special accommodations for students. Few typical private schools are well-prepared to handle any disability.

Of course, it is always possible that your local community has a special private offering, such as a co-op school or an alternative learning center, which may be appropriate for an autistic child. It is also possible that the student will develop the skills needed to attend a small private high school. But all of the pieces need to be in place for a typical private school to be a viable option.

Special Private Schools

Some major metropolitan areas may have private schools for children with disabilities. Many of these schools focus on children with learning disabilities or behavioral problems. But more and more schools are starting to specialize exclusively in autism. In addition to day schools, there are boarding schools across the country that cater to people with autism.

Schools for autistic children are usually a good match if the student is either profoundly autistic—and thus unlikely to do well in a less restrictive setting—or profoundly unhappy in a neurotypical setting.

These schools have the benefit that everyone on staff knows and understands autism. They typically offer a wide range of on-site therapeutic resources, from sensory gyms and quiet zones to behavioral and occupational therapists on staff.

One thing to watch out for with a therapeutic school is ABA therapy, a controversial topic among autistic adults. ABA is a type of compliance training that helps people with autism appear neurotypical. Many adults with autism claim ABA's coerced compliance is manipulative, disingenuous, and even abusive.

One potential downside of a school that caters exclusively to autistic students is that the child may miss out on having neurotypical friends. However, some children with high functioning autism may do better in a school for autistic children since they are often extremely sensitive to the inevitable teasing in traditional school settings.

The obvious downside of a specialized private school is tuition can be expensive. While it may be possible to convince a school district to underwrite an approved private school placement, it is usually a tough sell. You may need to hire a lawyer or special education advocate to get the district pay for specialized placement.

Homeschooling

Because the options for educating an autistic child are limited—and in many areas almost non-existent—many families are turning to homeschooling.

This can be tough for many families because it requires an adult to stay home to educate the child. For two-income families, this can be a significant financial sacrifice. This option often makes the most sense, particularly if the relationship with the local school district has become strained.

If the idea of being responsible for an autistic child's education is overwhelming, there are plenty of online homeschooling options. You can also find other local homeschooling families with autistic children to share curricula and go on field trips together.

The greatest upside to homeschooling is its absolute flexibility. If a child loves trains, for example, you can use Thomas the Tank Engine to teach reading and math skills—an approach that has a good chance of success.

Homeschooling laws vary from state to state. Some require the student to submit a portfolio of work, while other states do not provide any oversight for homeschooling. Be sure to look into your local laws before withdrawing your student from school.

Unschooling

Another option gaining traction in the autistic community is known as unschooling. Unschooling is child-led learning at home or in places other than a school. There is no traditional curriculum for unschooling. Instead, children are taught in a curious and demand-free setting based on their interests.

The philosophy of unschooling is that children are naturally curious and learn best following their interests.  It is intended to be stress-free for the student and allow them to unwind, recover from school trauma, and follow their curiosity.

Unschooling is often recommended for autistic students who do not thrive in a traditional school setting or experience autistic burnout. Some families use unschooling as a temporary bridge between conventional school and homeschooling. It is commonly recommended to unschool for at least one month for every year in school before trying any formalized homeschooling. 

The downsides of unschooling include fewer opportunities for socialization and the potential judgment from others. Legally, unschooling falls under the homeschool umbrella. Laws vary from state to state, and you may be required to show a portfolio of work.

How To Choose

Determining the proper placement for your autistic learner depends on several factors. Some points to consider as you think about your options are:

  • The autistic child's verbal ability and levels of engagement
  • Their academic skills
  • How they are in large groups
  • Their tolerance for sensory input
  • Ability to focus on classwork
  • Prior classroom experience

You will also want to look into the programs available in your local school district and any private or charter school options in your area.

Tips

Ensuring an autistic child has a positive school experience may require a little extra work on your part. You are the child in your care's advocate, and you'll want to have a cooperative partnership with their teachers.

Creating a one-page fact sheet for a child can help the transition to a new school situation. In addition to listing their diagnoses (if you are comfortable sharing them), include a child's strengths, quirks, triggers, and anything that helps calm the child down. Make sure your contact and emergency contact information is visible at the top of the page.

Most children with autism will need extra support in school through a 504 plan or an IEP. This can be a long and sometimes frustrating process. Each state has its own timeline and regulations for 504 plans and IEPs. Check with your state department of education to find out the rules in your area.

A Word From Verywell

Determining the proper placement for an autistic learner can be a lengthy process. Try to work with the child's teacher and school district to get the right support.

If a child is struggling, keeping a log of the type and frequency of problems a child is having can help build a case for more support (like a 1:1 aide) or a different educational setting. Should you encounter resistance from the school district, consider hiring a special education advocate or educational lawyer.

Ultimately, the right school placement for an autistic child depends on their personality, strengths, struggles, and unique family situation. Some children do better in a school setting, while others do better at home. There is no right or wrong answer. What matters is that a child feels safe in their educational environment to be their personal best.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the five types of autism?

    Prior to the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, (DSM-5) in 2013, autism was split into five different diagnoses: Asperger's syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Kanner's syndrome, and PDD-NOS.

    The DSM-5 combined three of those items—autistic disorder, Asperger's syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)—under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder with three different levels. Level 1 requires support, Level 2 requires substantial support, and Level 3 requires very substantial support. 


  • How does autism affect learning?

    Every person with autism is different. Some of the ways autism can affect a student include difficulty with social interactions, pragmatic language deficits, emotional regulation issues, sensory processing problems, shorter attention spans, and executive functioning challenges.

  • Are high functioning people with autism more successful?

    The label of high functioning autism is a bit of a misnomer and functioning labels are discouraged in the autistic community. The term high functioning autistic is sometimes used to dismiss the student's need for support. But, by definition, a diagnosis of autism means the person requires some level of support.

    HIgh functioning is typically used to describe people with Level 1 ASD. With the right support, people with Level 1 autism can be as successful as their neurotypical peers and possibly even more successful. However, there is no guarantee that any child will get the support they need to be their best.

  • What is the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP?

    A 504 plan is overseen by the Americans with Disabilities Act and spells out accommodations for students with a physical or emotional disability or impairment. 

    An individualized education plan (IEP) falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and provides special education services to students with a disability that negatively impacts their ability to receive academic instruction. 

    A 504 plan allows for special accommodations, such as extra breaks, fidgets, modified homework, and extra time for state testing. 

    An IEP allows for a modified curriculum, classroom accommodations, and therapy services such as speech, occupational, and physical therapy. 

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zablotsky B, Bradshaw CP, Anderson CM, Law P. Risk factors for bullying among children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism. 2014;18(4):419-27. doi:10.1177/1362361313477920

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early Intervention and Education for Autism Spectrum Disorder - A Closer Look.

  3. Kupferstein H. Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis. Adv Autism. 2018;4(1):19-29. doi:10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016

  4. Sandoval-Norton AH, Shkedy G, Shkedy D. Long-term ABA therapy Is abusive: a response to Gorycki, Ruppel, and ZaneAdv Neurodev Disord. 2021;5: 126–34. doi:10.1007/s41252-021-00201-1

Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.