Pros and Cons of Autism-Only Schooling

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often included in general education classrooms—aka "mainstreamed"—but not all thrive in this setting. As the parent of a child with autism, you may decide to look for a school that exclusively serves kids on the autism spectrum.

In these settings, teaching approaches and activities are tailored to meet your child's specific needs, and classrooms are likely to include autism-friendly physical adaptations, such as dimmer lighting and lowered sound. While there's a great deal to be said for autism-only schools, these settings do have pluses and minuses.

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Why Fully Inclusive Settings Can Be Challenging

People with autism share a unique set of challenges, most of which relate to social communication and heightened sensory reactions to light, sound, and touch. Some people with autism also have difficulty using and understanding spoken language, and/or impaired fine and gross motor skills.

The difficulties can be mild or severe, but no matter what their level, they can make it very hard for a child to function well in a classroom designed for neurotypical children. For example:

  • Being in a room with a buzzing fluorescent light overhead can feel intolerable.
  • Standing in a crowded space touching other people can be anxiety-provoking.
  • Trying to accurately interpret rapid verbal instructions and translate them into action can be overwhelming.
  • Accurately predicting the planned movements of another person and being in the right place at the right time to, for example, catch or kick a ball, may be impossible.

These challenges mean that ordinary activities, such as attending a school assembly, taking part in team sports, or following directions from a coach or teacher, are extremely difficult for many people with autism. As a result, your child may fall behind in class or be excluded from daily activities. If your child engages in behaviors like stimming, rocking, or making vocalizations, it can make the people around them anxious (even if such alarms are not justified).

With help and support, many autistic children can compensate for their challenges or find accommodations that allow them to be at least moderately successful in traditional schools. But the reality is that it takes a great deal of time, energy, and hard work for many people with autism to function well within the general community.

Despite this, there can be drawbacks to placing a child in an autism-only setting, and you'll want to weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.

Pros to Autism-Only Settings

Autism-only settings can be tremendously beneficial for children with ASD, particularly (but not exclusively) for those with more severe challenges. Here are just a few of the the advantages:

  • With appropriate adaptations in place, children with autism can focus more on learning and less on trying to approximate the social behaviors of neurotypical peers.
  • Without sensory distractions, children with autism can let go of some of their anxiety and truly relax.
  • Autism-only settings are able to spend their money on the needs of students with autism, which means better technology and more appropriate furnishings.
  • In autism-only schools, kids can focus on activities that are more in keeping with their interests and abilities. For example, they can participate in independent sports rather than team sports if the latter causes them distress.
  • While people with autism don't always connect with one another on a personal level, being at an autism-only school can allow them to find others to share common interests with. They may feel understood by their peers instead of on the outside.
  • For parents, knowing that their child is in an autism-specific setting can relieve anxiety caused by concern over their child's level of performance in a typical school or work situation.

Cons to Autism-Only Settings

With so many upsides, you might wonder why anyone with autism would be better off in a typical setting. Here are some of the reasons:

  • In a typical setting, children can learn skills they will use for a lifetime, while in a specialized setting they may never learn to problem-solve or advocate for their own needs.
  • In a generalized school setting, children with autism have wider opportunities to explore new ideas and topics and build their skills. In a specialized school, there are fewer opportunities, and all are built around the anticipated interests and needs of a "typical" student with autism (computer gaming, for example).
  • In the wider community, people with autism can take an active role in real-world activities ranging from music and sports to academics and work. In an autism-only setting, everything is artificially set up for optimum outcomes: There is no competition, and the bar is generally lowered.
  • Rather than avoiding challenging sensory situations, people with autism can learn to adapt to or accommodate issues such as noisy rooms or bright lights. In a typical setting, people with autism can learn to use tools (such as noise-canceling headphones and filtering glasses) that make it easier to function.
  • Involvement in community experiences can allow people with autism to challenge themselves and exceed expectations.
  • For families, having an autistic child in a typical setting means that other parents and members of the community can get to know, understand, and appreciate their child.

Autism-Only Schools for Kids With High-Functioning Autism

Many people with high-functioning autism (which once included those with the now-outdated diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome) are highly intelligent, capable individuals. Sometimes they are able to function well in inclusive situations. Problems may arise, however, when the situation changes or the expectations increase.

For example, a very young child with high-functioning autism may do well in a preschool or kindergarten in which visual teaching tools and movement are encouraged, different communication and learning styles are accommodated, and classes are small.

By first grade, however, that same child may be in a classroom with 25 children and one teacher, expected to follow spoken directions, and provided with few visual cues. Their performance may plummet, their behavior may change, and even with remediation, it can be hard for them to function in a setting where spoken language and social cues are key to success.

One of the more difficult realities of high functioning-autism is that "invisible" disabilities are hard to accommodate. How do you accommodate for the fact that a capable student may suddenly have a "meltdown" due to frustration, sensory overload, or anxiety? It is possible to put supports in place, but autism behaviors can make acceptance tough and bullying more likely.

The Bottom Line

There's no one "right" setting for all children with autism, as each child has different strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, not all mainstreamed classrooms are identical, nor are all autism-only schools.

When looking at school options, ask other parents about their experiences, and try to have your child sit in on a class if possible to see if it seems like the right fit.

Finally, keep in mind that if you do decide to send your child to an autism-only school, you can provide balance by offering them experiences in the general community.

2 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. Lord C, McGee JP, eds. Educating children with autism. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2013.

  2. Interactive Autism Network. Challenging behaviors.

Additional Reading

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