Sending an Autistic Child to Public School

Pros and Cons Guardians Should Consider

Public schools are required to provide free education to all American children, and most children with autism do attend public school. In some cases, a public school can provide appropriate educational and social settings for an autistic child.

However, in many cases, local public schools will struggle to find an appropriate setting and provide a meaningful educational program. Is public school likely to be a good match for the child? It all depends on the child, the school district, personal expectations, and a family's budget.

Teacher helping students make art
Hero Images / Getty Images

Teaching Approaches

Depending on a child's needs and abilities, they will probably wind up in one or another of these settings:

  • Neurotypical public school classroom without special support (mainstreaming)
  • Neurotypical public school classroom with support (1-to-1 and/or adaptations)
  • Part-time typical classroom, part-time special education classroom setting
  • General special education class
  • Specialized public autism class with some inclusion or mainstreaming
  • Specialized public autism class without inclusion or mainstreaming
  • Charter School
  • Cyber charter school

Most children with autism will receive some kind of therapy (usually speech, occupational, and/or physical therapy) in addition to their academic programs.

If a child is academically capable, they will be taught the same curriculum as their neurotypical peers. If the child has moderate intellectual, learning, or attention challenges, they may be taught in special education classes or in a resource room. If there are more severe symptoms, the program may consist almost entirely of behavioral (rather than academic) education.


There are great advantages to a public education for a child on the autism spectrum. Right off the bat, public school is free. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), there's much more to a public school education than academics.

According to the IDEA, a child with autism must receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). That means that an autistic child must receive the right supports to be at least moderately successful in a neurotypical educational setting.

Each autistic child in public school must have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). In it, a guardian and the child's district-level "team" will layout a plan and benchmarks based on the child's goals and needs. If a child isn't progressing as expected, their guardians or team members can call a meeting to decide what to do next.

If a child does thrive in a general education setting, public school is a great way to connect more fully will new friends, other parents or guardians, and the school community as a whole.


The principle of the public school model may sound ideal for some parents or guardians. But of course, nothing is as good as ever as good as it sounds. Parents or guardians will often hear school administrators citing budgetary and administrative constraints that limit their ability to enact certain plans or achieve certain goals.

In practice, this means that a child with autism is most likely to get an adequate education based on someone else's definition of "moderately successful." There are different ways this can play out.

Not a Good Match for the Child's Needs

In some cases, what looks at first like an adequate educational program really isn't. A child with huge sensory and behavioral issues is never going to do well in a mainstream setting. A child with high functioning autism is not going to thrive in a classroom filled with profoundly challenged kids.

In those fairly extreme cases, it's often possible to make a case for change on your own or through an advocate or mediator. Frequently, districts will see the problem and make changes based on a child's individual needs.

Lack of Preferred Program

You may not like the autism support program offered by your district. Some districts have set up an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) program for their autistic students at great expense only to be sued by parents who are uncomfortable with ABA and prefer developmental therapies.

Some districts have created autism classrooms complete with sensory integration facilities, only to have many parents and guardians object because they would prefer to have their child mainstreamed into a neurotypical classroom.​


Autistic children are often targets for bullying. They may behave, move, and sound different from their peers and often lack the verbal and social skills to stand up for themselves. This is surprisingly more prevalent for children with high functioning autism, as they are more likely to be included in neurotypical classes and sensitive to bullying behaviors.

Sensory Challenges

Autistic children may find the sensory challenges of typical school to be overwhelming and upsetting. It can be exhausting to spend the day in a setting that is very loud, bright, and crowded. Standing in line, coping with gym class, and reacting to loud buzzers can be too much much for some children.

A Word From Verywell

There are many different ways to accommodate autistic children, and autistic children are radically different from one another. That means that there is really only one way to find out if a child will do well in a public school, and that's to give it a try. The child might also thrive in a public setting for a period of time and then run into problems (or vice versa).

The key to success is to stay closely connected to the child's experience by communicating with their teacher(s), aides, therapists, and guidance counselors on a regular basis.

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. U.S. Department of Education. Free appropriate public education for students with disabilities: requirements under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. August 2010.

  2. Morris EK. A case study in the misrepresentation of applied behavior analysis in autism: the Gernsbacher lectures. Behav Anal. 2009;32(1):205-40. doi:10.1007/bf03392184

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