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Can a child with autism go to school

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

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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.

Many families who have a child on the autism spectrum explore alternative educational options. Private schools, charter magnets, and homeschooling are options that have worked successfully for students with autism. Here you will find a comparison of two popular types of school choice for kids with autism: homeschool vs public school.

Nationwide, 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism. That means that public schools have many students on their rolls who have unique learning needs.

Autism Programs and IEP in Public Schools

Can children with autism attend regular school? Of course they can, but it is important to have accommodations in place that support the special learning needs of a child on the spectrum. While education is obviously the chief goal of any school, a child’s social, behavioral, and health needs must be taken into account as well.

Even accommodations that prove helpful for one child, though, may not be appropriate for another. That’s where Individualized Education Plans (IEP) come in. The IEP is a written document outlining how to tailor an educational program to a child with special needs. It is usually created as a cooperative effort between parents, teachers, and educational specialists. By law, schools must create individualized educational programs for every child with autism.

Depending on where the student with autism is on the spectrum, the amount of mainstream classroom time he/she receives may vary. Some may be assigned part-time to a traditional classroom and part-time to a special needs classroom. Some may be assigned full time to a traditional classroom with a support, or a shadow (a person who would be working with a child on the spectrum in the classroom). Others may be assigned full time to a special needs setting.

Pros of Public School for Children with Autism

  • Some therapies may be available for students meeting the criteria for them.
  • If social skills training is available, students will have many opportunities to practice with peers.
  • Schools are required to have an IEP in place for students with special needs.
  • If a dedicated autism classroom is available, there may be access to specialized software and other supports for learning.

Cons of Public School for Children with Autism

  • If a school and/or teachers don’t have training in autism, they can have difficulty teaching students effectively.
  • Even with an IEP, it can be challenging for teachers to meet the educational needs of individual students.
  • Students who are struggling in school usually have difficulty communicating those struggles to parents.
  • Can create safety issues for students with ASD including bullying, wandering behaviors, or logistical confusion such as field trips.

Homeschooling a Child with Autism

Even with supports in place, parents still wonder, “Can I homeschool my child with autism?” More often than not, parents of children on the spectrum are very knowledgeable about ASD. In fact, their knowledge usually surpasses those of typical school teachers and administrators.

The idea behind an “individualized education plan” in a public school is to create a specific program that works best for an individual student.  Interestingly, that’s exactly what homeschooling entails! Homeschool families have the flexibility to choose how, when, where, and what to teach their child, making it a superb option for students who would benefit from a customized approach. And parents are empowered to change those details as needed, without any extra administrative paperwork.

The bigger question for most families is whether they feel capable to handle their own child’s education. The answer to this is personal to each family, but certainly, there are plenty of curriculum tools, online and local support communities, and information available to ease most any family into homeschooling their child with autism.

Pros of Homeschooling for Children with Autism

  • The learning environment has fewer distractions and fewer stressors.
  • If a student has been dealing with bullies in school, homeschooling provides a safe haven.
  • All aspects of education can be individualized to fit the student’s needs.
  • Appropriate socialization can be modeled by parents and taught as part of the curriculum.
  • Flexible schedule allows plenty of time to go to therapies and take frequent breaks.

Cons of Homeschooling for Children with Autism

  • Only some states offer special education services to homeschoolers. Check you state laws to find out if your state provides this service.
  • Not every family has the availability or financial ability to homeschool.
  • Some families find home education of a child with special needs to be overwhelming or emotionally draining (support systems can help alleviate this stress, however).

How Time4Learning Curriculum Helps Students with Autism

Using an interactive online environment, the Time4Learning educational learning system builds and reinforces the academic skills needed for both traditional and special needs students. It can be used as a core curriculum or as a supplement to other tools. Many families homeschooling a child on the autism spectrum use Time4Learning. Here’s why:

  • Lessons and activities are multisensory and work with a variety of learning styles.
  • The impersonal nature of computer learning is preferable to many on the autism spectrum.
  • It builds on existing skills in reading, math, science, and social studies.
  • It allows for the placement of different grade levels in different subjects.
  • New learning opportunities are introduced in a safe, supportive environment.
  • Learning is balanced with fun!

Choose your subject and grade level to experience lesson demos of Time4Learning’s interactive curriculum.

Have other questions about homeschooling a child with autism? You may find the following pages helpful.