I went today to observe a program within our school district, what is called an "autism strand". It's a section within a larger school that is a collection of classrooms for children with autism only. Janey currently attends an inclusion school---she is in a classroom with kids with no disabilities, kids with mild disabilities and a few other kids with more severe disabilities like her. I'm very happy with Janey's school, but to be able to be sure it's where I think she will be best served, I felt it was fair to see what another program was like.
My conclusion? I still feel Janey is best where she is. That's not to say I didn't see a lot good in the autism program. I did. The two main teachers I saw at work seemed great. They were enthusiastic, engaged, praised the kids a lot and seemed to be getting the kids to work well. The rooms I saw had about 8 kids apiece. There were lots and lots of other people in the rooms besides the main teacher---paraprofessionals, speech and OT therapists, ABA therapists and others. The kids were busy and for the most part seemed happy. There were a few behavior incidents while I was there, but they were handled well. Overall, most the kids seemed to be working at a higher level than Janey does (some were doing work with compound words, others with plurals, for example) but a few kids were working one-on-one with adults and they might have been working more at Janey's level. The school goes up to 8th grade, and currently does have an afterschool component built in, although the funding for that might be gone next year.
Why don't I want Janey moved? Well, there are several reasons. One is that I believe in inclusion, wholeheartedly. I don't think the best way to educate Janey is in a classroom with only other autistic kids. I know not everyone agrees with me there, and I respect that. But I have seen inclusion at work for many years now, from both the perspective of a special needs parent and a regular ed parent, and it works. It works for both special needs children and regular ed children. It's no coincidence that Janey's current school scores the highest in the city on many measures (out of MANY elementary schools)---inclusion helps everyone learn. And Janey learns from her peers. She is a mimic. She picks up on every sound around her. One child that was upset at the autism school made a low screaming noise for a long time. The kids didn't seem bothered, and I wasn't bothered either, but Janey, whether bothered or not, would pick that up. She would imitate it. And I'm not saying it's wrong to make that sound, but the goal with Janey is to maximize communication, and I think that is best done by being around children that communicate effectively.
Another reason? If a school placement is working, why change it? Janey has had a few tough periods this year, but that's been true of every year and, most likely, will be true of every year. Overall, however, and this is backed by hard data, she has made progress. More importantly, for the most part, she has been happy. Lately, especially, she is truly loving school. She loves the before school exercise program (which I don't think would work with only autistic kids---it works to include her, because she has many, many models to follow that are following directions), she loves the after-school crafts programs, she loves her student teachers, and she loves (and I love) her special ed and regular ed teachers. She has wonderful classmates. Her school has just been approved for a K-12 pathway. It seems to me like a crazy time to move her away from it.
The last reason is just my gut. I didn't feel as good about the autism school as Janey's current school. I'm sure part of that is that I know so many people at Janey's school. I know she is safe there, and loved. That is worth a huge amount to me. But additionally, I like the school physically. It's clean, it's orderly, it's well-run, it has a great principal---it's just a nice place to be. The autism school looked shabby, in many ways. That's a picky sounding thing to say, but it's also something that I think any parent of a regular ed. child would look at. You want your child in a school that looks cared for, that feels calm and loving. You want a feeling about your school you can't quite put into words, but you can feel. I want Janey to stay at a place I feel in my heart is the right place.
Some day, things might change. But for now, I saw nothing at the autism school that couldn't be provided to Janey just as well where she is, without having to move her. I am very glad the autism school is there. It seems like a place that serves the children that go there very well, and I know if I didn't have other choices and Janey did go there, she would be cared for well. But I do have another choice, and I am very lucky to have it.