Education and Autism: Finding the Right Program

School is out for summer and when the 2013-2014 school year starts I will have a 7th grader and a 4th grader. This is the first summer since first grade that I’m not questioning the school setting that my son will be in for the coming year. Yes, for the past six years I’ve struggled with finding the right program for my son. He has high-functioning autism, PDD-NOS or Asperger’s depending on the clinician you talk to. To make it easy, I just say ‘he’s on the spectrum.’

So preschool, kindergarten and first grade were great, but I was driving him 25 minutes to a school in a different district. Sure, the drive was getting old but a mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do. Well, he was diagnosed with complex partial epilepsy during the summer between first and second grades. I didn’t want him 25 minutes away so we moved him back to our ‘home school.’

He briefly attended this school in kindergarten but after a nightmarish encounter with a rude and condescending principal, I withdrew him from the school and he returned to the school he attended in preschool. I was nervous about returning for his 2nd grade year but believe it or not, it was his best year – no problems behavior-wise and he earned good grades.

The school, itself, was far from ideal. A student in this K-5 school brought a gun to school; not the kind of educational setting I want for my kids – autism or not. Plus, the district was cutting back financially and enrollment was shrinking and so I made a bold prediction – the district would close the school in the next few years because there is another, newer, school just a few miles away.

So, in third grade Alex attended the newer school. Ava started kindergarten there, as well. Alex was incessantly bullied at the school – both physically and emotionally. He had some great teachers, the school nurse was wonderful and the principal was involved and caring but some of the parents considered death threats a ‘boys will be boys’ thing. Whatever.

At the end of third grade we heard that the old school had indeed been scheduled to close, so his old classmates from second grade would be at his new school. Not only that, the districted also reconfigured the school to be a K-6 school and brought in a new principal. Ugh, my educational challenges were back. At this point, I was done with the district and Dave and I decided it was time to move to a new district.

This was two years ago – 2011 – as the housing market in the Phoenix metropolitan area was still struggling to bounce back from a big time crash. I count my blessings that we were in a position to make the move – not only am I in a district that I’ve envied from afar but the kids live just a few blocks away from their cousins and grandparents.

Alex’s first year in the district went OK – he had some behavioral issues but I expected that – he’d lived in our other house since he was 6 months old. Although I would have been fine with him returning for sixth grade, the school district launched a new program – an accelerated middle school program.

This program ended up being THE PERFECT PROGRAM for him. Yes, I had to capitalize that because this is the place Alex is supposed to be. The first year had between 30 and 34 students across sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The school is housed on a high school campus and the students have some amazing academic opportunities.

Next year it is expanding to 80 students across the three grades; that’s how successful the first year was. Alex bonded well with his classmates and for once wasn’t the victim of incessant bullying. Sure, he had some organizational challenges but what 11 year-old doesn’t?

After years of struggling to find the right school setting for Alex, and getting his full input all along, I’m so thankful that we found it. He’s been in a lot of schools over the years, and we even had a few months where I homeschooled him, but I couldn’t just sit by and watch the guy flounder. Now that he’s flourishing I know I made the right decision.

Have you faced challenges in finding the right school program for your child?

About Melissa

Melissa is the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and strives to provide information about all aspects of autism through her blog, The Autism Education Site. Follow Melissa on Twitter. Like me on Facebook.

© Melissa Hincha-Ownby and The Autism Education Site, 2008-2014.


  1. Jen Hartmann says:

    My heart goes out to with all the ups and downs you have faced with schools. I’m so glad to read you have found a perfect fit for your kids.

    We are in the beginning stages of finding the right fit for our son who is 3. He was in a regular day school but since being diagnosed with PDD-NOS last month we feel this urgency he needs something more with intensive behavioral therapy and our choices are limited if he isn’t fully potty trained.

    We are contemplating moving our family to Houston to attend The Parish School or Westview per recommendations from his developmental pediatrician. His speech Dr in the town we live feels he would flourish better being in a setting with other normal developed children opposed to just kids who have language disabilities and on the spectrum.

    We are currently struggling what to do and appreciate the information you have researched on your site. It has been very helpful. Have you had your son in a private program before and do you feel there are huge benefits paying for private versus public schools? Our PPCD program doesn’t seem to be a good fit for Sam.

    • Hi Jen, We never went the private school route but we were willing to if the situation dictated it. Good luck to you!!

  2. Pamela Henson says:

    I am a single mother of a Gifted 12 year old girl and her 13 year old sister has Autism and as her Dr puts it; “she is a very complicated case.” I am their Aunt but have had custody since they were 1 and 2 (I am the only Mother they know), they know who their birth Mother is, but wants nothing to do with her. I work full time and attend college 2 nights a week, I am working on my Masters for Christian Counseling. I can’t afford private school, and the public school is a joke, she is bullied and put in a room with 30 “normal” kids, with no possible way to learn anything. You know how mean teenage girls can be, and my poor child will let them bully her and do whatever they please to her. During her end of the year IEP meeting the resource teacher told me,(her exact words), to me were ” I have a Granddaughter that is 14 years old with Autism and she wanted to moved in with me, and I told her there was no way in this world she was going to allow her to go to this school.” Is there anyone besides me that sees a problem with this situation. It’s not their children so they don’t care.
    I am in desperate need of advice, help, suggestions, anything…there are days I want to run away from home. As single moms we have no where to turn. I keep the girls in church and keep praying for answers. Some days I could just sit in a corner and cry for hours. I have raised 3 children of my own and have almost 9 Grandchildren. I will fight every battle for that child I just don’t know where to begin.
    Thanks for the shoulders!

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