Mainstream School for Your Child with Autism?

Choosing a suitable school for a child with special education needs (SEN), such as a child with autism, is a very important decision. As your child will be spending most of the time in school, the school environment will play a huge part in shaping your child, whether it is a special school or a mainstream school.

In this article, we shall consider the following:

  • Challenges that children with autism may face in schools
  • Considerations for putting children with autism into mainstream schools
  • Choosing a school that is suitable for your child
  • Support available in schools


Challenges faced in school

When first placed in an unfamiliar school environment with hundreds or thousands of other boisterous children, noise and crowds may heighten anxiety in some children on the autistic spectrum. It may take extra effort to help them transit from a sheltered home environment and assimilate into the school community without unduly upsetting or disorientating them.

Sometimes, poor receptive and expressive communication skills can hinder their ability to learn in school. For example, they may not understand the instructions given by teachers or frustration may result due to difficulties in expressing themselves.

Also, children with autism are usually easily distracted by their stimulatory behaviors and obsessions. Even if there are trained professionals on hand, some autism spectrum disorder (ASD) behaviors require one-to-one attention which is not realistic in a school setting.


Mainstream school or otherwise?

Should you send your child to a special school or mainstream school, bearing in mind that you also need to consider that the so-called ‘popular’ schools may have long waiting queues?

This is a question that Mr Zhang Liyuan, Programme Manager of AutismSTEP is frequently asked. The team of therapists at AutismSTEP helps children with autism assimilate well into mainstream society. According to him, the answer is that, it depends. He says: “Children with severe autism will not benefit much from a mainstream school. In fact many aspects such as high teachers to student ratio, lack of knowledge to handle behaviors in mainstream schools, are not favourable for your child. On the other hand, if the child is of mild autism, giving the child an environment to interact with mainstream kids and observe normal developing kids can do him more good than to be placed in a special needs school.”

It may beneficial to allow children with SEN to be educated alongside their mainstream peers in school. The purposes of mainstream education include:

  • To create the opportunity to learn social skills and accepted forms of behavior in a real-world setting
  • To give them the chance to put into practice skills learnt in therapy, to the real world
  • To teach them to socialize and to give the child the opportunity to develop relationships
  • To learn routines, norms and community expectations
  • To have the adequate academic and social skills to facilitate integration into the community in the future

On the other hand, some parents may opt not to place their child in a mainstream school for the following reasons:

  • Negative behaviors might be reinforced
  • Raised levels of stress due to fear of failure as program is not individualized
  • Learning will fail if it lacks structure
  • Poor language skills may lead to isolation
  • The possibility of peer hostility. Bullying may lead to withdrawal, regression and ultimately, aggression ( no aggression is correct)
  • Different styles of teaching between mainstream techniques found in schools and the ABA approach
  • High teacher to student ratio may lead to negative behaviors not being managed
  • Teachers in mainstream schools may not be trained to handle children with special needs

So consider the above points and whether these factors will affect your child before deciding whether to adopt home-based one-on-one therapy or home school for now before he or she is more ready for mainstream school. It may be advisable to seek professional opinion before making this big and important decision.


Choosing the right school

If you ultimately decide to place your child in a mainstream school, the next questions will be how you should choose which school to send your child to.

“At AutismSTEP, although we work closely with a couple of mainstream schools, we do not automatically recommend parents to the schools our organisation is in partnership with since not every child is suited for these schools. Every child has different needs and every child’s areas of strengths and weaknesses are different as well,” explained Mr Zhang.


Here are the factors parents should consider when choosing a school.

1. Teachers-to-student ratio

If the ratio is too high, a lot of the child behaviors may not be tackled and the child may use school as an opportunity to engage in his or her obsession and negative behaviors. We must be mindful not to let bad habits form as these will be difficult to break.

2. Emphasis of the particular school

Does the school emphasise more on academics or also nurture their students’ social skills, creativity or character? You want to send your child to a school that has the same vision as what you have for your child. That is to say that if you will like your child to have more opportunity to socialise, send him or her to a school that focuses on that.

3. Acceptance of shadow teachers

If you have intention of having a shadow teacher for your child, then you need to make sure the school allows it and is willing to listen to the advice and recommendations of the shadow teacher and subsequently making the necessary changes.

4. Availability of trained teachers to handle children with SEN

Some teacher may not be trained to handle meltdowns, behaviors and this inconsistency in behavioral management may sabotage the programme that is already in place for your child.

5. Structure of school programme

Many children with autism need more structure for a start because without proper structure, these children will be left to do what they want, which will usually be deemed inappropriate behaviors in a social or classroom setting.


Support available in mainstream schools

Since 2005, the Ministry of Education had put in place a framework of support for mild SEN students in mainstream schools.

Allied educators

Allied Educators (AEDs) are teachers that provide teaching and learning support, as well as pastoral and welfare support to students within and outside the classroom. Currently all government primary schools and some secondary schools are staffed with at least one AED. Each of them focuses of different aspect like handling behaviors, providing learning support and counseling. However, the frequency of interaction with a child with SEN in the school may differ.

School shadowing

School shadowing is where a trained therapist follows the child to school and provides close supervision and support for the child. This service is not provided by the school and you will have to engage an external organisation that provides school shadowing.


In conclusion, choosing a suitable school is an important decision. Parents need to carefully think through which type of school is the best for their child instead of simply putting them in any school that is known to be good. This is because working with mainstream children is not the same as how we work with children with autism.  Mr Zhang Liyuan also added that there must be communication between all the people, organizations, professionals and parties interacting with the child. These bodies must work hand-in-hand so that the strategy and programme is consistent and the child will then benefit the most from it.


Article written in collaboration with AutismSTEP.