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What's the right type of school for a child with autism?

Exploring your autistic child’s potential fit in 10 different school types


Kids vary widely in their learning and developmental strengths and weaknesses. Don’t underestimate the importance of this on school choice: it can profoundly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.

Kids with autism or autism spectrum disorder have challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, and non-verbal communication. These symptoms can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations.

Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for kids with autism. Note: our aim isn’t to tell you whether a school type is right or wrong for you, but to highlight some critical factors you should consider when making your decision.

To learn about how to choose the right school in general, read the Our Kids’ step-by-step advice guide and our expert tips. To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account


How kids with autism fit in 10 school types

On this page:

Small school (150 students or less)

Smaller schools with small classes normally provide lots of individualized learning, structure, and one-on-one support, which students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often need. Some also offer learning environments (and special education staff) that directly support autism, such as dedicated classes, part-time withdrawal classes, and classes with breakout groups. 

“Students with autism tend to do well in smaller school settings,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “These students may feel a sense of comfort and ease in knowing that all of the staff know them and understand their challenges. They can be supported in a trusting environment, and they won’t have to navigate as many social relationships with their peers and adults.”

However, keep in mind that some small schools won’t be able to accommodate kids with autism, especially if a child is on the higher end of the spectrum. Ask what kind of support is available, both in class and out, and how it will be delivered. For instance, “do you have an in-house psychologist to work with my child on their communication and interaction skills?”

Big school (151+ students)

Since kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) require special attention, ensure prospective schools have smaller classes with plenty of structure and one-on-one support, run by qualified special education staff. Depending on where your child falls on the spectrum, they may need a learning environment with direct support for ASD, such as a dedicated ASD class or a regular class with targeted ASD support. 

Many big schools offer a wide range of resources to support kids with autism (and other special needs), such as educational assistants, psychologists, and social workers. Ask what’s available, focusing specifically on your child’s needs. For instance, “do you have an in-house psychologist who can help my child with their social skills?”

Coed school

A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for kids with autism, ask about a school’s social dynamic. 

Also, ensure a school has a learning environment that supports your child’s needs—one with lots of structure, one-on-one support, and, ideally, a low student-to-teacher ratio. This can be provided in a dedicated ASD classroom or a regular class, depending on where your child falls on the spectrum. Also, ask what kinds of out-of-class resources are available. For instance, if your child struggles with communication and interaction, they may need regular visits with an in-house psychologist or counsellor.

Of course, in a coed school, kids with autism will have opportunities to work with and learn from the experiences of both boys and girls. This can widen their outlooks and enhance their academic and social development. “Since research shows that boys and girls often approach problems differently, it can be beneficial to bounce ideas off and seek opinions from both genders,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting.

Girls' school

Make sure any girls’ school provides the right learning environment for your daughter, whether this is a dedicated special needs class, a class with breakout groups, or a regular class with personalized instruction and plenty of one-on-one support. “Most of these schools, however, look for girls who are independent and don’t require intensive support to function in the classroom,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. If you have a daughter with severe autism, some girls’ schools likely won’t be a good fit. 

Of course, in an all-girls’ school, your daughter won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help her focus on her studies. Also, in an environment often less shaped by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “boys are better at math and science,” she may feel freer to pursue her learning passions and shine in unchartered waters.

Boys' school

Make sure a boys’ school provides a learning environment that addresses your autistic son’s needs, such as a segregated class or a regular class with plenty of individualized learning and one-on-one support. Keep in mind, however, that “Generally, these schools look for boys who can function independently in the classroom,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. If your son is on the higher end of the autism spectrum, some boys’ schools likely won’t be able to accommodate him.

Of course, in an all-boys school, your son won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help him focus on his work free from potential distractions. Also, in an environment often less influenced by gender stereotypes and false narratives, such as “girls are more suited to the arts,” he may feel freer to pursue his learning interests and passions.

Montessori school

Many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. “Its close-knit, supportive setting can be empowering and reassuring for kids with ASD,” says Una Malcolm, director of Bright Light Learners. “‘Montessori schools’ focus on self-direction and individualized learning may also enable them to feel more comfortable taking academic risks.” 

That said, not all Montessori schools provide the right environment for kids with ASD. Some will require more supervision, structure, and one-on-one support than some Montessori schools provide. For instance, kids with poor executive functioning skills may struggle to function independently in some Montessori environments. Of course, since different Montessori schools have different teaching approaches and resource support, speak to school directors and staff to gauge whether your child is likely to be a good fit.

Reggio Emilia school

Some kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), especially those on the higher end of the spectrum, may require more structure and one-on-one support than some Reggio Emilia schools provide. Also, ensure these schools’ emphasis on group learning is the right fit for your child, as some kids with ASD prefer to work more independently. Speak to school directors and staff to get a sense of whether your child’s needs are likely to be met.

That said, the warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can help kids with autism connect with classmates, make close friends, and pursue engaging activities and projects. This is especially true if they’re on the lower end of the spectrum.

International Baccalaureate school

Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the individualized learning and one-on-one support many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need. Also, the highly academic nature of the IB Programme can be daunting for some kids with ASD, especially those with poor executive functioning skills.

That said, the IB organization requires authorized schools to have specially trained staff in both IB education and in meeting the needs of different learners. But, “What this looks like and how students are supported varies between schools,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “Ask what specific programs and policies they have in place to support your child.”

Language immersion school

Autism can sometimes make it difficult to learn all or most of one’s subjects in a second language, as language immersion programs require. For instance, autistic children with poor executive functioning skills may struggle to keep up with their peers in this setting. If a school doesn't offer targeted intervention or support for this issue, which most immersion schools won’t, this can lead to ongoing academic (e.g., literacy) problems and potentially compound some of your child’s challenges.

That said, kids with mild autism who enjoy and are good at the language arts may welcome the cognitive challenge of learning in a different language. If they’re strong academically and have strong enough executive functioning skills, a language immersion school can be a nice fit.

Boarding school

Make sure any boarding school has small enough classes to provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support kids with autism need. Also, since your child will be living away from home, ensure support systems are in place to keep them on the right track, academically and socially, and that they’re willing and prepared to take advantage of them. Your child will often need to advocate for themselves at a boarding school, and they’ll need the confidence and perseverance to do so.

Finally, “Consider whether your child will be comfortable and confident while living away from home, and while having to navigate the various, and sometimes unforeseen, social-emotional experiences, alongside the many academic challenges,” says Joanne Foster, education expert and author of ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids.

Students with autism’s school fit: key take-homes

  • Since kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) require special attention, ensure any prospective school, big or small, has smaller classes with plenty of structure and one-on-one support, run by qualified special education staff.
  • A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for kids with autism, ask about a school’s social dynamic.
  • Most boys’ and girls’ schools look for kids who can function independently in the classroom. Talk to school reps to determine whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
  • Many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will find the calm and quiet learning environment of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. 
  • Some kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), especially those on the higher end of the spectrum, may require more structure and one-on-one support than some Reggio Emilia schools provide.
  • Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the individualized learning and one-on-one support many kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need. Also, the highly academic nature of the IB Programme can be daunting for some kids with ASD, especially those with poor executive functioning skills.
  • Autism can sometimes make it difficult to learn all or most of one’s subjects in a second language, as language immersion programs require. For instance, an autistic child with poor executive functioning skills may struggle to keep up with their peers in this setting.
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