Home > Adults with autism, In Their Own Words > In Their Own Words – Public vs. Private School Debate: Do the Math

In Their Own Words – Public vs. Private School Debate: Do the Math

This “In Their Own Words,” is written by Glen Finland. She is the author of “Next Stop,” a memoir about raising her autistic son to adulthood and learning to let go.

Last year my autistic adult son David wrapped up twenty years of education, ten of them spent in private school, the other half in public school. And, hindsight being 20-20, here’s what educating a high functioning autistic son like David taught me. It’s simple mathematics: Send your kid to public school and keep your money in your wallet. You’re going to need it for what happens next—because what happens next is the rest of his life.

Parents of a young adult with special needs face an unending management of another person’s life over the decades ahead: housing, transportation, insurance, clothing, food, job coaching, medical expenses, and, of course, quality of life expenses like entertainment, vacations, and even pets. Think of how far the tuition fee of a single year of private school could go toward taking care of some of these expenses down the road. Now multiply that figure by twenty. The numbers will tell you if it’s a wise investment.

In public school with a good IEP, the services are free. They should be; you’ve already paid for them with your taxes. Your child will also learn in less of an isolated bubble—and yes—be forced to toughen up a bit by facing the real world struggles of life in the quicker moving mainstream. Don’t expect runaway success there. In fact, be prepared for regular bouts of failure. But no matter how painful the lesson, down the road your child will be that much better equipped for the the daily slights he’s sure to incur—those careless, casual assaults on his spirit that he will face simply for being differently abled.

For example, it has come to my attention that my 23-year old son is now a heavy tipper. These days he drives a 54-mile roundtrip each day to his job as a custodian at a federal office building outside the nation’s capital. He’s a good driver, but when he stops off for coffee along the way, he might pull out a $20 bill to pay for a single cup of java, then walk away. His generosity is not because he’s got such deep pockets; it’s because he wants to avoid the impossible math involved in the exchange and, even more, the eye contact that goes along with it. Whose pocket that leftover chunk of change ends up in is totally dependent upon the scruples of the particular cashier. It took me months to figure out where all his change was going and how to remedy the situation with a few five dollar bills, but these are the kind of real world surprises that continue to sneak up on us every day. This reminds me to be careful about who I allow to “keep the change” when it comes to planning ahead for my son’s future.

You know, it’s true what mothers have always said about the time with our children: “The days go by like years, and the years go by like days.” So go ahead and let your child ride the big yellow public school bus for now. It’ll do him no harm. And that way he can count on your really being there for him once school lets out for good.

“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to editors@autismspeaks.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.

  1. N Messmore
    September 24, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Ohio offers an Autism Scholarship which provides up to $20,000 per year for public school alternatives (from a list of approved providers including private schools, therapists and transportation). More information here: http://www.ode.state.oh.us/GD/Templates/Pages/ODE/ODEDetail.aspx?page=3&TopicRelationID=1540&ContentID=6678&Content=90188

    • Nicole Diorio
      September 24, 2010 at 11:13 am

      WoW! Great info from both Glen and especially “N.Messmore”. My daughter goes to catholic school and I can really use these resources in Ohio. THANKS!

  2. September 24, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Really great common sense here, Ms. Finland. The rest of your child’s life is a lot longer than the time they spend in school, and they do need some “bumps in the road” to deal with the outside world. It isn’t easy for any of us who love someone with autism, but we have to keep the faith that the rest of the world will see the positive in our kids.

  3. Dawn Lair West
    September 24, 2010 at 10:19 am

    My 7th grade, 11 year old son has Aspergers Syndrome – diagnosed when he was almost 8 years old. Except for preschool, he has spent the remainder of his education in private school. When his last school closed, my husband and I had to race to find him an environment where he would thrive. We found out that public school was not an option for him – too big, too scary and most of the time the staff is uncaring. We found a Lutheran school (and we are not Lutheran) where he is loves to go to school, is learning and being helped by the local public school for his IEP services. I realize that caring for a child with autism is expensive, especially when they reach adulthood, but that is is our jobs as parents – doing what is best for our children, either on the spectrum or not.

    I am not knocking all public school and some children do thrive in that environment, but for us it did not work (preschool was a nightmare). Bottom line is, every child is different and we need to do what is best or our child! :)

    • Michelle Behning
      September 24, 2010 at 11:08 am

      Hi, Dawn, I am so glad you spoke of our doing our best for our child! My husband and I are at a point where we aren’t convinced the public school’s Autism Program is cutting it. This is our second teacher and while the sentiment of negativity is gone, it’s still so hard. I can’t help but wonder if paying for private school is necessary at this point. How did were you convinced the Lutheran school would provide your son with the care he needed? Had they had previous experience with a child with Autism?

    • Cristie
      February 7, 2012 at 7:03 pm

      Hi Dawn! I am glad I ran into this article and was able to read your comment. I am hoping you can give me an insight and My son is 3 and has been attending a Lutheran preschool and he just loves it there! We had our IEP with the school district and they told us they suggests that we should have our son attend the school’s district preschool. The way I understood your post, does this mean we can still receive services even if he attends a private school? I felt we were just shoved and pushed to join their preschool and it made me feel that it’s there school or nothing…. please I hope you can share some of your insight

  4. September 24, 2010 at 10:55 am

    AMEN! Outstanding post! My son turns 18 next year…and I often wonder what his life will be like as an adult. This next phase of his life (and mine) are more of a mystery then the first 17 have been. I felt like I could really make an impact as a Mother of a High Functioning Autistic “child,” but how does the Mother of the adult Autistic Child manage?

    Thank you so much for sharing. :)

    • Jules
      October 18, 2010 at 7:07 pm

      This is a great story. Our public school experience with our 18 y/o daughter with PDD was outstanding and she went from 1/2 time special education to graduating with honors in regular classroom. Now that she is in college, we are finding that we have to be more of an advocate and the challenges are much bigger than public school – how to be an advocate, how / when to let her figure out time management on her own, helping her realize her capabilities, and yes, how to tip. Christina you are right – I did make an impact as a Mother of a High Functioning Autistic “child,” but how does the Mother of the adult Autistic Child manage?

  5. Traci
    September 24, 2010 at 11:09 am

    I made reply before reading your story. I guess my out look on Public vs. Private is a little different from yours. Mainly, because each of these kiddos have different abilities. Besides being physically and emotionally exhausted from dealing with the public school system my main goal for my son was to get him educated and recieve a well deserved diploma. I know that may not happen but if a private school setting gives him a better opportunity to achieve that then that’s what I have to try. There are only 25 students in the school but it is diploma track. We will see. He loves it and I’ve asked if he wants to go back to his other school and he says, NO WAY!!! So I guess we will be paying for private for now. Sure wish we lived in Ohio. Sounds like they get it!

  6. Traci
    September 24, 2010 at 11:12 am

    BTW…I totally see my son being a “big tipper” too. I sure hope he gets atleast simple Math down. He understands Geometry but basic Math is really tough. He’s gettng there. LOL

  7. Jennifer Reiter
    September 24, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Thanks so much for sharing that….we are just starting this journey with our daughter (she’s 3) and hearing all the stories is so helpful! There is not just one simple answer or one path to follow. The path to pursue is always focusing on what will best help Olivia . Hearing the stories of other parents who have traveled the road before us helps so much and makes the journey a little less overwhelming.

  8. charlotte Abanes
    September 24, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    My son started out in the public schools pre school everything went well he had a wonderful teacher and he excelled in many ways. We put him in public school for Kindergarten and the bottom dropped out. we found out that outword signs of autism with him are due to stress. They sent him in the hall to sit if he spoke out the teacher would make fun of him and put him down in front of the other students. He started flapping his hands at school spinning running from his Aid. Refusing to eat at lunch as it was too noisy so they isolated him at lunch time. He would sit on a bridge and rock and not try to communitcate with is piers at playtime. They told us he would alway struggle to pass. We were up there at least once a week for some reason. They asked us to up his ritalan and then we had a zombie.The aide accidently sent us her report and she put in there that her point of veiw he was just a spoiled brat. He missed the urinal and they made him clean it up. He was not completely toliet trained until almost 4 and when he was ready he did it over Christmas vacation and he never had an accident at home.
    We were lucky and he had a great grandmother and grandparents that helped us send him to private school. He did have some ajusting to do and social skills were still not the best but we saw no more outward signs of flapping hand the teacher said only at test timeshe would notice a little but not much. He then moved on to a bigger private school he still dealt with bullies but he also had friends that told him how to cope with it. He graduated this last year from High School with a 3.3 GPA. Recieved grants and a music scholarship. He has had a few bumps in the road at college but he is working it out. He made the chamber choir which is an honor as they sang at the White House last year. He called me on his way home from college he got a solo in the chamber choir for their next concert.
    I think it is everyones personal choice but I would not change a thing.
    My son will succeed and I believe it is because we pulled him our to public schools. He did get services from the state at the private school just not as many hrs but they had a resource teacher he could go to if he needed help.In college he is taking advantage of all their free services as tutors the writing and math lab. He just joined the Music club and I feel he will find some great friends with his mutual interests. At this point he is not sure where he is going but it has to have music in it wheter he chooses to teach or just sing he said God will lead him where he wants him.

  9. Jen
    September 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    I can understand the writer’s perspective, yet making a blanket statement that public school is the route every parent with an autistic child should take is a bit short-sighted. Each child and each situation is different. Parents really need to gauge which environment will best support their child’s education. I was horribly bullied through school in a small, rural public school setting, and only found respite when I attended college. I can tell you that my bullying experience drastically hindered my ability to learn and my self-esteem was at an all-time low–I will never ever be able to forget those dreadful 13 years (K-12). I did not want that for my children, so they both go to the private Catholic school in our small town. The school teaches good character values daily and the kids (and teachers) are really good with my son on the spectrum. My son is in a very small mainstream class of 5 kids and receives his IEP support from the public school and education agency.

    Last year we were told that if our son was going to continue having a paraeducator like he had from kindergarten through 2nd grade, he would have to go to the public school with class sizes around 30 students per teacher and would likely spend more time in the resource room. So, we worked with his teacher and paraeducator to develop more independent skills so he could stay in the small supportive class size at the Catholic school. Our hard work is paying off. We are now over a month without a para, and he’s doing very well. Since the teachers don’t have to worry about so many kids in a class, I am able to develop a relationship with my son’s teachers and we work together to help make both the classroom and home environments support our son’s challenges. I think this is key to our son’s progress and success. :)

    • mamatwo
      October 1, 2010 at 9:16 pm

      I totally agree with you Jen. My son is 8 dx of Asperger- plus and his self esteem has been stripped away little by little starting at age 3 yrs. teachers don’t always understand nor seem to want to understand that some children are different. I am also angered by how many people are so ignorant in this world today to not even know what autism is?? or even try to understand something about it. My son had much difficulty in public school for 2 years starting in kindergarten. He had HUGE amounts of anxiety/behavior issues which just kept snowballing and crushing his self-esteem even more. I could not watch him (6 years old mind you) go to school not 1 more day/ year crying everyday and resisting. We opted to go the private school route and do what ever we needed to do for his anxiety level and self-esteem to improve. I will do anything to help his self confidence!! We only take one day at a time. I am not thinking anything about 10 years from now or 2 years from now. I am in the moment of today and today I feel good knowing that my son got on his bus happy and came off his bus happy and that is worth EVERY penny in my world!!! I don’t feel he needs to be exposed to bullying/cruel kids to make him tough. He has enough issues to try and deal with. So if I need to work my butt off or do whatever he needs, it is my job to do this and has and will be my full time job forever!

  10. Dana
    September 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    As the mom of an 8 yr old Aspie I have to weigh in and say private school tuition is totally worth ANY sacrifice now or later, for US… Toughen up? I watched my daughter, in public kindergarden SHUT DOWN. She’s eat lunch in a corner, hunched over and miserable to avoid the choas of 300 bodies in her cafeteria all at once making noise and moving unpredictably. She’d sit on the bench EVERY recess, afraid to play. We went through the IEP process TWICE. Both times we were denied ANY services because she is “able to access the curriculum” and “performs academically above grade level.” No matter that she didn’t have a SINGLE friend. Or was terrified to go to the bathroom. Or was bored and acting out, and being put in the naughty corner for “inappropriate language” for telling her teacher that the work she was asked to do was “stupid and babyish and pointless.” Now she is THRIVING. She is in a school where her lunch period has 34 kids. Recess she runs and climbs and jumps and swings from onkey bars and plays tag. She has friends – ones she seeks out and ones who seek her out. And ones who let her be herself in all her Aspie wonder and glory. And she isn’t bored. And no more naughty corners!

    • mamatwo
      October 1, 2010 at 9:29 pm

      I feel your happiness Dana!!! Nothing feels better than knowing that your child can be the special child that they are and finding the right friends who appreciate her beautiful differences!! I can relate for my son has Aspergers and reading your past public school story put that horrible gut wrenching feeling in my stomach. Good-Luck!!!

  11. September 24, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for your posting. Very good common sense. My son is 13 and has been in the public school sysmtem since the age of 3. I often wonder if he would be better off in a non public school(specialized private school) butnow I realize that doing so may actually render him more “disabled” for the future.

  12. Jennifer Machado
    September 24, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Our public school gave us an aweful IEP. 40 minutes of therapy, when her doctor wanted 24 hours a week. I decided not to spend 9 years (k-8th grade) fighting with the district and try to make things less stressful for my daughter as well as my family as a whole. Stressed out parents do not make a happy home.
    We enrolled her in private school and are paying for the services that her doctors and i see as appropriate outside of school,and my medical insurance helps pay for that. I think her doctor and I are better qualified to make these decisions.
    Her private school is amazing, they don’t tolorate teasing and they are very supportive and loving. It’s a fantastic social environment.

  13. Barbara
    September 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    I totally agree but i had to switch schools for my son because he wasn’t learning anything in the regular public school. I just thank god that we have a special school here in East Hartford, CT for children with special needs. They take in kids here from all over CT. It is free but it was a long fight to get him out of the other school. He is finally learning and I don’t receive any more phone calls from anyone telling me that he is suspended again! I am so HAPPY!!! Woodland School.

  14. JamieLynn
    September 27, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    My child had a major case of austim, I needed to find a school/program that would the help with children that were autistic. I need to find a school for troubled teens. I researched many places around the area, and my neighbors gave me a referenced to west ridge academy in utah.

    • Ashley
      October 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm

      If you are looking for additional funding to help with tuition or costs associated with therapy – you can look at Carson Smith Scholarship (from the state office of education) if your child has/had an IEP in school and UHC’s child medical grant.

  15. Rathamani
    October 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    I am writing this with a desperate situation and need help. My son is 14 and is been in the public school system since he was 3. he is diagnosed with Autism/PDD. he is been in the past with typical peers with an aid assisted with pull out resource room for math and reading. He is now in the public high school with only self contained class. he says that he wants to graduate with his peers and eventually go to college. He is very motivated with his views and the placement he is in now has stressed him so much he is more restless and unable to concentrate. I need to do something . I am not sure how i can get things changed as the case manager is not being helpful. my son insists on staying in the same school and only change his classes. He also started to play hockey since age 11 and now he is a goalie. If he is in this kind of environment his desire of becoming a goalie to even high school will be out of the question. If anyone out there can help me find a way to help my son successfully complete his high school would be appreciated.
    Thank you all for reading and for your help and support.

    • mamatwo
      October 1, 2010 at 9:43 pm

      why don’t you call a IEP team meeting. He has an IEP right? You as the parent and your son have the right to request a team meeting at any time. You are in control of his IEP. You can also call your state of educational law and ask. you may want to ask an advocate what you can do also??

    • Barbara
      October 4, 2010 at 7:37 am

      They always say they want the child in the least restrictive environment (LRE). I had to fight for a more restrictive environment for my son. It’s kind of sad that we parents have to fight so hard. Just tell them you want the morst LRE for your child and good luck!!

  16. Ashley
    October 1, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Thank you very much for your insight into the public/private education mess! I sent my son to a private preschool (after the public school preschool failed to meet his needs), at the end of the year I was very unsure of where to place him in Kindergarten. In the end, I decided to try public school again as our focus this year is his SOCIAL development. I have been struggling with my choice, but reading this makes me take everything into consideration. Thank you.

  17. Dee
    October 1, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    My son was in private school for the first 4 years of school and was basically just going thru the motions of schoolwork with no social involvement with his classmates. He wanted friends but was always left out. Teacher always pointed out my son’s faults instead of anything a classmate had done. A friend of mine, who is a special ed teacher, finally convinced me to give public school a chance. I’m glad she did. He met other children who also had autism and formed a group of friends. He is now in Jr.High. He plays in the band. Last year he even decided to play basketball. Although he is not playing basketball this year, he is still in band. I know things will be harder as he grows older BUT I am so proud of what he has already done. Autistic children and adults face struggles that we can only imagine. But I also know that everyone will face struggles sometime in life. It is with the support and LOVE of family and friends that makes the struggle easier.

  18. Staci Nauman
    October 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Great information and SO true! My son is 24 and since graduating at the age of 21, getting supports and services is a struggle, to say the least. More often than not, I find myself saying, “If I had known then what I know now.” :)

  19. Aspiemom
    October 2, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Making a blanket statement about anything when it comes to autism is a mistake. Although the writer brings up some points any parent must consider, it all depends on the quality of the public school system AND the quality of its special ed services (not necessarily correlated). We started out in a fantastic public school system in one state where the objective for each child on the spectrum was to achieve the highest levels of social, practical and academic functioning they could. We moved to Tennessee and entered the school in our district that was reputed to be the best for special ed services, and found that the philosophy was to do the minimum required in the IEP, to simply keep the child from flunking out (and not to worry if social or practical skills were lacking, since these were not “academic” and therefore not covered by federal law), and if possible, to move as many kids off the special ed roster so they would no longer we covered by an IEP. (“Since your child is passing their classes, we have good news: we don’t have to ‘label’ them anymore — they no longer need an IEP.” Really? Are you telling me my second-grade, textbook-Aspie is “cured” if I will just sign something to relieve you of the burden of providing special services?) It was horrifying. A parent in a situation with an inadequate or uncaring public school system CAN fight them, but in the process, you lose precious time for your child that you can never get back. Not to mention the time and energy required by such a fight that is simply not available to a lot of us as parents of children with special needs. So moving to a private school that IS able to provide a better environment may be the best solution.

  20. Julie McIntyre
    October 4, 2010 at 7:23 am

    A responsibilty we have as parents of children affected by Autism and Austim Spectrum disorder is to make our public AND private better. It is up to us to lead and be the educators at times. We have to be the voice for our children inside the systems. Also, for the sake of children that cannot afford private school who will be affected by these disabilities in the future. Those children have even more limited options. It is hard and everyone has to do what is best for their own child in their situation. We are fighting a social justice issue here in many cases and the fight is bigger than our individual situations. It is a process indeed.

  21. October 13, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Is it possible that there is more than one perspective? If a student on the ASD struggles in a public school, why is it so often “because teachers don’t care”? Is it just possible that the teacher does indeed care: the teacher cares about the child on the ASD, and the EI students, and the ADHD, and the CI, and the low-performing student who was never read to as a child, and the student who has two highly educated, motivated parents at home. While it is correct for parents and ASD experts to advocate for their child, does the parent of a student on the ASD ever consider that there are more students in the classroom than their child? How many parents of ASD students know anything about EI, CI, OHI, ODD, or ADHD? You are the expert on ASD because of your situation and that is to be respected. But do you realize you are asking teachers to be experts on ALL of the above? Plus the “typical” student. Except, by most education literature today, educators are not supposed to think of any student as typical: they are all unique and are supposed to be treated as such. So, imagine a doctor whose job is to heal, just as a teacher is supposed to teach. Would you expect that doctor to treat the marathon runner, the football player, the broken leg, the shattered spine, the common cold, the brain aneurysm, the crushed pelvis, the hangnail, the psychotic, the sprained ankle, the headache, the lung cancer, and the (fill in the blank), all at the same time? And do so to the satisfaction of everyone involved? And do it all at once, just like a teacher does– not one at a time. Does every child deserve an education? Absolutely! But does anyone see what we’re asking teachers to do? Every day? In a class of 30? Of course special, private schools are more successful. No one would send the brain aneurysm to the general practitioner, nor would the hangnail go to the brain specialist. Crucify me for saying it, but at least acknowledge there is another side.

  22. October 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Whenever it comes to what’s the better environment for a child with autism, the answer has to be “It depends.” A better way to have written this is that for YOUR child, public school was a great decision because … it saved you money you’ll need to support him and because the cold, cruel school prepared him for the big cold, cruel world? Wait … I really hope there’s more to this story that I’ve missed …

  23. Bev
    April 8, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    This is a great article about how one family views their experience with the public school system as an aid to becoming familiar with the “real” world. Though one thing is for sure…this view will not and cannot be shared by all families on the spectrum because the spectrum is just to wide and vast. Making a blatant statement that private schooling is a waste of resources is wrong and out of line with common courtesy. I am the lucky/blessed mother of a five year old son who does not attend regular kindergarten and who will not be attending public school.Our son attends an Autism Intervention center here in Portland that has taught him skills/life lessons that he will use for the rest of his life at the tender age of 5. In September our son will be attending Victory Academy another autism school here in the Portland area. In 2010 I decided to give public school a try. I regret the tears and rejections my son encountered for 2 months. Though I am starting to understand more and more that all of us who have autistic children need to come together and demand an over-haul on special needs education for all of the children that will not have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of private schooling.It’s imperative that we aid all parents in understanding what’s best for their child might not always be what is least expensive. Lets educate one another in special needs law,rights as much as we can so that we can know without a doubt that our children are not being short-changed.Our Aspies deserve for the public school system to go above and beyond and not provide basic education.

  24. Cristie
    February 7, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Hi my son is 3 and started the LEAP program in a public school. He used to go to a private preschool, which he loved and not to mention the teachers are more involved and sharing towards the teacher. The program is great however, it seems that I have no control and not the lack of communication is getting into me. I’m wondering if anyone here knows if when I pull him out from public school and return him to his old school if he can still receive other services from the school district… any input can help

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