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

September 24, 2010 33 comments

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.

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