The Frustrating Journey Trying to Find a School for My Autistic Son

When moving to a new location, one of the first things a family with children does is check out the local school system. A school can often be a selling point (or a deterrent) to a family moving to a specific location. Unfortunately, this is understandable because public education often doesn’t look the same from one school district (or even school campus within a district) to the next.

For parents of children with exceptional needs, searching for a school can be even more challenging. In addition to finding a home in a great neighborhood with a great local school, families must also uncover whether or not that campus has the services their child needs. It may be likely that those services won’t be at the local neighborhood school.

My family lives in Central Florida, and our dream has always been to move to the West Coast. Now that my husband works from home, we realized we could make that dream a reality. We connected with a local realtor, visited the area and found the perfect neighborhood! It’s close to family, the professional sports we love, and to the water. This fantastic community checked off all the boxes – or so we thought.

Once back home, we contacted a local realtor to help us get our home on the market. The excitement began to build as we envisioned and talked about our new coastal lifestyle. That is until I started calling the local schools to see what programs they offered for autistic children.

My son is 6. Due to COVID, I homeschooled him this past year and kept him at his behavior therapy center. It was a great decision that allowed him to continue learning new skills before going to an autism charter school in the Fall. We were fortunate that he got a spot at this highly regarded campus, and after meeting the staff, we feel confident he’ll thrive there.

When we initially started looking on West Coast, the plan was to purchase a second home and move when our son aged out of the school at 5th grade. But after visiting the town and crunching the numbers of owning two homes, we decided let’s move now! I assumed finding a great school for him in the new community would be no problem. I was very wrong.

The first thing I did was to search the area for schools like the one my son is set to attend this Fall. The closest is a 40 minute drive from the community we’d like to call home. That would mean four 40 minute car rides per day, 2 hours and 40 minutes in the car per day. So that option quickly was taken off the table.

Next, I decided to call the local public school within the community. Because of the high level of supports my son requires, inclusion in a general education classroom isn’t an option. The local school doesn’t offer the support he needs. All three elementary schools in the area offer only inclusion. Children with needs like my son are sent out of the community. So, rather than being able to go to school with the children in his neighborhood, he would be sent to a school in a completely different city.

I don’t know why the public school special education system works this way. I just hope one day it changes. The law states that all children will have access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education, but it doesn’t state what that looks like or where they can receive it. For now, we will stay put and keep looking. Hopefully, one day we can live where we want to live, AND our son can receive the education he deserves within his own community.

Public schools were not designed with disabled children in mind. The system isn’t broken. It was built this way.

– Aaron Wright, author of Thirteen Doors

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.