“Having a child with autism is a marathon, and I made the mistake of sprinting through [my son’s] early years.”
Liz Strong, parent of a child with Autism, writing for Good Housekeeping
Autism is not a discrete disorder, but a spectrum of a mental condition known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), usually present from early childhood, and characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts. In layman’s terms, ASD occurs when a child has trouble communicating and understanding what people think and feel. This makes it very difficult for autistic children to respond to gestures, facial expressions, touch and even language. ASD children have all the same feelings as others, they just can’t perceive them as easily in others.
The spectrum of a disorder like ASD ranges in severity from it’s least impacting form, Asperger’s Syndrome (which is still quite debilitating, though children at this end of the spectrum are high functioning), to its most severe manifestation, Classical Autism (characterized by extreme delays in both verbal and non-verbal communication skills, sometimes even years behind traditional development). In between, in order from least to more severe, are Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Rhett’s Syndrome.
“Boarding school sounded extreme and foreign…[despite the extreme and foreign nature] of [my son’s] violent rages, his inability to follow directions, his trouble interacting with other kids, and our [family’s] terrible isolation…I didn’t know how or if [we’d] be able to summon the energy every day for the rest of our lives.”
Liz Strong, cont.
What a Good School for Boys with Autism Looks Like
A good school or treatment program for boys with Autism has both medical and educational staff on board, including doctors (especially if medication is involved), psychiatrists, special education teachers, and ample licensed therapy support (providing one-on-one help).
Besides speech therapy, auditory training, facilitated communication, and sensory integration therapy, and even behavioral approaches and family participation, key ingredients in a school for children with ASD include: Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication related handicapped CHildren (TEACCH), Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Differences (DIR), and Complimentary Alternative Treatments (CAM).1
Most importantly, above all else, make sure the school or program you are considering is good for your child. Talk to your child’s doctor. Talk to local therapists. Review the national Boarding School Directory online. Consider also the cost, and see if scholarships are available. Try to stay local, but if need be, you may have to go to the “ends of the earth” to get your son or daughter the help they need. Call the programs that look promising. Ask lots of questions. And visit in person, if nearby.
Over 80% of children diagnosed with ASD never grow up to function as independent adults.2 This is by and large true because parents all too often wait too long to get treatment, and then when they “pull the trigger” and finally get their loved one into a program, it is not a good fit for their child. It is crucial to act as early as possible and to be careful about the therapeutic program you choose. Both make a bigger difference than most realize.
“His absence is painful, but when I see even small changes in his behavior–greater flexibility, less arguing ad infinitum is he’s told “no”–I feel we’ve done the right thing.”
Liz Strong, cont.
Was It Worth It?
In the final analysis, it was well worth the sacrifices made, concluded parent Liz Strong. Liz and her family waited four years after their son’s initial diagnosis and boarding school recommendation as his autism, ADHD, ODD, and sensory-processing issues primed him for an epic meltdown.3 Liz lost her job at one point in the process, gained weight, became depressed and divorced from her husband. Still, her son eventually began to perform well in a structured educational setting, and with a lot more time and even more patience and support with her son participating full time in a residential therapeutic environment, he also began to behave much less problematically at home.
“…[my son needed] more than a village to raise him…he needed ‘extreme parenting’…[but in the end it was mostly an extreme] act of love…”
1 “What’s the Best Treatment for Asperger’s Syndrome?” Mark Hutten, M.A., My Asperger’s Child.
2 “Boarding Schools for Students with Asperger’s Syndrome,” Boarding School Directory.
3 “I Sent My Autistic Son Away to Boarding School,” Liz Strong, Good Housekeeping, 2018.