Is a Special Needs School or Mainstream School More Suitable for My Child with Autism?


"Not every child learns for the same purpose, not every child thrives in the same settings and schools. Limiting a child to just one opportunity does nothing more than limit that child’s future." - Rick Perry

One of the, if not the, best gift a parent can give to their child is education. As children approach the age of seven and move on to the next phase in life, parents with children with ASD may start to ask themselves whether they should enrol their child in a special needs or mainstream school. It is normal and valid for parents to ponder over this decision as it will impact a child’s development in the next decade or so. However, fret not, as we are here to share more information about both special needs and mainstream schools, and how the different school environments can impact your child, to aid you in your decision-making.


Mainstream Schools

Mainstream schools cater to children with mild special educational needs who are able to learn in large group settings. With a class size of about 40 students, teachers may not be able to give their undivided attention to each and every child. Hence, there are teachers trained in special needs and allied educators in Learning and Behavioural Supports who come into play.


These teachers are trained to understand special needs on a deeper understanding and how to differentiate the curriculum to meet their needs. On the other hand, allied educators are trained to develop and implement individual education plans for special needs students who require extra help, and plan “pull out” lessons for them where more attention and support is provided. Allied educators also work with teachers and educate them on how they can better support these students in their classes. However, it is important to note that only about 10% of teachers in primary schools are trained in special needs, and there are about two allied educators in each primary school.


Special Needs Schools

Special needs schools cater to children between 7 to 21 years old who have moderate to severe disabilities. Currently, there are more than 20 special needs schools around Singapore with a majority of them offering autism-focused programs. These schools are staffed by special school teachers and teaching assistants who take on a class of 10 to 14 students to ensure more attention and support is provided. Moreover, these schools have enhanced facilities, such as sensory integration rooms and therapy rooms, to support your child’s learning needs.


There are two types of curriculum – customised and national. In the customised curriculum, individual education plans are developed to cater to your child’s needs and abilities to ensure holistic learning. This route prepares students for future employment upon graduating at the age of 18 by providing job training and matching them with employment. Alternatively, they may pursue certificate programs at selected schools which allows them to progress to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) thereafter.


Students who meet specific criteria in the cognitive and adaptive skills domains may opt for the national curriculum which is available in selected schools. Apart from following the curriculum in mainstream schools, students will also receive support in developing other areas of skills like daily living and social-emotional skills. Upon completing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), students have the option of moving on to a mainstream secondary school or to continue their secondary level education at Pathlight School.


Potential Outcomes

There have been arguments both for and against the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools. Some studies have found mainstreaming to beneficial for special needs students, where they showed improvements in academic as well as social-emotional domains, and the empathy and acceptance toward students with special needs increased. Unfortunately, studies have also highlighted the issues of stereotypes and negative implicit beliefs that might be present among peers and teachers. These beliefs can and have led to bullying and marginalisation of students with special needs which in turn, took a toll on their self-esteem.


If you are still unsure about which school would be best suited for your child, there are school readiness and school placement assessments available to help you in the process. These assessments are available at KKH Department of Children Development, NUH Child Development Unit, and some EIPIC (Early Intervention Program for Infants and Children) centres. School placement assessments can also be conducted for those already enrolled in a school if it does not seem to be a good fit for them, so do not worry about your decision being an irreversible one.


All in all, school should be an enjoyable experience for any child where they can learn and grow with their fellow peers, and with the support of their educators. Every child develops at their own pace and walks their own individual path. Thus, it should not matter if they take the road more or less travelled by, as long as it is what is optimal for them to prosper.


References

Dutt, A., Lim, L., & Thaver, T. L. (2019). Behavioural Support in Singapore. In Behavioural Support for Students with Special Educational Needs (pp. 115-125). Springer, Singapore.

Ministry of Education Singapore. (n.d.). Choosing a school with the right support. https://www.moe.gov.sg/special-educational-needs/school-support


Ministry of Education Singapore. (n.d.). Curriculum in special education schools. https://www.moe.gov.sg/special-educational-needs/curriculum


Teng, A. (2020). Allied educators who support students with learning needs will have more career opportunities. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/allied-educators-who-support-students-with-learning-needs-will-have


Weng, C. S., Walker, Z. M., & Rosenblatt, K. (2015). Special education teachers, attitudes toward including students with SEN in mainstream primary schools in Singapore. Asia Pacific Journal of Developmental Differences, 2(1), 63–78. https://doi.org/10.3850/s2345734115000216