Choosing a school for your child can be daunting for any parent, but if you’re a parent of a child with autism, it can be even harder. According to the Dubai Autism Center, it’s important to remember that every child who’s on the spectrum will have a different educational journey. Don’t rush into the process and take your time while considering schools. Here’s what you should keep in mind while zeroing down on the right fit:
Evaluate the school environment
Schedule school visits to ensure you have enough time to evaluate different options. Talk to the school’s stakeholders including teachers, counselors and the school principal. Ask about ancillary support recommendations, learning aids, medical support, and flexible teaching methods. Examine the school’s anti-bullying policies and talk to the school staff about it.
Visiting the school will also help you get a sense of its culture. Ask to meet the person who will be your child’s teacher. According to Nicholas Orland, Managing Director of Autism Rocks Support Centre in Dubai, meeting your child’s prospective teacher is a big step. “Having a teacher that you not only connect with, but one who is also your child’s advocate is going to be the most important element of the school experience being a successful one,” he told Re:Set.
Take your child along with you to observe how they react to the school environment. It’s OK to schedule several visits until all your questions are answered.
Put things into perspective
Mainstream schools, as well as specialized schools for students of determination, have their pros and cons. Introducing a student of determination into a mainstream setting may make it easier for your child to tackle challenges like being comfortable in unfamiliar settings. However, a special needs institution may allow your child to meet other kids like them and adopt effective customized learning methods.
Talk to representatives from both kinds of schools and ask questions. For example, would it be possible to hire a shadow teacher for your kid? This is essentially a trained teaching assistant, who can help a student adapt. Get to know their credentials before you decide, though. “School shadows can be positive for your child, but they must be properly trained in terms of how they work with your child,” Orland said. According to him, if the teacher isn’t well-trained, the child may become too dependant on the shadow and won’t get to interact with their peers in a natural setting. Additionally, it’s important to examine whether the correct educational assistance is in place at the school.
“The advantage of the mainstream school is that the natural classroom dynamics serve as a platform for teaching your child critical skills,” he said. Some of these skills include following directions and taking turns. However, if your kid struggles with daily activities, the mainstream environment could cause more harm than good. Special needs schools can help prepare children of determination for a mainstream school environment.
“Unfortunately the stigma of autism is always present, and sometimes overshadows the child as an individual. It’s very critical for the school to get to know your child before any decisions are made regarding ancillary support recommendations,” Orland told Re:Set. He added that some schools may base their judgment on a preliminary diagnosis of the condition without proper assessment which can be challenging — the diagnosis does not define the child’s individuality and cannot fairly evaluate their needs.
Consider your finances
While shortlisting schools for your child, track your expenses. Fees at schools for children with special needs can be as high as Dh45,000 or more. Based on affordability, figure out a plan. It’s also worth looking into funding options. For example, the Developing Child Centre, Dubai, offers the Hibah fund to families in need of support. If you’re planning to hire a learning support assistant, keep their fees in mind. The costs of a shadow teacher, often to be paid by parents, may range from Dh2,000 to Dh6,000 or more every month. However, certain schools in the UAE assist parents in the process.
For UAE citizens, the government offers financial assistance such as full tuition support or cash up to Dh50,000 to low-income earners with children of determination. It’s worthwhile to make a list of long-term financial requirements while choosing a school.
Ask for help and know your rights
Reach out to other parents in your network. Talking to others about their experience will make the process easier. Refer to resources such as the Government of Dubai, Government of Abu Dhabi and the UAE Government sites for their sections dedicated to people of determination, read blogs from other parents and browse Facebook groups. If a school declines to admit your child, remember that UAE Federal Law. 29, which came into effect in 2006, requires every school to welcome applications from students of determination without discrimination.
While shortlisting schools, prioritize your child’s needs. “Parents have a 99% accuracy rate in my experience of making the right decision regarding their children. Remember, if it doesn’t feel right then it isn’t the right environment for your child.” Orland told Re:Set. “I wish I could give every parent trying to make this decision a big hug. I can’t imagine how hard it must be trying to decide where to send your child for school, and trying to do what is best for them.”