The transition to preschool may be harder on parents than it is on children. This might be the first time a stranger is caring for your child. This is especially hard for parents of children with autism. You want to be sure the school understands your child's needs and can provide a quality education. There isn't one right preschool for children with autism. The best choice for you will depend on your child's capabilities and personality, the schools in your area and your family's needs.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a "free appropriate public education" to children with disabilities, including autism. This means children with autism can attend public preschool at no cost to the family, even if parents of typical children often have to pay for it. You will work with representatives from the school to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed specifically for your child to provide her with an appropriate education. The magazine "Education Week" notes that education doesn't just flow from the teacher to students; children with autism can help their classmates improve their own social skills as well as their sensitivity to others.
Parents concerned with overburdened, underfunded public schools might look at private schools as an alternative. However, it's important to understand that private schools are not subject to regulation under IDEA. They are still required to provide some accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the ADA is more about wheelchair ramps and Braille signs than it is accommodating a student's educational needs. In addition, private schools are not free, which can be an important deciding factor for cash-strapped families. That isn't to say schools won't accommodate children with autism, but be aware they don't have to.
Private special needs preschools are also not subject to IDEA, but these schools are designed specifically to meet the educational needs of students with autism or other disabilities. Autism schools may focus more on the disability than public school, and that can be positive or negative. Some parents think that schools devoted to autism do a better job of helping their children develop while others feel that the schools focus too much on the disability over the general well-being of the child. Some children attend autism preschools to learn the skills needed to join the public school system later, while others remain in the schools throughout their education.
Nobody knows your child like you do, so who would be a better teacher? According to an article by the learning disability charity LD OnLine, it might depend on your personality as well as your child's needs. The article points out parents who are perfectionists, disorganized or easily frustrated might be better off letting a school handle their child's education. Children with autism who have sensory sensitivities can learn better in a calmer home environment but others thrive in a more social learning environment.