Like me, you may have been told that your child needs to be in a school setting with other children to be socialized. Let's consider for a minute what kind of social skills a child with autism may learn in school.
1. In a school or classroom setting, your child is exposed to both positive and negative socialization. This isn't really debated by any of us who have been in school. The question is whether or not the "good" socialization outweighs the "bad" socialization.
2. There are typically two placements for children with autism when it comes to schools. Each comes with its own drawbacks as far as social skills are concerned.
For those who are lower-functioning, there is the special ed classroom. If your child is placed in a special ed class, they may actually pick up negative behaviors from the other students. Children who have never said a bad word in their lives come home with all sorts of words that the parents know they didn't teach their child. Or maybe a child who wasn't aggressive previously starts imitating the hitting, biting, or screaming of a classmate. That's not what I think most parents are hoping for when they are told to put their child in school to learn social skills.
If your child is higher-functioning, they may be mainstreamed in a regular ed classroom. Will the typical behaviors of their peers be the positive socialization you hoped for? Unfortunately, many times children with autism become an easy target for bullies who cause them physical and emotional harm. Other classmates, who may be nice enough themselves, may still go along with cruel jokes or name calling at the expense of a child with autism just because they don't want to be ostracized from their peers. Whether it's bullying, teasing, or isolation, children who are "different" and don't possess the same social abilities as their peers often experience great difficulties just trying to survive a day at school. These children often exhibit signs of tremendous stress and anxiety, depression, and some even contemplate suicide.
So are there any alternatives? Families who are concerned about the educational and social well-being of their children often choose to teach them at home. Home-schooling offers a better opportunity for positive socialization while drastically limiting the possibility of negative social experiences. Home-schooled children are not isolated or "unsocialized". Home-schooling simply provides the opportunity for parents to expose their children to a variety of social situations when they feel their child is ready to handle them. Most communities have home-school groups that offer park days, sports teams, special classes or lessons, as well as informal get-togethers for home-schooled children.
It must be noted that children with autism do not learn social skills simply by being with typical peers regardless of the setting -- school or home. In order to master social skills, autistic children require specific instruction and opportunities to practice skills first in settings with one other child, then with two children, then in small groups, and then in large groups. To place a child with autism into a classroom situation (or any group situation) and assume that they will learn beneficial social skills just because other children are present is not supported by research or real life (See point #4 in the open letter from Dr. Ivar Lovaas, autism expert, at http://featbc.org/why_lovaas/letter.html).
Common sense tells us that we don't teach a child with autism to swim by throwing them into the deep end of a swimming pool and telling them to start swimming. Likewise, if we want children with autism to "swim" in the social world, we can't just put them in a situation that virtually ensures their failure. We must teach them step-by-step and give them plenty of time to practice their social skills in a supervised setting. We can accomplish this via one-on-one play dates with peers, social skills small groups, sibling/parent relationships, community outings, etc.
So the next time someone suggests that you should put your child with autism in school simply because of their need for socialization, consider exactly what that means for your child. There's not much compelling evidence to suggest that inclusion in school settings is accomplishing positive socialization or excellence in education for most children, especially children with autism. We can do better at home.