Tricia Hasbrook founded Victory Academy after struggling to find a good fit for her own autistic son. She says teaching autistic students is about breaking down tasks, providing positive reinforcement and following specific instructional strategies.
"The world around them might feel very chaotic," Hasbrook says. "So we teach them sensory regulation skills and social cognition, so that they can have purposeful relationships throughout their life."
Hasbrook acknowledges that a lot of these kids have nontypical behaviors or ways of interacting with the world that aren't going to change. But the teachers meet the kids where they are and give them the tools to pursue what they want out of life.
"They get an environment that they feel is safe — sometimes to act out, or to be their very best selves, and shine here," Hasbrook says. "I think that a separate school for children with autism is an amazing thing."
Ari Ne'eman, who heads the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, disagrees. "Segregated schools lead to segregated societies," says Ne'eman, who is also a member of the National Council on Disability. "Inclusive schools give us the opportunity for inclusive societies."
Ne'eman says that many segregated schools and classrooms — like the ones he attended — have what he calls a culture of low expectations. But even ones that don't can still create hurdles, he says.
Wayne Sailor, director of the SWIFT (Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation) Center, funded by the Department of Education, is working on a new model of inclusive education — one where special education and general education teachers work together as a team.
In a fully integrated school, Sailor says, kids with autism may have a very complex schedule to help in meeting their specific needs. And all students get different tiers of assistance — whether it's a bit of personal attention, or engaging with the whole class or helping the student next to them.