Throughout my career I have often been asked by parents what sort of "school" or "special education daycare" their child with special needs should go to. As a therapist, I am often reluctant to answer questions like this. Speech-Language Pathologists, like all regulated health professionals, are accountable for the advice we give, and there isn't usually any scientific data on individual programs in our communities. Furthermore, not all Montessori programs are alike; not all church-based nursery schools are alike -- and individual programs change with staff changes, new management, etc.
But now there is at least some evidence to show that "mainstream" programs are appropriate for children with special needs. Parents who are forking out big money for specialty programs may be better off saving their shillings for other things their children need (like therapy!). Take a load off your already heavy shoulders and stop stressing out about which type of program to register your child in, since this article suggests it doesn't matter!
This makes sense to me as I have always thought kids learn best from their peers in the "natural environment". This means the playground, park, swimming pool, community event, mainstream school etc. I have seen many severely autistic children blossom in community programs, while others have continued to struggle even with the "best" programs money can buy.
A few years ago I heard Dr. Stephen Shore speak at the Geneva Centre for Autism International Symposium. If you have a child with autism and get the chance to hear him speak, I would highly recommend it. Dr. Shore was diagnosed with autism as a young child and was basically "written off" by the medical community who recommended he be institutionalized. Fortunately, his parents didn't agree with this and started doing the types of things we as Speech-Language Pathologists often do in therapy to help him learn to communicate and interact. Now Dr. Shore is a professor and internationally-recognized expert on autism who provides us with unique insights into the minds of autistic people.
Dr. Shore discusses (in an article reprinted here) a few memories about being placed in a mainstream classroom. This gives many insights about how helpful this can be. Dr. Shore recalls that his parents accepted who he was and that he was different, but also wanted to make sure he could function in society. Public school at the age of four seemed like the place to start. Granted, he would have benefited from teachers who recognized and addressed that modifications to the curriculum needed to be made to ensure his success. But, ultimately, the "mainstream" educational environment provided him with the exposure he needed to function in the "mainstream" world.
As a parent it is important you do what is best for your child and for your family. This may mean specialty programs and centres for your child with special needs. I urge you, based on the evidence in this article, as well as my own clinical experience, to consider mainstream educational settings for your child.