During my 5 years in the classroom it seemed like just the mention of inclusion for students with autism could incite hours of debate among teachers, parents and even administrators. In this post I'll be standing on my "Soap Box" and proclaiming to the world that children with Autism benefit from time spent with typically developing peers. However, there are several determining factors that should impact how, when, and why a student accesses the general education setting. Ok so here goes....one therapist opinion of a hotly debated topic.....
Why Is Inclusion Important?
The IDEA mandates that children receive special education services in the least restrictive environment possible. To put it simply, we don't want kids being seperated from typical peers un-nnecessarily. For children with Autism, this is especially true. Social Skills is one of the three main deficit areas for childen with Autism. They rely heavily on positive models of behavior to learn things like how to make friends, apropriate vs. inappropriate touching, reading social cues and non-verbal gestures...and the list goes on and on.
Hsitorically, many students with Autism Spectrum Disorders have been seperated from typical peers for the entire school day. This practice is counterproductive in that while students gain access to individualized instructional time...they loose access to time spent working on socials skills. What good is it for "Johnny" to learn how to count money, if he never learns how to conduct himself on an interview?...or "how to make friends in the workplace?" I think it's time for school disctricts to acknoledge that social skills education is crucial for all students on the spectrum!!
Is My Child Ready for Inclusion?
This is not always an easy question to answer...and the answer may be yes and no at the same time. Here are a few questions to condsider:
1. Does the student have behaviors which impede his learning or the learning of others?
Challenging or interfering behaviors can be a major barrier to inclusion time. However,
they should not automatically exclude a child from the general education setting for the entire school day. Unless otherwise specified in your district, you may request that the student be included in regual education P.E. or Music. These types of classes often provide great opportunites for social skills training for students who cannot comply with the high demands of typical classrooms.
2. Does the student imitate appropriate behaviors when modeled by a peer or adult?
If your answer here is yes....then you should definetely be pushing for access to the general education setting. Students who watch and learn from peers can be taught to cooperate and learn in a group setting. Consider starting small...perhaps just one academic segment or even just for thirty minutes spent in General Ed. The IEP team should create goals to monitor the students progress and gradually increase inclusion time as appropriate.
3. Can the student perform academic task at or close to grade level?
If your answer here is yes....keep pushing for more time with typical peers! But remember that Autism is a spectrum disorder and all cases will be different. Your child may be doing great academically but still have some behavioral or commmunicative barriers. The key here is to work closely with the IEP team to determine what accommodations and modicfications can help your student access the general education setting.
If your answer here is no....keep pushing for more time with typical peers! Just because a student cannot do the same academic task as his grade-level peers, does not mean he or she does not benefit from time spent in a regular ed setting. As I stated before, the IEP team should consider segments that are less academically challenging. The student can also be given modified assignments to bridge learning gaps with typical peers.
Preparing a Child for Inclusion
As a behavior therapist and school consultant, I am often designing programs to teach students "school readiness skills". As you consider your child's participation in general education, think about the skills they will need and teach them at home or in the special education classroom.
Here's a quick list of some "inclusion-readiness skills" that you can start working on:
-sitting at a desk for extended periods
- raising your hand
- attending to a speaker
- asking for help
- taking turns
All of these skills may not come "naturally" to students on the spectrum. However, with the consistent application of research based interventions (I RECOMMEND Applied Behavior Analysis!)...a child can learn the skills they need to function in an inclusive academic setting!!
Preparing Educators for Inclusion
Here's a great video that demonstrates what happens when school personnel embrace students with Autism rather than fearing them. ALL STUDENTS deserve the opportunity to work with all kids! Today's school districts have to provide staff with training and support for educating students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. (Check out our Consulting page for more info!)
As school administrators and teachers reach higher for differentiated intructional strategies..... children with communication, social and/or cognitive deficits can gain greater access to the general education setting.