THERE IS NO PLACE CALLED
by Dr. Cathy Pratt
It is not unusual to hear professionals discuss
inclusion in terms of inclusive students, inclusive classrooms,
or inclusive schools. Unfortunately, these terms lend to the confusion
surrounding inclusion. Inclusion is not a student, a classroom,
or a school. Rather, inclusion is a belief that ALL students, regardless
of labels, should be members of the general education community.
As members of the general education community,
students with and without disabilities should have access to the
full range of curriculum options. This means, for example, that
students without disabilities should be able to utilize resource
rooms without receiving a label first. It also means that students
with disabilities should have access to typical homerooms, general
education classrooms and courses, and school clubs.
Those who support inclusion acknowledge that students
have diverse learning needs and that the traditional model of education
increasingly is not able to accommodate all students. The philosophy
of inclusion encourages the elimination of the dual special and
general education systems, and the creation of a merged system that
is responsive to the realities of the student population.
Today, the controversy over the appropriateness
of inclusion for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders continues.
Much of this controversy is based on diverse interpretations of
the law and of current thinking. However, several basic premises
behind the concept of inclusion are often overlooked in these discussions.
First, students with and without disabilities do not fall into neat
categories of educational need.
Stating that a student has autism, Asperger's
syndrome, or other pervasive developmental disorders does not paint
an exact picture of the supports or services needed. It was never
the intent of either federal law (Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act) or state regulations to base curriculum and
placement decisions on categorical labels. The law clearly states
that programming and placement must be individually determined.
Second, the least restrictive environment mandate shows a clear
preference for educating students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
and other disabilities in general education settings. The law articulates
that students must receive needed supports and services within the
context of the regular classroom.
When these accommodations are insufficient to
insure educational success, then students can be placed in more
restrictive settings. However, the responsibility is placed on the
school to show that sufficient and appropriate resources were accessed
and were unsuccessful in supporting a student's education in a regular
classroom setting. Finally, the law states that students must have
the opportunity to interact with nondisabled peers. Clearly, segregated
settings do not promote these opportunities and place teachers in
the position of having to create artificial options.
Unfortunately, the debate about the benefits of
inclusion versus segregation misses one critical point. Neither
general education nor special education settings are inherently
good. Placement in a general education setting does not mean that
a student is learning valuable information. And segregation does
not equal quality programming. The failure of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in general education settings can be attributed
to strategies and classroom structures that make learning difficult
for all students.
It is clearly time to get past the arguments surrounding
inclusion and focus our efforts on teaching students what they need
to know and in a manner that is effective. Interestingly, these
are the same concerns expressed by the general education community.
In reality, inclusion is not a special education issue. For schools
to successfully support students with diverse learning needs, special
education reform must be viewed within the broader context of school
Schools which are focused on improving outcomes
and on preparing students without disabilities for meaningful and
productive lives are in a better position to address the needs of
students with disabilities. In other words, good schools are good
schools for all. And good teachers are good teachers for any student.
It is within the context of global school restructuring activities
that educators can better focus their efforts on supporting students
with Autism Spectrum Disorders in gaining maximum educational benefit
from the general education setting. Below are a few recommendations
to guide these efforts.
First, educators need training. Too often, teachers
are presented with students for whom they are unprepared to teach.
Information is important since individuals with autism can seem
a paradox of strengths and weaknesses, and many develop false perceptions
of these individuals. At a very basic level, teachers will need
to know the primary characteristics associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
While it is important to ensure that information
is not stigmatizing to the student, teachers need to know about
any areas of difficulty, special talents, and other important information.
In addition to receiving up-front information, the instructional
team needs time to meet to problem solve strategies and to address
concerns. When teachers do not receive information and support,
both students and teachers are set up for failure.
Decisions to consider all students as members
of the school community must be made by the entire school community
with support from key administrators. When administrators are not
supportive of students' participation in the school community and
the changes this requires, teachers are placed in the position of
bargaining for every bit of assistance. In addition, parents must
spend time each year working aggressively with the school to ensure
continued success. Schools which systematically accept and support
all students are better prepared to support students with autism,
Asperger's, and pervasive developmental disorders.
When choosing courses in which to involve students,
consider areas of interest and situational demands (e.g., open spaces,
lighting). When building a schedule, it may be helpful to intersperse
easy and difficult coursework, or allow students to spend certain
parts of the school day in a smaller classroom area. In all cases,
make sure students experience some successes during the school day.
If the demands of the school day become too intense, it may be necessary
to provide the student with a safe area in which to escape. Some
may learn best when exercise or physical activity are available
throughout the day.
The trend toward educating students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in local neighborhood schools requires the adoption
of innovative and flexible instructional strategies to ensure that
educational objectives are met and that students are supported across
a diverse array of educational settings. Innovative strategies such
as multi-age grouping, cooperative learning, authentic assessment,
instruction which acknowledges the concept of multiple intelligences,
differentiated instruction, thematic approaches, whole language
instruction, and other innovations found in the general education
community present a positive framework for teaching students with
Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Peer support programs are another innovation used
to ensure that students get the maximum benefit from their school
day. Peers are a natural and readily available resource for supporting
students with learning difficulties in general education settings.
Research and practical experience indicate that students learn best
from each other. Students will often get together in a study group.
Students who are doing well in a subject area often help friends
who are struggling to prepare for an exam. Some schools have building-wide
programs in which tutoring and cooperative learning are established
practice, and students change roles between tutor and tutee as the
situations demands. Clearly peer support programs can serve as a
critical resource for any student who is challenged by some aspect
of the school curriculum.
Students must receive an adequate level of support
during the school day. While peer support programs provide one mechanism
for support, instructional assistants provide another. Assigned
assistants will need information on providing instruction in a manner
that is easily understood by students. It is helpful if instructional
assistants are not always closely positioned next to the student.
Rotating assistants and positioning assistants away from the student
are important strategies for avoiding cue dependency. While different
assistants can be used, adopted strategies must be consistent. Allow
instructional assistants time with the team to discuss approaches
that work and those that do not.
The general education setting can be less stressful
if students are provided with information about expectations and
rules. In most cases, this information should be presented in a
written format so that the student can rehearse at his or her own
pace, and refer to it as needed or when under added stress. Provide
students with visual supports to assist with following a daily schedule,
identifying classmates, completing homework assignments, getting
to class prepared, and using self-control.
Many voice a concern about whether inclusion can
work. Success stories from around the country provide testimony
that students across the autism spectrum can learn in general education
settings if students' time is wisely used, sufficient support is
provided, all are informed, and proven methods of instruction are
adopted. If all these factors are addressed, implementing an educational
program which reflects the philosophy of inclusion can prepare young
people with Autism Spectrum Disorders to be members of a place called
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
resources. Click here for the full range
of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories at www.autism-help.org