It seems that there is a popular belief system that only "high functioning" kids with ASD can be served in inclusive classrooms. Many stakeholders including parents of kids with ASD, special education teachers, general education teachers, and administrators share this belief. I am going to go out on a limb here and challenge those of you who believe that inclusion is only for "high functioning" kids to read further and see if I can persuade you to think about it differently. Regardless of ability and functioning levels, all children should have opportunities to be included in general education classrooms to learn alongside their typically developing peers. The learning opportunities that take place in general education classrooms cannot be replicated in self-contained special education classrooms. The question that often comes up is this: "How do you know when you should place a student with autism (or any other disability for that matter) in an inclusive classroom?" While my first instinct is to say, "All kids should be included in general education classrooms," I know that answer doesn't cut it.
First of all, our federal special education law requires that we provide a continuum of services with emphasis on the least restrictive environment. Thus, only providing "full inclusion" in public school systems actually goes against federal requirements. With that said, I feel that students are often placed in much more restrictive environments than they should be. The continuum of services should consist of necessary services and supports provided at the inclusion level (as opposed to using a "sink or swim" model). Meaning, we need to be putting supports in place in inclusive classrooms to ensure that more and more students can be successful in general education classrooms. These supports can consist of a variety of things including, but not limited to, special education teachers engaging in co-teaching with general education teachers, paraprofessionals working in general education classrooms to provide additional instructional, behavioral, and social supports under the guidance of the teachers, effective differentiated instruction, implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports, augmentative and alternative communication supports, ABA interventions, and collaboration with related service providers such as SLPs, OTs, PTs, behavior analysts, etc. So, back to the question at hand..."How do you know when a student with autism should be placed in an inclusive classroom?" Here's my simple answer: When the supports necessary for the child to be successful are in place. But, the better question is this: "How do you determine if an inclusive classroom is meeting the needs of the child with autism (or any other disability)?" Here's my answer to that question:
1. When the child is making progress on the identified IEP objectives
2. When the child is making developmentally appropriate academic gains related to the general education curriculum (not necessarily performing at grade level)
3. When the child is able to accomplish numbers 1 and 2 above with their typically developing peers also making expected academic gains (Many people think that kids with disabilities cause too many "disruptions" in the classroom, and it is "not fair" for the typically developing kids. As long as the child's behaviors and needs to do not cause academic declines or lack of academic gains in their typically developing peers, we shouldn't assume that these "disruptions" are impeding learning. Data would have to show that.)
If the above three things are evident, clearly the inclusive classroom is the appropriate placement. If they are not evident, additional supports should first be considered. However, if the child is still not progressing academically and making gains towards IEP objectives even with all essential supports in place, that would be a time to consider if some special settings are necessary to address some (not all) of the child's learning needs. That's when the continuum of services comes in. However, any time spent out of the general education classroom should "be worth it." The student should be making meaningful gains that for a specific reason could not be addressed in the general education classroom.
This post may cause controversy, but I feel that the inclusion movement needs to start "running" instead of moving at a snail's pace. I know there are some places in the U.S. and other countries that have some progressive inclusive programming, but not nearly enough for us to ease up on our efforts to make more and more schools and communities meaningfully inclusive.
About the Author:
Deb Leach is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC. Her passion is working with families, educators, and community groups to help support the successful inclusion of individuals with ASD using principles of ABA and other evidence-based practices. Her focus is on finding ways to bring ABA interventions into the everyday lives of individuals with ASD to increase family, community, and school inclusion and reduce the need for segregated services. She provides training and consultation for educators, schools, school districts, caregivers, and community groups related to supporting individuals with ASD. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or visit her website at http://bringingaba.blogspot.com.