By Keith Loria
Inclusive classrooms have been a highly debated topic among educators for years.
Experience with the diversity of the world is crucial. This holds as true for people with autism as it does for people with other disabilities and people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, religions and more.
“As the number of people identified with ASD increases, each of us will know more and more people,” says Dr. Leslie Daniel, an associate professor of special education in Radford University’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership. “It will serve us well to understand differences are just different—not necessarily deficient. It may also help to control the ever-expanding numbers of people with the label. Maybe we need to rein in the elastic band of diagnosing, and instead figure out different ways of supporting each other and living together.”
Ruth Falco, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University and directs the Center on Inclusive and Effective Educational Practices. The center provides inclusive services to children with autism and assures that they are able to learn in the least restrictive environment. The goals are to work toward developing effective relationships with others.
“Many students with autism have demonstrated the ability to have some success in learning some academic skills, and the place where students should have access to learning academic skills is in the general education class,” Dr. Falco says. “A great deal of research has shown that access to the general education classroom can make a significant difference in a student with autism’s opportunity to learn skills and see positive outcomes and performance.”
Additionally, because two of the core areas needed for those with autism are communication and social skills, an environment with peers is the best opportunity for them to learn these important skills.
“If you put all the students with autism in one class, you would have a whole class of students who have difficulty with communication and social skills, so they can’t help each other very well,” Dr. Falco says. “But if they’re in a classroom with their typical peers, those who are the same age, that gives those with autism a much better chance to learn those skills, which is so important for life and being a part of the community.”
Dr. Daniel notes that quality inclusive educational environments provide opportunities for children to learn and develop social-emotional, communication and language skills.
“These quality environments allow students to learn academic skills from teachers trained in the content,” she says. “Academic content may be more challenging and expectations may be higher in inclusive environments as opposed to environments isolated to those with disabilities.”
Inclusion does not mean a student with ASD is simply placed in a class and “allowed” to be present. Rather instruction must be meaningful, relationships must be fostered and social skills must be taught and practiced.
That’s why, when it comes to the inclusive classroom, it’s important that a student’s parents and family get involved to help enhance a student’s participation in the program.
“Families have a lot of important information to share with schools about their understanding of their child’s strengths, interests and their understanding of their needs,” Dr. Falco says. “For kids with autism, it’s really important to know what they are interested in because that could be a great motivator for them to learn other things.”
They should likewise listen to school staff about how their child communicates, socializes and experiences autism in the school environment. Teachers, staff and parents should share the successes and challenges and problem solve together, as it’s the collaboration that will make the experience a success.
The Role of the Educators
Inclusive teaching requires a commitment from the teachers and staff to develop effective plans for students with disabilities. Some situations may include the presence of an aide or special education teacher in the classroom making the appropriate accommodations and modifications.
“Inclusive teaching is an art. The goal is for everyone involved with the child to interact and work together,” says Dr. Barry Birnbaum, special education specialization coordinator, PhD in Education Program, at The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University. “This is one of the reasons why collaborative teaching is important. All parties must work together to assure that each child is learning.”
General educators should know the content and how to universally design instruction, but may need the individualized knowledge that a special educator possesses. When these two types of teachers collaborate and co-teach an inclusive environment is optimized.
“Special educators are not typically content specialist—nor should they be—but they should have an understanding of the content,” Dr. Daniel says. “Special educators should further know how to universally design instruction to meet all learners’ needs, how to modify and accommodate when lessons are not universally designed, understand how to differentiate, and know research-based methods that often work for certain characteristics of disabilities.”
The Rights Via IEP
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school districts are responsible for developing and implementing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each of their children with disabilities. The State educational agency is responsible for ensuring that each school district develops and implements an IEP for each child with a disability, and for otherwise ensuring that the requirements of IDEA are carried out.
If a child has an identified disability that impedes their learning, an IEP mandates what that child needs in order to benefit from their education. Present level of performance, goals (and objectives if appropriate) and how they’ll be evaluated, accommodations/modifications, services and transition plans are written into an IEP.
This IEP is the roadmap that should be followed legally to help the child succeed.
“An IEP should protect a student from discrimination—i.e., the general education environment is the environment for all students,” Dr. Daniel says. “If a school team wants to suggest a different environment, they must explain why. The answer cannot be anything like, ‘Kids with ASD go to the autism class.’ Or ‘Ms. So-and-So understands autism and she teaches in a self-contained classroom.’”
Inclusion in school is one part of facilitating inclusion in more environments—including work environments. People with autism are notoriously under-employed and a greater knowledge about autism from others may help with this.