Back to School with Autism: Reading, Writing, and...Inclusion
Teresa J. Foden
IAN Assistant Editor
Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date First Published: September 30, 2008
The school year is in full swing. Health and emergency forms have been completed in duplicate; parents have performed the annual back-to-school-night waltz, squeezing into and out of child-size school desks; and many families have settled into the familiar routine of homework at the dinner table, carpools for children's after-school activities, and early bedtime. But for many parents of children with autism, the routine also includes close monitoring to ensure their children find a good fit in a diverse classroom.
Like other children with special education needs, many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) spend at least part of their day learning alongside their typically developing peers. Fully 80 percent of the children participating in the Interactive Autism Network's online research attend regular public school or a specialized public school for children with special needs. (See the IAN "Back to School" Report.) With a growing emphasis on inclusive education -- in the United States, formalized largely with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1997), which was reauthorized in 2004 and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act -- children with disabilities are far more likely to be placed in inclusive educational programs today than they were 20 years ago.1 2
What is inclusion, anyway?
"Often it's like -- I don't really like the extra attention." -- Secondary school student with an ASD 3
According to the Handbook of Developmental Disabilities, 4 the term inclusive education applies when a student with a disability is attending his or her home school and is placed full time in a general education classroom. Mainstreaming applies when students are placed in special education classes but "visit" general education classes for instruction and social activities with their typically developing peers. 5 However, the terms inclusion and mainstreaming sometimes are used to refer to the general education classroom. When citing research in which this is the case, we will use the term general education for the sake of clarity.
Including children with disabilities in regular education classrooms offers benefits to both the children with disabilities and their peers. A successful inclusion or mainstreaming program exposes the child with a disability to academic and social opportunities that reflect society at large. As for the typically developing child, he or she gets a firsthand opportunity to begin to understand the true diversity of individuals.
"[I]t is the gateway to full social inclusion," according to the author of a 2008 paper published in the British Journal of Special Education.6 "...[E]ducation is more than just another 'treatment.' It is the way that citizens are taught the values, understanding, knowledge and skills that will enable their full participation in their community."
Much of the research shows that while students with disabilities do benefit academically in general education classrooms, the most significant gains are made in adaptive behavior and social competence, according to the article "Inclusive Education" in the Handbook of Developmental Disabilities. 7 The authors concluded that evidence during the past 10 years consistently demonstrates clear educational and social benefits for students with developmental disabilities and their peers without disabilities. "[W]e believe that the long-term success of inclusive education will require the eventual elimination of separate systems of education for students with and without disabilities ."
In the eye of the beholder
"I'm upset every second, every second I've got tears in my eyes." -- Student
Far from calling for elimination of separate systems of education, other researchers maintain that the evidence to support inclusion in the real world is inconclusive. Following a review of more than 1,300 studies published in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere, 8 one author concluded, "The evidence from this review does not provide a clear endorsement for the positive effects of inclusion. There is a lack of evidence and, where evidence does exist, the balance was only marginally positive."
Researchers of another study, this one involving more than 100 high-functioning children with ASD in the United States, 9 characterized the body of positive research as "meager." Only tentative conclusions are justified, the researchers said, given studies demonstrating both benefits and risks associated with general education classrooms of children with and without disabilities.
Said one parent who participated in a 2001 U.K. study, 10 "Like any other fad, it is being evangelized as a cure-all. It isn't. It is terrific in some cases. In others, it is child abuse."
Perhaps the question then becomes: What makes a general education program work for all students? Some researchers are taking a closer look at the successes, searching for techniques that scaffold these efforts and provide support for teachers, parents, and students alike. Constructing classrooms to serve the needs of a diverse student population, including students with and without disabilities, is not a passive process.
An article published this year in the U.K.'s Support for Learning journal analyzed some of the more effective, evidence-based strategies used in general education programs that include students with ASD. 11 One of the keys to success, according to the author, is to address some of the stereotypes of autism; students with ASD may not rock, may not be emotionally distant, and may not have intellectual disabilities or be geniuses.
"Every person with ASD is different, and it is important to look beyond the label.... If we fail to see past the label, our expectations of what a child is capable of are bound to be lowered," according to the article. "[B]y creating a better fit between the school environment and the pupil with ASD, we are creating opportunities for him or her to succeed."
What works for students with ASDs?
"Sometimes I think I am normal, I'm treating this autism very well. I'm top of the class and doing very well and I've got a good future ahead of me and I've got a vocabulary, I've got very good friends." -- Student
The following, taken from the 2008 Support for Learning article, highlights the kind of strategies that can make the difference between success or failure of general education programs including students with ASDs. 12
Provide structure for students with ASD. Most students with ASD prefer routine and predictability; noisy and chaotic environments may leave these students on edge and unable to learn in the classroom. Creating schedules, especially visual schedules, can help students with ASD to better manage their anxiety. Some schools involved in the study "cherry-picked" quiet classrooms for students with ASD or allowed students to seek refuge in resource rooms and libraries when needed.
Promote understanding among class peers. According to the book Asperger Syndrome in the Inclusive Classroom, 13 "A little understanding and knowledge can go a long way to show other students how to assist easily, rather than ignore or taunt a student with Asperger Syndrome."
Teach social skills. Transform the hidden, abstract social rules of the classroom into concrete concepts that can be taught to students with ASDs. Use visual aids and prompts; provide scripts for students to practice; and send home activities to help the student practice new skills at home.
Adapt class work. Students with ASDs often struggle with abstract concepts across the curricula. Emphasis on building understanding through concrete teaching methods may help these students to succeed.
Successful strategies for inclusion adapt to the changing needs of all students in the general education classroom. As students leave elementary school for secondary school, for example, the gap between students with ASD and typical peers widens, which may call for additional supports.14 "[S]tudents with ASD, including those who are cognitively high functioning, require special supports and services if they are to keep pace socially and developmentally with peers in the mainstream."
Central to the ongoing debate of inclusion of students with ASD, as well as those with other disabilities, is the ideal of schools reflecting a larger inclusive society that tolerates -- embraces -- diversity. "Inclusive education is about embracing everyone and making a commitment to provide each student in the community, each citizen in a democracy, with the inalienable right to belong. Inclusion assumes that living and learning together benefits everyone, not just children who are labeled as having a difference." 15
Autism Speaks' School Community Took Kit, an information packet about how to best support students with autism in school. Download a chapter or the entire 203-page packet (PDF). Special sections address nearly everyone your child may meet on the way to school or at school, ranging from the bus driver to general education and special area teachers, office staff, classroom aides, school security, and peers.
Beach Center on Disability, a website that provides a detailed explanation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs the provision of early intervention, preschool, and school-aged services.
Organization for Autism Research's "Resources" web page, which includes "A Parent's Guide to Assessment," "An Educator's Guide to Autism," and "An Educator's Guide to Asperger Syndrome" to help parents and teachers in their efforts to educate children with ASD in the classroom.
In addition, OAR has produced a new video, Understanding Asperger Syndrome: A Professor's Guide. Designed to help professors understand the needs of their university students with ASD, this video is also a useful resource for students on the spectrum.