By Erica Kearney, M.A., BCBA, LABA
Can children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities benefit from being in a classroom with typically developing children?
The answer is, “sometimes.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment – to the maximum extent appropriate – with peers who do not have disabilities. This approach is referred to as “inclusion.” It is a more modern term than “mainstreaming” to describe merging special education with regular education classes, when it is in the best interests of the student.
For most families and educational teams, making the decision about inclusion for a child with special needs is not easy. Some of these students benefit from inclusion; some do not. The decision must be made on a case-by-case basis. There are many factors to consider:
Is the inclusionary environment structured? Does it promote engagement and incorporate research-based teaching methods?
A structured routine helps all children know what to expect during the day and what is expected of them. Some children with developmental disabilities can have a difficult time with sudden changes in routine, so it is especially important that their learning environment is highly structured.
A structured routine limits the amount time children are not receiving instruction. For some, having too much unstructured time can interfere with learning momentum. It is crucial that teachers use effective, research-based instructional strategies to help promote engagement and skill development for students with special needs. These techniques include reinforcement, shaping, prompting, and prompt fading.
Can the child learn/make progress in a group setting?
If the child cannot learn and acquire new skills in an inclusionary setting, then he needs individualized instruction in a more secluded environment. Group settings can be distracting for students with developmental disabilities, and they may have a difficult time attending to the teacher when she is instructing more than one student.
It is a good idea to collect data on measureable goals and objectives (both behavioral and academic) to monitor whether or not a child is making progress in a group setting. The data should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure the child is learning new skills. If the child is not showing progress, the educational team needs to consider making changes.
Can the teacher provide instruction in a way that students with special needs can understand? Can she keep their attention?
Some students with developmental disabilities need modified instructions in order to understand what is being taught. If a child cannot understand the teacher’s directions, he will often stop paying attention and stop learning. Teachers must be able to maintain high levels of engagement for all students. If they can’t, those with special needs may become dependent on a paraprofessional or one-on-one aide to provide instruction.
Is the child able to tolerate an inclusive environment?
Sometimes an inclusionary setting can overwhelm a child with special needs. For example, if the child is afraid of loud noises or crowded environments, a classroom could be intimidating and cause him to be anxious. He might engage in problematic behaviors such as elopement (running away), hand flapping, or yelling in order to escape.
If you would like to see if your child could benefit from inclusion, start small. Have him join his peers for art or gym class. If he can tolerate that environment, then consider systematically introducing other classes while monitoring and collecting data on his tolerance.
What are the pros and cons for the child overall?
Do the pros outweigh the cons? A lot of people believe that inclusion is an opportunity for a child with special needs to develop social skills and make friends. This is true for many students, but not all. If your child is unable to learn in an inclusionary environment, then he is not likely to learn social skills just by being placed in that environment. There are other times and ways he can work on socialization, such as in social skills groups.
Deciding whether or not inclusion is appropriate for your child is not easy. All students have different needs that can be met in various ways. There are qualified professionals, such as behavior analysts, educational advocates, and special education teachers who can help you weigh all your options and make an informed decision. Know that you are not alone.
Erica Kearney, M.A., BCBA, LABA is Executive Director of the May Center School for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
May Institute is a national nonprofit organization that provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral health services to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and behavioral health needs. For more information, call 800-778-7601.