It is a curious fact that despite boatloads of research, special education administrators and program specialists in districts across this country continue to segregate children with autism away from their non-disabled peers. Why this practice continues despite mounting evidence to the contrary is a mystery to me!
Controversy still exists about how to best support students with ASD, especially when educators with little or no training in the disorder find traditional methods of instruction and behavior management ineffective when applied to students with autism. There are unintended consequences when district and school site leadership lack the knowledge of research based interventions and as a result fail to provide training in strategies that support full inclusion in the classroom and school community. Here’s what happens: countless students with autism struggle to cope in segregated settings despite the fact that many have potential on par with their nondisabled peers. It’s a tragic mistake when the label – not the person behind the label – drives placement decisions. Segregated arrangements lead to social isolation, lowered expectations, overzealous paraprofessional support, learned helplessness, and lowered self-esteem. It doesn’t have to be this way! Allow me to share a vignette that will serve as a starting point for understanding autism as it applies to the individual.
“Look at this picture! Aren’t they cute?” our colleague beamed as she handed me a 3” x 5” photograph of a special memory. Taken years earlier during a preschool trip to a pumpkin patch, the photo showed two 4-year-old boys seated together in a wheelbarrow. With a backdrop of adults gleefully enjoying the moment, the boys sat scrunched together yet awkwardly apart, staring out unsmiling, unmoved by the joy surrounding them. James and Royce, both diagnosed with autism, were now starting 7th grade. Looking at this early picture, I wondered, have these boys been together since preschool? A review of records confirmed suspicions. Labeled autistic at an early age, they attended the school district’s autism program, always together in segregated placements year after year. How do they interact today? They antagonize each other. The presence of one causes anxiety in the other. Every time James makes annoying sounds, Royce clutches his hands to his ears, drops his head to his desk with a thud and screams out, “Stop it, James!”
Reports from the previous 6th grade SDC classroom detailed a pattern of disruptive behavior including throwing objects across the classroom, kicking, and high-pitched screaming. To discourage students from throwing chairs, weights were attached to the chair’s legs. It was clear to us that the former SDC classroom was the problem. All students in this setting were diagnosed with autism. They stayed together the majority of each day with virtually no contact with nondisabled peers or involvement in regular school activities. One could legitimately argue they were enrolled in what could be termed an “autism immersion program.” So the question becomes, would these behavioral challenges be present across all environments or are they unique to particular settings, people, and situations?
The answer is clear. Research suggests that educators who understand the complex social, sensory, cognitive and behavioral characteristics of the individual behind the label are better equipped to recognize unique student-specific aspects of the diagnosis and provide effective targeted support. They make certain that students interact in meaningful ways with nondisabled peers and from these interactions experience typical age appropriate language and behavior.
The key to supporting students with autism involves understanding the diagnosis as it applies to the individual while helping the student find their voice. Building a relationship with the student and his or her family is critical to understanding how best to support the individual’s needs. Get to know the student and develop a relationship. You will most likely be pleasantly surprised at what you learn. Instead of seeing “autism” expect to see capacity, talents and commonalities of interest and background.
It’s important to remember that individual outcomes vary widely and are highly dependent on the training and knowledge of those held responsible for supporting the student. Ultimately, the quality of support the student receives is predicated on those who run the program. Administrators and program specialists have a special responsibility to stay informed and up to date with respect to research-based interventions and program design.
What should an effective administrator be doing? Here are four suggestions:
- Educate yourself and share what you’ve learned with teachers, paraprofessionals, and other administrators. Know what the research really says – that there is no reason to believe that children with autism cannot thrive in general ed classes given informed support. Whatever decisions are made should be based on fact rather than outdated attitudes and beliefs.
- Avoid segregated placements! Placing students with ASD together in segregated classrooms intensifies challenging behavior and increases autistic symptoms. Dr. Philip Strain, leading researcher in the field of autism, calls such arrangements “toxic” to the student’s development. When students with ASD are placed in typical school settings surrounded by nondisabled peers, challenging behavior is reduced. Included students display higher levels of social interaction and have more advanced education plan goals than their counterparts in segregated placements.
- Friendship and belonging matter! Put simply, relationships are at the core to a good life. Despite the value of typical peer friendship, students with ASD cannot enjoy fulfilling relationships without a supportive school culture. Build a culture of acceptance and understanding!
- Promote heterogeneous classrooms. The notion that students must perform at a prescribed level to participate in general ed denies the effectiveness of research-based interventions proven successful for most students. Promote the belief that all students can learn, given the appropriate support and instructional delivery. Respect the variety of individual learning styles by promoting more cooperative, collaborative activity and less whole group teacher directed instruction.
What happened to James and Royce? We scheduled each boy into regular ed classrooms, surrounded them with handpicked non-disabled peers and provided support as needed.
Individualized support and placement decisions reduced the considerable anxiety the boys experienced when in the presence of other students with autism. We conducted disability awareness training emphasizing respect and understanding for the individual while deemphasizing the autism label. Activities designed to demonstrate competence helped the boys gain respect from peers. We helped the boys increase pragmatic language by means of embedded speech and language interventions centered on group activities, class projects and peer-to-peer interactions within the regular classroom. We actively sought friendship for the boys… not through “buddy clubs” that tend to devolve into de facto support groups but rather through activities that build on common interests. The result? Challenging behaviors reduced by as much as 80% over the course of the school year. Academic performance improved dramatically. And! We never used weights to hold down chairs either!