“If our goal is to train and educate our students with this disability so that they can grow up to function as contributing, independent members of society, then we must enable them to apply what they have learned. The inclusion classroom is the most practical place to do this.” (Wagner, 2002)

Students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) continue to grow in number, challenging educational communities to identify the best means of providing appropriate educational experiences. The topic of inclusion often raises inspired, passionate discussion and debate. On the one hand, many families are concerned that full inclusion in the mainstream may not afford the full range of necessary supports to promote success. Alternately, students who are in small special education (self-contained) classrooms have a more limited range of social and educational opportunities.

Research yields no conclusive findings on this topic, except to highlight what practice bears out: inclusion is highly individualized. Rather than inclusion or not, it is important for teams to consider the full range of options, including classrooms co-taught by both a regular and special education teacher, “reverse inclusion” when mainstream students join the special education environment, and social inclusion for nonacademic activities. Then the question becomes which inclusion experiences can contribute to a student’s educational growth and what strategies can be used to support them in that setting. What follows is an overview combining research/literature on the topic and my experiences in a private/public educational partnership.

First steps

A first step is for the team to determine whether inclusion can contribute to a student’s progress toward educational goals, noting that these can include language, social, and behavioral goals for students on the autism spectrum. Hundert (2009) provides helpful assessment tools to determine readiness for inclusion based upon on-task behavior, peer interaction, responding to questions during lessons, independent seatwork, and problem behaviors.

It is also important for the team to come to a shared perspective of the inclusion goals. These goals may vary from completing academic requirements at grade level to socializing with same-aged peers. Updated multidisciplinary assessments are helpful in guiding this process. It is essential that teachers, service providers, and parents create a shared perspective in order to maximize the effectiveness of the inclusion experience.

Questions that often arise are whether team members expect the student to grasp content at grade level, complete all assignments and assessments, be offered alternative settings or activities when appropriate, and be independent in the mainstream. My experiences have generally been split between families and educators advocating for more inclusion; either way, that healthy tension in the team serves the student by ensuring that they access the most appropriate environment.

Finding the best fit

Choosing the specific experiences is equal parts science and art. Teams should be prepared for some trial and error involved in determining the “best fit” for a student. Familiarity with the mainstream setting, including behavioral, academic, and social demands is very helpful. The system is an important component of this process.

It is important that all parties be aware that the initial weeks are a trial and that progress will be continually monitored. This provides the mainstream teacher with a clear message that they will be actively supported and turned to for feedback, and the student and family the assurance that it is not a “sink or swim” experience. Ideally, the system has a range of options that can allow switching classes, building location, time of day, or teachers in order to address any obstacles to successful inclusion.

We have found that teacher enthusiasm and willingness to collaborate is, not surprisingly, one of our best predictors of student success. When a teacher enters our wing of the school and says, “I want one of your students in my class,” we always try to ensure that it happens. We choose the first inclusion experienced based upon students’ strengths and interests.

Cocurricular classes such as art, computers, and robotics have provided an important entryway to the mainstream for many students. These classes minimize the reading comprehension demands that can be challenging for students with ASDs, and offer content that tends to be more familiar, hands-on, and accessible. They often offer more social exchange opportunities than core academic classes.

Another successful choice in our middle school has been remedial/supportive reading classes for students who are not proficient in their standardized assessments; these can be excellent experiences for students on the autism spectrum, as they often emphasize comprehension, which is an essential need for many of these students. Lastly, core academic classes such as math, science, and social studies can provide predictable structure and engage the interests of many students.

Staff training, support, and logistics

Questions that the team should address include:

  • Are mainstream teachers aware of characteristics of autism and educational strategies to support students? This can be addressed through all-staff trainings/inservices, as well as provision of reference materials, including many online resources.
  • What information will mainstream teachers need? We provide IEP goals and a “cheat sheet” of student learning style, behaviors, and recommended supports and interventions.
  • How will mainstream and special education personnel collaborate if the student is split between programs? Initially scheduling regular meetings is helpful, and we have found that we can wean down to email contact over time once a student is established.
  • How will mainstream teachers be supported in working with the student, and how often will that opportunity for consultation occur? These needs vary from addressing learning style to responding to challenging or interfering behaviors. Consultation can be provided by special educators, OT/SLP, or behaviorists. It is most important that there are identified and accessible supports to allow for timely supports.

In our setting, the goal is to provide staff support during the initial phase of a student’s placement, and then determine with the mainstream teacher whether continued support is required or whether we can be “on call.” This ensures that students have a trained staff person to observe and assist them, to provide support and modeling to the mainstream teacher, and to liaison between special education and regular education environments. The staff implement the on-the-spot modifications that must occur throughout the class.

The simplicity of some of these tasks (e.g., a sticky note or white board with a reminder “raise your hand”) is most easily communicated through demonstration. Our experience is that the mainstream teachers become increasingly confident through observation of experienced staff working with a student.

Interventions and supports

Once that process is complete, the team’s task is to refine the supports that will be necessary for the student to be successful. Important strategies, with some evidence base (Harrower and Dunlap, 2001), include:

  • Preview environment to determine whether there are sensory, language, or social issues that might affect the student with ASD. Occupational therapists and speech language pathologists can provide helpful eyes in this regard.
  • Explicitly state rules and expectations: students can be coached using strategies such as social stories, tours, and video modeling. This can assist in learning about the expectations in the school environment to alleviate anxiety on that first day in the program. Student self-monitoring of behavior can be rehearsed in the self-contained classroom and then generalized to the mainstream environment.
  • Priming: preview material that will be covered in the class. This requires collaboration with the mainstream teacher and prompt creative work on the part of the special educators and support staff.
  • Prompting in the form of schedules (pictoral or written), written reminders (Post-it® notes or white boards are very helpful), predefined nonverbal cues.

Follow-up evaluation

Starting a new class is similar to having a new job: it takes some time to learn the expectations and nuances, and there is fatigue and stress even in the best circumstances. Students who are challenged to understand the social environment need time to settle in. Antecedent supports as noted above can minimize the effects, but it is important to allow some time before making a final determination about the student’s success. Slowly increasing a student’s time in the mainstream class, using attention, and behavior as a guide, can be helpful in assuring long-term success.

What are the indicators of success? Ongoing team evaluation should include these questions: Is the student learning? Engaged? Observing, imitating, and/or interacting with peers? Being exposed to new information? Demonstrating minimal levels of disruptive or internalized behavior, or decreasing rates over the initial weeks of placement?

All students have the right to learn in the least restrictive educational environment. Inclusion at all levels allows the student to develop skills that will ideally enable them to gain the maximum benefit from their education, teaching not just content but how to function in a social setting or “live in the real world.” With support for staff and students, inclusion can have tremendous impact on educational experiences of students with and without special needs.

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Karen Cammuso, Ph.D., directs clinical services for students with developmental challenges in the Bradley School/East Providence Partnership, and is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

REFERENCES

Harrower JK, Dunlap G: Including children with autism in general education classrooms: A review of effective strategies. Behav Modification 2001; 25:762–784.

Hundert J: Inclusion of students with autism: Using ABA-Based supports in general education. Austin, TX: PRO-ED, 2009.

Wagner S: Inclusive programming for middle school students with autism/asperger’s syndrome. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, 2002.