Should you send your child with autism into a mainstream classroom, or into a classroom full of other kids with autism, or some combination of the two? This is the age-old question, and there is a unique answer for every individual kid.
The law says that children with disabilities should spend as much time as possible with students who are not in special education (least restrictive environment). But who decides what is “as much time as possible”, and how does anyone know where to draw the line?
The answer is that your student’s team (parents, teachers, specialists) should be able to look at the all of the factors and make an individualized plan for your child. They should lay out your child’s needs and strengths, and the pros and cons of spending time in each environment. You can request a discussion of these details at your next meeting, in order to ensure that the whole team is on the same page and doing what is best for your child.
Although the buzz word “inclusion” sounds like it would only mean positive things, full-time inclusion does not work for every child. There are regular education teachers who resist mainstreaming in certain cases, and there are also special education teachers who push back against full inclusion for some students. The following is what real teachers have listed as the pros and cons of mainstreaming kids with autism.
Social – Being with other kids who don’t have autism can help your child learn social skills. They can watch their peers, practice noticing social cues, and have successful interactions. They can learn how to play fair and make friends. They can see repeated examples of what is acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. And gaining these skills leads to higher self-esteem and more success in later life.
Academic – In a mainstream classroom, your child will work on grade level academics. They will be challenged, and ideally they should receive the support they need to succeed. They will also see methods of teaching and learning that are used by the general population. For example, in a regular classroom, students are usually expected to sit and listen, take notes, and add to a discussion. These behaviors may not be common in a special education classroom. Getting used to these methods of learning will lead to more success in the future in high school and/or university.
Positives for regular ed. kids – Having a student with disabilities in their classroom community has the potential to teach non-disabled kids compassion and acceptance. Everyone can learn the importance of working together with people who are different from themselves. They can also learn patience and understanding. These traits are pivotal for the rest of their lives.
Social – In a classroom full of neuro-typical kids, there is a chance of bullying. Kids can be mean to each other. Your child may feel left out or alone, or they may feel embarrassed about getting extra help or about their uncommon behavior. They may also be disruptive to class (e.g. explosive behaviors, or requiring extra time from the teacher). This could lead to other students feeling resentful of them.
Academic – The academic level in the mainstream classroom may be too difficult for your child to handle. They could fall far behind, and feel bad about it. Or your teacher may spend lots of time and effort adapting and modifying the materials for your student, which could be viewed as unfair to the rest of the class. The worst case scenario (but one that is still seen in schools), would be your child sitting at the back of the classroom, doing completely different work with an aide, and getting nothing out of the mainstream academics.
Plus, many mainstream teachers may not have the skills and education related to helping your child. They may not know the best methods for teaching a child with autism. They may feel overwhelmed, and may just hand your child over to the paraprofessional for the majority of the day. What’s more, larger and larger class sizes mean that your child may not receive as much one-on-one attention as he or she needs to succeed.
Negatives for regular ed. kids – When inclusion is not done well, there is a risk of the kids in your child’s class learning the opposite of what everyone had hoped for. They may not learn to tolerate or understand, but instead will resent the situation. They may get upset that “those kids” get away with things, or that they take all of the teacher’s attention. And in the end, stereotypes about kids with autism may become stuck.
Pros of NOT Mainstreaming: Depending on the needs of your child and where he or she is on the spectrum, there may be positives to not mainstreaming. When your child is in a classroom or a school with other kids like him, there is a higher chance of meeting his unique needs all day long. The teacher has the ability to completely tailor the learning and the environment to your child’s and his classmate’s needs and strengths.
Some schools use ABA therapy in every class. Other classrooms use curriculum which is created only for kids with autism. The staff are able to develop unique behavior plans, and then follow through with consistency. (This is assuming that they have enough staff in their room to give one-on-one attention at key times.) And when everyone in the classroom has a behavior plan or requires self-calming strategies, there is a much smaller chance of your child feeling bad about himself or embarrassed.
See a list of recognized schools for children with autism here.
However, for most kids with autism, the best situation includes at least some amount of time in each environment. Mainstreaming which is done well can be a huge benefit to your child, and ABA therapy can help increase these benefits. Here are 6 tips for supporting your child when he or she is in a regular classroom.
- Reduce stimulation – Try to reduce the amount of noise, smells, visual activity, and movement in the space where your child will be working.
- Use visuals – Children with autism will often need to see what you are trying to say to them. Use a visual schedule, picture cues, first-then visuals, or pictures of the steps to an activity. Your teacher may also try social stories, or video modeling when teaching something specific.
- Use ABA – Make sure the keys to ABA therapy are there in the classroom. Does he have a reward system? Does he have a clearly defined behavior plan if needed? When there is a problem, is the team looking for the purpose of his behavior and trying to prevent it?
- Set clear boundaries – It may be difficult for your child to understand what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a busy classroom full of other kids. Your child’s teacher must set clear and consistent boundaries, with consequences if those boundaries are crossed.
- Set up opportunities for social interaction success – The team is hoping that your child will learn social skills in a mainstream class, but these skills are not going to just happen by chance. Help set up opportunities for success. For example, teach your child how to ask whether he can join in a game. Then prepare the other students ahead of time by telling them that he will be practicing how to ask. This may require very kind and patient friends.
- Collaborate – Teachers and parents must work together to make sure mainstreaming works. Have open and frequent communication and make a plan to support one another.
Find more tips here.
Having individual support from an ABA Therapist could make a huge difference as you support your child in school. Alliance ABA Therapy is the leading ABA therapy provider in Fredericksburg and Fairfax, VA. Click here to contact Alliance ABA Therapy today.