INCLUSION AND ASD
A brief set of thoughts concerning the ideals of inclusion, but also the difficulties which may be associated with the mainstream inclusion of some children and young people with ASD, and some basic criteria by which to judge the likely effectiveness of inclusive educational provision.
M.J.Connor January 2006
In a previous paper in this series (Autism Current Issues 42 - January 2006) , reference was made to the work of Waddington and Reed (2005) in which they contrasted the current pressure towards inclusion for children with special educational needs, including ASD, with the lack of survey or empirical research data about effectiveness.
It appeared that the policy of inclusion for the ASD students had preceded the gathering of evidence to determine whether or not this is the most appropriate arrangement for success in terms of quality of life and social/educational outcomes.
Their own study suggested that it is not the school place per se which is the most critical factor, but the availability of social and therapeutic support alongside the ability and confidence of the parents to manage their children at home.
One might speculate that the children and young people with ASD are differentiable from those experiencing other types of need in respect of the “invisible” nature of the condition. ASD is difficult to appreciate and understand on the part of external observers, such as members of a peer group, when the individuals concerned do not readily stand out from the group such that the subsequently noted idiosyncratic social and communicative behaviours are all the more disconcerting.
One also notes that the those students who are at the high functioning end of the spectrum, and likely to be included within mainstream schools, may be all the more prone to emotional stresses because of their ability to recognise their own (social and communicatory) differences but their in-ability to identify the cause of such differences or how to compensate for them.
Meanwhile, the present author would stress that the principles and ideals of inclusion are well recognised and accepted, but that there remain anxieties that, for certain students in certain circumstances, there may be some question whether a mainstream place is the best arrangement. Such a question may be based upon the recognition of particularly marked needs or anxieties in the students or the lack of mobilisation of support in the school.
One might hope that there will be a rapid diminution in the extent of any between-school differences that remain in attitudes towards inclusion, and that evaluation of school performance can take much more account of the progress (including progress in social and life skills) made by all students …not only those students who achieve some arbitrarily-selected level of achievement in academic tests and examinations.
In other words, all being equal, one would look to an inclusive place as the prime option for the students in question; but, if all is not yet equal, it remains necessary to look at the individual and environmental circumstances relating to each case, alongside the wishes and aspirations of the parents/carers, and to plan accordingly … … while retaining a spectrum of provisions to match a spectrum of needs.
The summaries that follow are of identified articles or survey data which deal with the issue of inclusion of students with ASD, including attitudes to their inclusion, and are set out in simply in order of their dates of publication.
The National Autistic Society Survey on Inclusion and Autism (2000)
This survey prepared by Barnard et al (2000) begins by noting how autism and Asperger Syndrome have been described as a “hidden” disability in not being easily recognised and, therefore, attracting less attention from society as a whole than other more immediately observable forms of difficulty or disadvantage. They also point out the frequently complex nature of ASD such that inclusion may be more challenging in respect of the degree of adjustment required among the staff and peer groups.
Their first quotation is from a parent who holds that inclusion is not about everyone being the same but about having the choice about joining in where they feel comfortable …. not where someone else thinks they ought to be.
The authors summarise much of the received comment from parents of children attending either mainstream schools, units, or specialist schools as indicating the desirability of ensuring that the educational provision is right and that positive experiences are enjoyed. This is not about where the education takes place or where services and support are given, it is about the appropriateness of the experiences; and inclusion should not be an automatic arrangement to bypass sensitive and individual planning.
It is hoped that the majority of teaching and therapeutic arrangements will involve inclusion in the mainstream schools, but it is likely that there will always be some individuals who require discrete and specialised services to match their particular requirements and circumstances.
A general pattern emerged from this study whereby parents appeared satisfied in the majority of cases with educational opportunities for their children. The probability of satisfaction appeared greater in those cases where the children were receiving autism-specific support (ie in units attached to mainstream schools or in specialist schools).
Further, positive perceptions were associated with provision in the early stages of education, with a decline towards a less positive set of perceptions among parents of children in the later school years.
The lowest level of parental satisfaction was linked to mainstream placements where support was limited or absent, with the implication that staff training and expertise concerning autism and the children’s access to appropriate levels of support are critical issues.
Similarly, parents were no more positive about generic specialist schools (those without a specific orientation towards autism) than they were about mainstream provision with generic learning support. The significance of the autistic focus is underlined, alongside the concern lest children with autism whose profile or strengths and weaknesses are uneven will not be best placed in schools for children with learning difficulties where there may be an assumption that the (dis)abilities are similar across a range of subject areas.
If parental choice is to be a general right across Education, then the implication is to ensure a degree of choice for parents of children with autism and ASD in order best to match the particular profiles of strengths and weaknesses.
Choice may imply greater cooperation between specialist and mainstream schools while recognising, too, that some children will require the provisions of a specialist school and that equality of opportunity is not synonymous with the same opportunity for everyone.
What matters to parents is the recognition of the child’s particular needs and the implementation of strategies and practices by which to meet those needs; but a common perception is that LEAs are driven by costs and resource implications rather than by individual needs.
Also common among parental perceptions is the view that the emphasis in schools is upon academic outcomes at the expense of attention to social skill development, enhanced opportunities for meaningful peer interaction, and independence skills as a preparation for adult life.
In their overall conclusion, the authors stress that inclusion for students with ASD will inevitably involve considerable efforts and flexibility to match the variety of special needs that may be associated with ASD.
Further, inclusion must involve a commitment from everyone associated with the school, in the full knowledge of the issues that will be involved, including, in the secondary school, seeking to compensate for the increased peer pressures upon the students to conform. The problems in this aspect of inclusion are compounded by the awareness that a significant number of secondary school students can be concerned about being ridiculed or shunned by their peers if they maintain contacts with students known to have special needs.
They also argue that the National Curriculum does not reflect the learning and experiential needs of students with ASD, particularly those in the later year groups for whom social and life skills are the ones that will be significant.
Their final point concerns the critical nature of staff training to be sensitive to the needs of the students in question and to establish a simple routine of ASD-friendliness in terms, for example, of thinking about the use of language in instruction, the need for structure, and the removal of anxiety by avoiding any uncertainty about what is expected.
The paper by Cutler (2000) sets out her view of the characteristics that a school should have, and the resources available, if they are to be viable in providing an inclusive place for a student with ASD. These include the following ….
One may well be able to add to this list, but the clear implication is that inclusion is a matter of flexibility of demands and targets to meet the particular needs of the students, with the school system adapting itself to those needs rather than expecting the students to accommodate to the demands of the school.
This general theme is continued by Dybvik (2003) who recognises the rise in the statistics on autism and the growing impact upon schools.
The immediate requirement is for a higher degree of coordination and planning among the mainstream teaching staff and for gaining an assurance that all staff are confident in their knowledge of ASD and are correspondingly confident about, and committed to, the inclusion of students identified with ASD.
A corollary is the requirement to avoid a situation where nobody dares to question inclusion especially when, in all probability, the concern is not about the principle of inclusion but about the existing provisions and practices by which to ensure that the inclusion of given students is effective in terms of social, emotional, interactional, and academic outcomes.
Dybvik suggests that inclusion can actually be negative in its effects upon the student if there exists a policy of inclusion at all costs (with an implication of the desirability of having available a range of options) and if inclusion means little more than having the student physically present in the mainstream school.
Inclusion must involve a readiness to identify the idiosyncratic needs of the child and to provide accordingly.
One major issue being that of providing adequate staff training about the range of likely learning and behavioural targets, as opposed to maintaining an emphasis upon those learning targets which reflect what will be assessed in national tests.
A second major issue is concerned with raising peer awareness about the nature of ASD and how best to make and maintain communication with the students in question.
(It seems relevant, when discussing criteria for inclusion or for more specialist provision, to note the concerns expressed in a number of quarters that SEN planning and negotiation can become a “battle” and that this may continue to be so as long as the duty to assess and describe special needs and the appropriate provision to match the needs falls upon the same body that also has the responsibility for funding.)
A position statement issued by Division TEACCH (2005) sets out the philosophy of inclusion according to two frequently expressed arguments.
Firstly, the use of specialist classes denies the students concerned access to normal experiences and normal classroom interactions.
Secondly, the segregated services may not provide adequate education for the students with special needs.
However, the statement expresses the concern lest “inclusion” is being confounded with “mainstreaming.”
Mainstreaming typically involves placing students in a mainstream school when (s)he is able to show the capacity successfully to participate in the normal and routine activities and lessons. Inclusion will require modification of those normal routines and activities, and access to support services as required, in order that there is true and meaningful accommodation to the student’s particular needs and styles.
The TEACCH argument strongly urges and promotes “normalisation” of experiences for students with autism, but recognises other equally important principles.
These include …..
The range of needs would logically call for a range of types of provision, and would allow for students to maintain access to a combination of settings.
Individualisation requires the identification of the most appropriate, and possibly unique, set of provisions based upon the needs assessed rather than upon ideology.
The TEACCH position continues by setting out 4 basic principles by which to guide placement decisions and practice within the settings identified ….
The logic of inclusion is underlined by Daily (2005) who notes that individuals with ASD are often first recognised by their problems with achieving social interactions with peers, and that social skill deficits or a-sociality are among the hallmarks of ASD.
This being so, there is a risk lest specialist education with few opportunities to interact with mainstream students will compound the problems and offer limited scope for social skill development and practice.
However, she continues, the regular educational setting will only be as effective as the staff who are responsible for the class and will reflect the pressures upon those staff. The regular classroom experience will be the more positive if there is an emphasis upon the intentional teaching and modelling of social skills.
It is argued that teaching the students with ASD how to form relationships and to appreciate the feelings of others is no less important, and probably more important, than academic learning.
Looking at this from the other direction, Daily recognises the value of setting demands for achievement levels which are to be checked by regular and national testing, but the effect will be that all students, irrespective of their particular needs and abilities, face the same demands for successful performance on the standard tests. This may well be an unreasonable expectation to place upon the students with disabilities.
If inclusion is to be effective, a different system of evaluating performance, as well as differentiation of teaching goals and styles, is necessary, especially if schools are to be penalised for their willingness to provide for students with special needs.
In other words, and in the light of the range of needs observable under the general heading of ASD, inclusion may prove to be the best option for many students with ASD but not the most productive for all students.
Daily, too, calls for adequate professional support, and for the ongoing training of staff to ensure the appropriate structure; and concludes that the guiding principles should be those of recognising diversity and of accepting that no single system or set of strategies will benefit all students, ASD or not.
A similar view is expressed by Meshnik (2005) who suggests that for any child to achieve his or her potential there is a need for love, social skill development, access to friends, and inclusion with the community. Her implication is that the children with ASD require the same things, albeit in greater degree and via carefully organised experiences; and that, if the education given to normally-developing children is what they need for success, those with ASD are entitled to the education that they need.
It is recognised that specialist classrooms may provide the right structure and that the students may feel well included among their peers in that setting, but there is a bigger world outside, and the implication is for preparatory work on functioning within that world.
A further implication is that one should take nothing for granted among the young people with ASD, so that the curriculum, be it mainstream or specialist, should include helping them to recognise the hidden curriculum … the subtle signals and non-verbal messages which indicate communicative intent or feelings … and the gaining of confidence to face daunting social situations, such as eating lunch in the hall.
Meanwhile, an associated and critical need is for mainstream peers to be given some insight into the nature of ASD as a first step towards building relationships and willingness/confidence to include the students with ASD in their play and activities.
Meshnik also concludes that a truly inclusive place appears the ideal for many students with ASD and one yardstick of success is the extent of daily and informal interaction between the students with ASD and their classmates. However, all children have unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses and anxieties and needs, so that whether children with ASD should be in inclusive classes or in self-contained settings will depend on observed performance, level of functioning, and shared planning among teachers, parents, and other professionals.
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Barnard J., Prior A., and Potter D. 2000 Inclusion and autism : is it working ?
London : National Autistic Society
Cutler B. 2000 Today’s criteria for inclusion of students with ASD/PDD in their natural communities. Autism National Committee (ww.autcom.org)
Daily M. 2005 Inclusion of students with autism spectrum disorders. Seattle : New Horizons for Learning
Division TEACCH 2005 Inclusion for children with autism. (Marcus L.) Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina
Dybvik A. 2003 Autism and the inclusion mandate. Western Wisconsin : Speech and Language Pathology and Autism Resources Service.
Meshnik H. 2005 A circle trying to fit into a triangle. Eugene, Oregon : KindTree Organisation.
Waddington E. and Reed P. 2005 Comparison of the effects of mainstream and special school placements on outcomes in children with ASD. Report for the SE Regional Special Educational Needs Partnership. (Psychology Department : University of Wales, Swansea)
© Mike Connor 2006.
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