Does inclusion work? Are inclusive classrooms always best for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Are they best for your kiddo? Maybe you are wondering….
Sometimes inclusive classrooms work out beautifully for kids with ASD. They can use their intellectual strengths and are able to benefit from typically developing peers, learn from them, perhaps make some social gains. When it works, the child with ASD feels that he is an integral part of the classroom. He feels like he belongs, he has a place in the world.
But sometimes, the pace of the information flow is too fast, the level of stimulation too high in an inclusion calssroom. There are too many kids, too many hard to process complexities. The kids with ASD feel stressed by the processing demands. When this happens, the child with ASD will withdraw internally. He will check out, preferring to be “in his own world”. Or maybe he will lose control, meltdown. This kiddo will certainly not feel like he belongs. He will feel psychologically excluded. He will become more autistic, because autistic symptoms are attempts at self regulation in an overwhelming world.
Do a thought experiment:
Step 1: Two different students with ASD in the exact same inclusive classroom. One can manage the processing demands and thrive. The other is overloaded and withdraws. They are both physically included: their physical bodies are in the same classroom as the physical bodies of typically developing peers. But one student is included psychologically because he can manage this world, so he feels he belongs. The other student is not included psychologically. He excludes himself as a response to being overwhelmed in an environment that is too complex to manage.
Now flip it around.
Step 2: One child, two different classrooms. In one classroom, an inclusion classroom, things are moving too fast. There is too much stimulation. Too many kids. Too many demands to be able to meet successfully, to master, to feel successful and OK. So the student withdraws, or maybe loses control or acts out. In the other classroom, there are fewer kids. The pace is slower, the world is quieter, more comprehensible. In this classroom, nominally a special education classroom, the student is not overwhelmed. He can manage the world. He can be successful and feel OK. He is included psychologically. (Finally) he belongs!
In the (nominally) inclusive classroom, he needs to withdraw. He is excluded psychologically. But in the special education classroom, he can manage. He is included.
From this point of view, it doesn’t matter much whether that environment is one that happens to contain bodies of regular education students or bodies of special education students. It is what happens psychologically that counts.
Our summer day camp was only for kids with ASD. But years of feedback from the campers and from their parents made it clear that many of our campers felt a more profound and satisfying sense of belonging, felt more included at Camp Kindred, than they ever had previously in other summer camps for typically developing peers.
So let’s define inclusion psychologically. A student is included in whatever educational environment makes it possible for him to feel that he belongs, that he can manage the world, that he has a place in the world to grow and learn and develop.