The challenges of inclusion for autistic middle school students are significant, but not insurmountable. Many of the resources needed are usually already a part of the school district, but need to be refocused and connected into a framework that will provide support not only for the child but also for the staff and family.
Approaches to Inclusion for Autistic Middle School Students
The schools of South Burlington, Vermont school district provide a good example of a workable approach to inclusive education for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recognizing that ASD is both on the rise (the Centers for Disease Control now estimates one out of every 110 children has some form of the disorder) and covers a wide range of needs, the school district assembled a clinical team including the following:
- special education administrator
- school psychologist
- occupational therapist
- applied behavior analyst (board-certified)
- special education teacher
- speech language pathologist
The team is responsible for consultations, reviewing cases and designing professional development for other teachers throughout the district as well as one-on-one caregivers for the students. One of the important strategies was to rotate the adults in contact with the children on a regular basis. This keeps the adults from burning out and keeps the children from becoming dependent on the adults to function.
Identifying the Needs of Autistic Middle Schoolers
Because ASD covers such a wide range, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder (not otherwise specified), Asperger's syndrome, and Rett syndrome, many different kinds of resources are needed. Federal law mandates that the students be educated in the "least-restrictive" environment possible, but at the same time the specific treatment needs of autistic children will include:
- speech and language therapy
- applied behavioral analysis (ABA) treatments,
- occupational therapy
- social interaction skill development
- communication and functional skills
These treatments are in addition to the needs of academics common to all middle school students. Providing this depth of therapy usually requires heavy involvement of community and state mental health agencies and families.
Overcoming Difficulties Through Communication
Autism is a challenging disorder to deal with on the personal level, and children with ASD have to fight their own frustration as they try and make sense of and fit into the world around them. While inclusive education has a good track record for useful treatment, the sheer number of people involved means that there will be inevitable conflicts.
- Peers-Classmates may not understand that autism is a medical condition. Training peers and facilitating social circles with students committed to supporting their autistic friends can change a compassionless environment into a nourishing one.
- Classroom participation-Often teachers with a good understanding of the therapeutic goals of the autistic child will design their lesson plans so that the student can participate in a way that both contributes to the classroom as a whole and also directly addresses the Individual Education Program (IEP).
- Teachers-It is vital that the teachers (along with the families and administrative staff) have a clear understanding of both the child's challenges and also the planned strategy for treatment.
- Inclusive strategies-Autism is still not a very well understood disorder, and varying methodologies for treatment exist. It is important that the school district provide a unified and cooperative approach to the inclusive strategy for each autistic child, letting the lessons build on and reinforce each other.
Benefits of the Inclusive Model of Education
There are clear benefits for autistic children who are included in the normalized classroom, as shown by a study by Wooten & Mesibov in 1986. Modeling social skills on typical students will have be advantageous.
What is not often recognized is the benefits to the classmates, teachers, and families, as they learn more about the diverse needs of autistic and other special needs children. As they cooperate to help each other meet the challenges of inclusive education, they will strengthen themselves and each other in communication and understanding. This brings new meaning and purpose to the word inclusive in the treatment for ASD.