Inclusion is a new concept in the education of differently-abled students that entails “mainstreaming with support.” In theory, inclusion urges schools, classroom, teachers, and classmates to welcome and value all students and accept them as “belonging,” regardless of differences in ability and functioning. Central to the philosophy of inclusion is the belief that diversity confers positive value in the classroom, not only to the included student but to his or her classmates as well. This article addresses the theory and practice of inclusion with respect to children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA). The research studies performed thus far on the education of HFA students in the inclusive classroom all point, to varying degrees, to the vital role that the teacher plays in facilitating an effective learning environment. The educational and social success of students with HFA in an inclusive classroom depends to a great extent on the training that the teacher has received in working with HFA students and his or her experience with and commitment to inclusion. An HFA student is more likely to thrive and learn in an inclusive classroom when his or her teacher has a positive perception of autistic students and of inclusion and conveys that attitude to the other students in the class.
According to researchers Mesibov and Shea in their 1996 article “Full Inclusion and Students with Autism,” in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the philosophy behind the concept of inclusion is that special needs students should not be segregated or ghettoized into special education classrooms. Rather, special needs students, can and should be educated in the same classroom as their developmentally normally peer group, albeit with appropriate support services for both student and instructor. Inclusion differs from the earlier educational theory of mainstreaming in that mainstreaming starts the special needs student out in a special education classroom and treats placement in a mainstream class as a promotion that is “earned” when the student reaches certain developmental, academic, or behavioral benchmarks. Inclusion, on the other hand, starts from the premise that the special needs child automatically belongs in and has a right to learn in the inclusive classroom.
Researchers Aviramidis, Bayliss, and Burden published the results of a survey on mainstream teachers’ attitudes toward inclusion in the journal Educational Psychology in 2000. Aviramidis, Bayliss, and Burden point out that the philosophy of inclusion rests upon the ideal of a community of learners and on strong principles of equality and fairness and upon the notion of separate classrooms for the disabled as a form of discriminatory segregation. Couching the discussion of inclusion in the language of fundamental rights places it within the context of what the authors characterize as a “broad human rights agenda.”
In the United States, the concept of inclusion has grown out of federal law and policy that mandates equal educational opportunities for the disabled. In 1975, the U.S. Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Act, amended as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997, to guarantee the disabled access to free and equal educational opportunities. Under the IDEA, disabled students have the right to receive a free public education in the least restrictive and most integrative environment possible. This concept of the “Least Restrictive Environment” or LRE has inspired pedagogical theories including mainstreaming and, more recently, inclusion.
However, parents are not always obligated to disclose their children’s disability or the extent of that disability. In some school districts in some states, for instance California, parents may decide not to inform the school district that their child is afflicted with HFA if they fear that doing so will disadvantage the child educationally. Even if the parents disclose this information to the school district, they may still make their own determination whether, and to what extent, to disclose their child’s HFA diagnosis to officials at their child’s school, to the child’s teacher, or to the child’s classmates.
Proponents of inclusion believe that HFA students, who typically exhibit deficits in social and communication skills, will benefit from learning in inclusive classroom settings due to the opportunity to observe and imitate the behavior and social interactions of their peers. They also argue that autistic students in inclusive classrooms will experience less social isolation and higher self-esteem and will be less likely to suffer from the social stigma attached to disability. However, Mesibov and Shea point out that little study has been done of the inclusive classroom and autistic students. They also voice skepticism that instruction in an inclusive classroom can replace or match the effectiveness of the small, individualized highly-specialized learning environments in which autistic children have traditionally been educated.
Mesibov and Shea raise other concerns, some of a pedagogical nature and some with political undertones, arguing that inclusion may confer fewer real benefits on autistic children than it does on children with purely physical handicaps and other deficits of a different nature. They point out that some studies indicate that teachers in inclusive classrooms interact less frequently and meaningfully with autistic students when they are in the presence of their developmentally normal classmates. They further challenge the notion that merely including autistic children in a “normal” classroom will trigger the growth of social skills, noting that, because autistic children, by the very nature of their condition, suffer deficits in social and communication skills, they will only rarely initiate social interactions with teachers or fellow classmates. In addition, Mesibov and Shea contend that autistic children in regular classrooms could end up being even more isolated and marginalized than they would if they remained in special needs classrooms; “normal” students in an inclusive classroom could be disturbed and alienated by an autistic classmate’s repetitive and obsessive behaviors, which can include sessions of hours-long rocking, incessant humming of the same three or four notes over and over , and flapping of the wrists and twirling. They further note that autistic children have poor imitation skills, especially in the social context because one symptom of their condition is an inability to observe and understand typical forms of verbal and non-verbal social communication. Thus, they consider the notion that autistic students in an inclusive class will gain social skills by modeling their social behavior on their observations of their peers’ interactions to be misplaced. Mesibov and Shea argue that autistic children will likely not learn to be independent in an inclusive classroom because they will always be confused about what is going on and thus constantly be looking to the teacher for cues as to how to respond.
More disturbingly, Mesibov and Shea fear that the focus on inclusive classrooms will result in the defunding and elimination of the specialized and individualized educational interventions that have proven so effective for autistic students in the past. They also fear that the excitement over inclusion will discourage the development of other specialized educational theories and approaches that could be at least as helpful to the HFA child as inclusion.
However, other researchers have noted the positive benefits of an inclusive learning environment, not only on the autistic child but on his or her classmates. Developmentally normal students who learn side by side with special needs children in an inclusive classroom that provides a positive learning environment become more accepting and tolerant of diversity. They learn as much from the autistic student as the autistic student learns from them. Moreover, the inclusive classroom is a better preparatory environment for adult experiences in higher education and the work force than is the individual specialized learning environment that is specifically tailored to the autistic student. Inevitably, the autistic student will grow up to encounter social, work, and educational settings that are not specifically tailored to his or her deficits and needs. Studies have found that disabled students who spent more time in “regular” classrooms accomplished measurably more in the arenas of employment and education once they entered the adult world.
Moreover, to maximize his or her success in integrating the HFA student into the inclusive classroom, a teacher may use techniques that have been used with autistic students in special needs settings, such as those outlined in the textbook for this class. For instance, visual cues and stimuli, such as picture cards and picture activity schedules, can be used just as easily in the inclusive classroom as in the one-on-one special needs setting, to accommodate an autistic student’s verbal difficulties. In addition, one common strategy that special education teachers use to focus and motivate HFA students can be easily applied in the mainstream classroom-that is, identifying the student’s special interest area and using the autistic student’s tendency to become preoccupied with a limited set of interests as a means to motivate him or her to do a range of projects covering a range of disciplines on that area of intense, obsessive interest.
The research performed so far on autistic children in inclusive education programs underscores the extreme importance of the teacher as a facilitator and as a model of accepting social behavior for the classmates for the autistic student. Indeed, if one factor contributes most to a successful inclusive classroom which includes an HFA, it is perhaps teacher training in instructing and managing the autistic student. In one study, the Autism Treatment Philosophy Questionnaire, the Teacher Efficacy Scale, and the Maslach Burnout Inventory were administered to a group of 34 teachers who instructed autistic students using Applied Behavior Analysis and 30 teachers who use the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Related Handicapped Children) Method in order to determine the impact of teaching philosophy and degree of commitment to that philosophy upon teacher effectiveness and the rate of teacher burnout. The study results showed that teachers who reported a higher degree of commitment to the philosophy underlying their pedagogical approach were also more likely to report a sense of their own efficaciousness as instructors and least likely to display the symptoms of professional burnout.
In another study, researchers sought to determine whether the quality of the relationship between a teacher and an HFA student correlated with the student’s level of educational and social success in the inclusive classroom. Autistic students are prone to what could be termed in the classroom context as behavior problems, such as bizarre repetitive behaviors and even fits of aggression, when they become overstimulated or disrupted by a change in routine. Robertson et al expected that these “behavior problems” would have a negative effect on an autistic student’s relationship with his or her instructor which in turn could negatively impact the student’s ability to fit in with his classmate peers. In the course of their study, the authors, in order to gage the teachers’ perceptions of their relationship with their autistic student, interviewed teachers, the autistic student, and the autistic student’s classmates. The Student-Teacher Relationship Scale, which measures a teacher’s feelings about his or her relationships and interactions with students, were administered to the teachers who participated in the study. Teachers also filled out a general questionnaire about their own instructional history and a SNAP-IV Rating Scale questionnaire to diagnose the level of impairment and maladaptive behavior demonstrated by the autistic student in his or her class. Teachers took the Student-Teacher Relationship Scale, which assesses a teacher’s. The autistic student’s classmates filled out a questionnaire that asked about their perceptions of the social environment in the classroom. The authors found that, indeed, behavioral problems correlated with a more problematic teacher-student relationship. However, most teachers perceived their relationships with their autistic students as positive. Interestingly, the authors also found that the quality of the teacher-student relationship correlated positively with the autistic student’s social status as perceived by his or her classmates, as well as with his or her success in becoming integrated into the social fabric of the classroom as a whole. The results indicated that the developmentally normal students in an inclusive classroom take their cures from the instructor with respect to how to treat and interact with the autistic student. Students who observe their instructor marginalize their autistic peer may well treat him or her similarly in their own social interactions, while students who perceive that their teacher has a positive attitude toward an autistic classmate are more likely to welcome and support that classmate. These findings underscore the profound significance of the relationship between the teacher of the inclusive classroom and the HFA student, not only with respect to the students educational progress but to his social development.
Aviramidis and his co-authors cite to a 14-nation UNESCO study that found that teachers in countries where inclusive classrooms were legally mandated tended to be more positive and enthusiastic about inclusion in general. In addition, when teachers answered questionnaires asking them to self-report their feelings and perceptions about inclusion, those who were currently teaching in inclusive settings or had experience doing so reported more favorable opinions than those who had little or no such experience.
These findings demonstrate one reason why training teachers who teach in inclusive classrooms is so important. For inclusion to be successful and effective, teachers of inclusive classrooms must have a positive and open attitude toward the concept of inclusive education. Those who have experience with inclusive teaching techniques are uniformly more positive about inclusion and are thus more likely to convey that positive attitude in the classroom environment.
However, some scholars argue that the reactions of an HFA student’s classmates are more predictive of his or her success in an inclusive classroom than the reactions of his or her teacher. In a study published in the journal Social Development in 2001, researchers Ochs, Kremer-Sadlik, Solomon, and Gainer-Sirota used ethnographic observations, primarily from video recordings of classroom and playground activities and interactions, in order to test their theories. The developmentally normal students responded to their HFA classmate in a number of ways, both positive and negative, ranging from ignoring the autistic student to rejecting or taunting him at one extreme to befriending and supporting him at the other. However, although Ochs et al downplay the significance of the teacher’s responses to the HFA student, their results demonstrate that the teacher’s relationship with the student does indeed play a fundamental role in how and whether the HFA student’s developmentally normal peers accept or reject him or her.
Ochs and his co-authors found that a lack of understanding of autism was a major contributor to the marginalization of an HFA student by his or her classmates. When a student’s parents had not disclosed the student’s HFA diagnosis to his or her teacher and classmates, the student was more likely to be shunned by peers. When the student’s condition was disclosed, he or she generally had a much more positive experience in the inclusive classroom. Indeed, the most positive outcomes, for all involved, occurred when the student’s HFA status was not only disclosed to teacher and classmates but served as the focus of class-wide discussion and dialogue about disability.
There is no doubt that simply placing an HFA student in an inclusive educational setting is not enough to guarantee the student’s continued development of social and communication skills. Nonetheless, contact with peers is an important consideration when addressing an individual HFA child’s deficits in these areas. The benefit that an HFA child derives from his or her social interactions in an inclusive classroom can be maximized by an instructor who has been specifically trained to work with HFA students, who has a positive attitude toward inclusion and toward HFA students, who develops a positive relationship with the HFA students, and who conveys that positive attitude to other students in the inclusive class, who will then take the instructor’s cue and invite the HFA student into their social networks.