Academic journal article Education Next

Autism and the Inclusion Mandate: What Happens When Children with Severe Disabilities like Autism Are Taught in Regular Classrooms? Daniel Knows

Academic journal article Education Next

Autism and the Inclusion Mandate: What Happens When Children with Severe Disabilities like Autism Are Taught in Regular Classrooms? Daniel Knows

Article excerpt

Daniel walks into his kindergarten classroom and drops his outerwear, backpack, and bus harness in a tangled heap in the middle of the floor. Daniel has a singular focus this morning: building a bridge and a house out of Lincoln Logs.

He does not notice as classmates step around or over him as he plays on the hard floor. If other children move into his space, he pushes them away. One or two children greet him, but he does not answer. Daniel keeps up a running dialogue as he plays, in jargon rarely understandable to anyone but himself.

Daniel's educational aide approaches him and, using a handmade schedule book with symbolic pictures, shows Daniel that this is not the time for playing. The first picture on the schedule is a locker, indicating that Daniel is to hang up his coat and backpack. Transitions to new activities are very difficult for Daniel, and he begins to scream and kick. Other children watch quietly or walk away.

Daniel is autistic. He is charming, intelligent, creative, and full of energy, just like his 18 classmates. However, he is unable to use language to interact with others. His rare attempts at communication are through imitation and usually in only one or two words. Teachers and aides communicate with Daniel using a combination of picture symbols and words, since children with autism learn best visually. Like other children with autism, Daniel would not understand the activities of the day without his schedule book. When events change and the day does not correspond to his schedule, Daniel may lose control and throw a tantrum. He requires the support of an educational assistant every minute of the school day.

In the past--indeed, less than ten years ago--children like Daniel were rarely placed in mainstream classrooms to learn alongside their nondisabled peers. Children with autism and other severe disabilities were more likely to be found in separate classrooms with other children with disabilities, if not in a different school altogether. Daniel's presence in a regular classroom, with the help of an educational aide, is the result of the "inclusion" movement among advocates for the disabled. The idea behind inclusion is that every child should be an equally valued member of the school culture. Children with disabilities benefit from learning in a regular classroom, while their peers benefit from being exposed to children with a diversity of talents and temperaments.

As a result of evolving legislation and educational initiatives, today more than 95 percent of students with physical, emotional, learning, cognitive, visual, and hearing disabilities receive some or all of their education in regular classrooms. As of 2000-01, the most recent year for which data are available, 47 percent of students with disabilities spent at least 80 percent of their school day in the general-education classroom, up from 31 percent in 1988-89.

These numbers have even greater significance for students with autism. Autism is the fastest-growing disability in the country. U.S. Department of Education statistics show the number of children diagnosed with autism being served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act growing more than fivefold during the 1990s (see Figure 1). The California Department of Developmental Services estimates that the number of diagnosed cases in that state grew 273 percent during the 1990s.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

What accounts for the increase in autism? No one knows. In the past, autism was considered an extremely rare condition. Children and adults who demonstrated characteristics similar to what we now call autism were often labeled as emotionally or behaviorally disturbed, or cognitively disabled. Most lived in institutions when they became too difficult to manage at home. Many factors are cited for the increase in autism, including better diagnostic procedures; heightened awareness of the syndrome, leading to more accurate assessments; exposure to environmental toxins; reactions to childhood vaccinations; and a genuine increase in the condition's prevalence. …

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