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Why Students With Autism Need More Than Inclusion: A Teacher's Perspective

Ms. Meyers is a mom, teacher, and author who writes about issues in early childhood education and parenting.

Parents do their kids with autism a great disservice when they simply accept inclusion and don't fight for more.

Parents do their kids with autism a great disservice when they simply accept inclusion and don't fight for more.

What Students With Autism Need

  • Do you have a child with autism who's struggling at school but don't know what special education services they should receive?
  • Have you attended IEP (individualized educational plan) meetings for your youngster only to leave feeling confused, frustrated, and demoralized?
  • Did school officials convince you that full inclusion in a regular classroom was all your child needed, but now you're having serious doubts?

According to a recent study, one in 40 children in the US has autism. Most of them attend our public schools. Some have cognitive deficits and some don't. Some have challenges with fine and gross motor skills and some don't. Some have difficulties with articulation and social communication and some don't. Some receive special education services and some don't.

When considering services for their child, parents should always keep in mind that autism is a spectrum disorder. Some kids are high functioning, some low functioning, and everyone else falls somewhere in between along the continuum. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Studies show, though, that many youngsters with autism benefit greatly from one or more of the following services:

  • Direct instruction
  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy.

Each of these proven methods is described below.

The Limitations of Inclusion

The special services offered to students with autism depend largely on a state's education budget. In fact, a state's overall philosophy about helping children with special needs is molded by the funds that they have to spend. When officials at a school system have few resources, they sell parents on the misleading notion that full inclusion is all their child requires. However, this simply means that the student will learn in a regular classroom and receive no specialized help.

Some moms and dads see this as a victory, relieved that their child won't be singled out and treated differently than their peers. Many experts in special education, though, view it as a great injustice because these students, without added assistance, will fall behind their classmates. Therefore, they encourage parents to become fierce advocates for their kids and push for the services that they need, either in the public or private sector.

1. Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is the explicit teaching of concepts and skills in a guided step-by-step manner. The teacher is the expert, delivering information in an orderly fashion so students can master the material. It typically involves clearly defined objectives, ongoing practice and review, and frequent teacher-student interactions. As such, it's done with a small group of students, not an entire class.

Dr. Jerome Rosner is the author of a book that all parents of students with autism should have on their home bookshelves, Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties. He's a firm believer in the power of direct instruction. Because of this, he wants moms and dads to understand its value and push for their kids to receive it. He writes:

"The learning disabled child needs explicit, unambiguous instruction that is offered in limited portions and accompanied by more than the usual amount of drill and practice. This cannot be done in a classroom where twenty-five children congregate with one teacher. There is just not enough time in a school day for this teacher-student ratio to be effective for the learning disabled child...The learning disabled child should not have to share his teacher with more than six to eight other children, at least not during those portions of the day when the key subjects—reading and arithmetic—are being taught."

Direct Instruction: Underused and Unappreciated

No strategy is less understood, less utilized, and less championed than direct instruction. Even some professionals in special education don't explain it well and can't enumerate its many benefits. To those impressed with flashy presentations, direct instruction can seem tedious, slow-moving, and old-fashioned. However, it's been proven highly effective by providing the clear, concise step-by-step explicit instruction that so many students need. Moreover, direct instruction gets impressive results in a short amount of time, unlike inclusion.

Many students with autism benefit from direct instruction: the small group learning, the repetition, the practice, and the review.

Many students with autism benefit from direct instruction: the small group learning, the repetition, the practice, and the review.

Direct Instruction in Action

An example of small group direct instruction from middle school is Binder Boot Camp. Ms. Stevens, a special education teacher, got word that some sixth-grade students (some with autism and some without) were struggling with the transition from elementary to middle school. They weren't coping well with having so many teachers, so many classes, and so many different assignments with various due dates. They were disorganized, losing materials, and forgetting to turn in assignments.

Ms. Stevens, therefore, initiated a Binder Boot Camp for seven of them that lasted a limited amount of time: six weeks. She met with the group each Friday afternoon for 45 minutes in the resource room. She showed them how to organize their binders with separate sections for each class, how to jot down homework assignments in their agendas, and how to keep a calendar to chart both long and short-term projects. She showed them how to use a three-hole punch so they could put handouts in their binders. She showed them how to maintain their binders, recycling old papers and placing important ones in the correct sections.

After six weeks of Binder Boot Camp, the students had mastered organizational skills that would be immensely useful for years to come. The direct instruction (and emotional support) from Ms. Stevens was just what they needed and couldn't get in their regular classrooms with 30 other students. During the remainder of the year, they would occasionally see Ms. Stevens in the hall and proudly open their binders so she could see that they were still in tip-top order.

2. Speech Therapy

Speech therapy used to be about helping kids overcome lisps and stutters. Today, though, it's indispensable for kids on the autism spectrum who struggle with articulation issues as well as social communication. This affects their ability to make friends, get along with classmates, and feel good about themselves at school, at home, and in the community. Inclusion alone will not help them make the necessary progress. Instead, they need to work with a speech pathologist one-on-one or in a small group.

Social communication involves all the ways we convey and receive information in our day-to-day engagements with people. It includes both verbal and non-verbal forms of interaction. Children on the spectrum often struggle with basics such as sustaining eye contact when speaking and listening, reading facial expressions, interpreting body language, and maintaining a give-and-take conversation.

Isa Marrs, a speech-language pathologist, says that parents and teachers should appreciate that every child with autism struggles with communication to some degree. Moreover, it's best to tackle them as early as possible so they don't damage a youngster's self-esteem. She states: "All children on the autistic spectrum will have deficits in pragmatic language to some degree. Pragmatic language refers to the social use of language...These deficits may be subtle to an outside observer but can be profound to a child experiencing them."

Speech Therapy in Action

An example of speech therapy at elementary school is the Lunch Bunch. Mrs. Marquez, the school's speech therapist, noticed some fourth and fifth graders with autism were becoming social outcasts: eating alone in the cafeteria, sitting on the benches at recess, and not getting invited to classmates' birthday parties. Having worked with these same kids on articulation issues when they were younger, she was determined to see them succeed. She wanted to build their conversational skills before they headed off to middle school and became easy targets for bullies.

With that goal in mind, Mrs. Marquez launched a weekly 45-minute class for six kids on the spectrum who struggled with social communication. They met in her office on Mondays at noon and dubbed themselves the Lunch Bunch. Each week she presented a different lesson: how to introduce yourself to someone new, how to talk in a group, how to ask someone about their interests, and how to read someone's reactions by watching their facial expressions and body language.

Then the students would practice what they learned with one other. By the end of the school year, everyone in the group was a more skilled and confident conversationalist. This was something that could not have been accomplished in a regular classroom with 35 other students.

3. Occupational Therapy

Children on the autism spectrum benefit greatly from occupational therapy. Some of them struggle with sensory processing, meaning their nervous systems cannot properly interpret messages from their senses. This causes them to have unusual and often extreme responses. A youngster may scream in terror from an itchy tag on his t-shirt, cover his ears and hide when he hears an electric mixer, or refuse to go outside when the sun is too bright.

Children with sensory processing issues are often described as “floppy” with low muscle tone. They have problems with body awareness, motor planning, and coordination. They need help with skills in and out of the classroom such as holding a pencil, cutting with scissors, riding a tricycle, and pumping on a swing. They may need lots of exposure to textures that feel "icky” to them such as sand, mud, clay, glue, and paint.

Shea Brogren, an occupational therapist, says this about helping youngsters on the spectrum:

"Children with autism often have over-reactive sensory systems, where their bodies are taking in or processing too much information from the environment. This can lead to the child feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated. Pediatric occupational therapists have a thorough understanding of the sensory system and how sensory difficulties can affect participation in important activities, such as sleep, bathing, and eating."

In this video, a doctor explains why occupational therapy is critical for children on the spectrum who struggle with fine motor skills or sensory integration.

Occupational Therapy in Action

An example of occupational therapy at kindergarten involves help for a child who's struggling with fine motor activities. Mr. Charles, an occupational therapist in the school district, worked one-on-one with a 5-year-old girl named Clare who has autism. The muscles in her fingers and hands were weak, making her get tired and frustrated when writing, coloring, stringing beads, doing puzzles, and trying to tie her shoelaces.

Mr. Charles worked with Clare twice a week in the resource room. In these 30-minute sessions, he did activities with her that strengthened her hand muscles and enhanced her dexterity. The goals were for her to be able to hold a pencil correctly and cut easily with scissors.

He focused on activities to enhance her pincer grasp, which is necessary for holding small objects between the thumb and index finger. Clare picked up small objects like dried beans with chopsticks and tweezers. She peeled stickers, pulled up duct tape, and made pictures with rubber stamps. She and Mr. Charles played games such as Hi-Ho Cheerio, Don't Break the Ice, Don't Spill the Beans, Pick Up Sticks, and Tiddlywinks.

When the school year ended, Clare's fine motor skills had improved immensely. She had caught up with her classmates and was ready for first grade. This would not have been possible with inclusion alone.

Read More About the Inclusion Lie

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: My son was assessed for OT at school & didn't score enough to receive it. I was told that it is illegal for them to give him OT because he doesn't qualify for it. He needs it for help with expressing his emotions instead of the yelling & screaming that he does now. I took him to a OT therapist outside of school & they could only do so much because they couldn't recreate the school environment. The Dr.'s that diagnosed him recommended school-based OT. What do I do to ensure my son receives the therapy he needs at school?

Answer: First, I'll disclose that my autistic son received occupational therapy for three years and I credit it for so much of the progress he made. He had sensory processing disorder and was highly sensitive to touch, sound, and light and had poor coordination and weak fine and gross motor skills. We had a fantastic occupational therapist who worked for our school district's early intervention services. She not only helped my boy but guided me through the journey as well, and I'm forever grateful to her.

Sadly, though, not everyone in our school system is such a firm believer in occupational therapy as I am. With one out of every forty children in the United States having autism, I wish every elementary school would have an OT work with students one day a week. Most classroom teachers (and even some in special education) don't appreciate how valuable OT is for students on the spectrum for their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Some merely see an occupational therapist as someone who helps a child hold a pencil correctly.

When I was teaching kindergarten, I had a boy with Down syndrome in my class who needed OT for fine motor skills: writing, cutting, coloring, and turning pages in books. However, the district's OT was spread too thin so a special education teacher said she'd work with the boy. I must say it was a joke and totally disrespectful of the specialized skill and knowledge an OT has (so don't fall for that one)!

Would the OT you hired be willing to work with your son at school and would the school allow that? You may need to consult a lawyer who knows special education law for your state. You should also bring the letter from the doctor that recommends school-based OT to see if that carries any weight.

In the meantime, the school's speech pathologist will probably be your best bet for advice, intervention, and support. I've always found them to be extremely knowledgeable, kind, and eager to help. You need an ally at school who wants to give your child services, not deny them.

Question: I have a son with Down Syndrome, and I have not been informed about direct instruction. Would it benefit my son to learn more about it?

Answer: I'm sorry the professionals working with your son failed to inform you about direct instruction. It plays a powerful role in the education of children with Down Syndrome, autism, and learning differences. In fact, all youngsters can benefit from direct instruction at some time in their schooling. When they're struggling with a specific skill or concept and are falling behind the rest of the class, it helps them get up to speed.

By not informing you about direct instruction, these individuals were remiss in their duties. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon because, unlike inclusion, direct instruction costs money that most school districts don't have. It's typically provided by a specially trained teacher who works with small groups of students in the school's resource room.

The teacher often uses a script to move through the lesson slowly and systematically. By working with small groups, she's able to make sure the children are grasping the lesson while monitoring their progress. This is far superior to the regular classroom when kids fall behind and are too embarrassed to raise their hands and admit they're lost. I certainly remember that experience from my high school days in geometry!

Having a son with Down Syndrome means you need to learn your rights and advocate for your child. When it comes to special education services, the squeaky wheel definitely gets the oil, and the quiet one often gets nothing. Children with special needs learn best when the instruction is straightforward and definitive. In his brilliant book, “Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties,” Dr. Jerome Rosner writes:

“The learning disabled child needs explicit, unambiguous instruction that is offered in limited portions and accompanied by more than the usual amount of drill and practice. This cannot be done in a classroom where twenty-five children congregate with one teacher. There is just

not enough time in a school day for the teacher-student ratio to be effective for the learning disabled child. The learning disabled child should not have to share his teacher with more than six to eight other children, at least not during those portions of the day when key subjects—reading and arithmetic--are being taught.”

His words sum up the benefits of direction instruction perfectly.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers