Why Autistic Students Need More Than Full Inclusion in Special Education

Updated on February 28, 2019
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With a master's degree in special education and a son with autism, McKenna is passion about getting the right services for students in need.

Parents of autistic children do their kids a great disservice when they simply accept full inclusion in special education and don't fight for more.
Parents of autistic children do their kids a great disservice when they simply accept full inclusion in special education and don't fight for more. | Source

The child with autism is like a Mac in PC world. He's hard-wired differently. Not incorrectly—just differently. Teach him in a manner meaningful to him.

— Ellen Notbohm, author of "Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew"
  • Do you have a child with autism who's struggling at school but don't know what special education services they need?

  • 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 the regular classroom was all your child needed but now you're having doubts?

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

Unfortunately, the services offered depend largely on the state's education budget as well as its overall philosophy about helping children with special needs. When a school system has little to offer, they'll typically tell parents that their autistic youngster will benefit from full inclusion. This means the student will be in a regular classroom and receive no specialized help and must "sink or swim."

While some moms and dads see this as a victory (relieved their child won't be treated differently), many experts in special education see it as a great injustice as these students fall further behind their peers. The kids with parents who fiercely advocate for their needs get the services they deserve. Everyone else gets the crumbs... and, in special education, those crumbs mean full inclusion.

Special Education Has Become Hugely Bureaucratic

In over two decades of teaching, I've seen special education grow bigger, more unwieldy, and hugely bureaucratic. Talented, knowledgeable, and highly trained professionals now spend their time observing and filling out paperwork instead of working directly with students. If you have a child with special needs and have attended IEP meetings, you know the insane number of legal documents involved in the process. Sadly, all those papers and signatures don't translate into useful services for youngsters but simply protect school districts from lawsuits.

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.

— Dr. Jerome Rosner, author of "Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties"

An Autistic Boy Named Landon

During my final year teaching kindergarten, I saw how the special education bureaucracy had grown so unwieldy that the needs of children were no longer met. I had a delightful boy in my class named Landon who had autism. Like some others on the spectrum, he needed three distinct services in special education: 1) direct instruction 2) speech therapy and 3) occupational therapy. Sadly, while our school district had top-notch personnel to cover these services, Landon's mom and dad didn't fight for them. Instead, they drank the Kool-aid that school officials served and submissively settled for full inclusion (aka nothing at all).

Instead of a special education teacher, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist working directly with him, these professionals observed Landon in the classroom and filled out the necessary paperwork. When expressing my concerns to Landon's parents, I was told that they were satisfied with full inclusion alone. They had bought what school officials had told them; inclusion was all their son needed and was the be-all-end-all miracle cure, the one-size-fits-all solution for everything in special education.

What Is Direct Instruction in Special Education?

Direct instruction is the explicit teaching of concepts and skills in a systemic, guided step-by-step manner. In direct instruction, the teacher is the expert, delivering information in an orderly fashion so students master the material. Direct instruction typically involves clearly defined objectives, on-going practice and review, and frequent teacher-student interactions.

Full inclusion in special education has replaced highly effective methods such as small group direct instruction.
Full inclusion in special education has replaced highly effective methods such as small group direct instruction. | Source

1. Small Group Direct Instruction

No strategy is less understood, less used, and less championed than small group direct instruction. Even some professionals in special education cannot explain it adequately. It can seem dull, uninspired, and old-fashioned to many. It's been proven highly effective, though, in helping special needs students by providing clear, concise step-by-step explicit instruction. Unlike full inclusion in special education, direct instruction gets quick results.

To clarify what small group direct instruction is, let's use an example from middle school: 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 four 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 6 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 remaining 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 order.

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. Granted, this adds to the cost of education, but it is important and there probably are ways to solve the added expense problem.

— Dr. Jerome Rosner, author of "Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties"

What Is Speech Therapy?

Speech therapy helps with speech disorders and/or language disorders. Speech disorders are problems with the production of sounds, including articulation, fluency, and resonance. Language disorders are problems with social communication, including receptive (difficulty understanding what's being said) and expressive (difficulty using words purposefully).

Full inclusion in special education is not sufficient for students who struggle with articulation and social communication. They need one-on-one or small group instruction with a speech pathologist.
Full inclusion in special education is not sufficient for students who struggle with articulation and social communication. They need one-on-one or small group instruction with a speech pathologist. | Source

2. Speech Therapy

Speech therapy used to be about lisps and stutters, but today it's indispensable for kids on the autism spectrum. These youngsters often struggle with not only articulation issues but social communication as well. This affects their ability to make friends, get along with classmates, and feel good about themselves. Inclusion alone in special education is not sufficient for them. They need weekly small group or one-on-one instruction with the school's speech pathologist.

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

Let's look at how speech therapy can help at an elementary school. Mrs. Marquez, a 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.

Mrs. Marquez launched a weekly 45 minute class for six kids on the spectrum who struggled with social communication. They met at noon on Mondays 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 the signs that someone is annoyed with you. Then the students would practice what they learned with each other. By the end of the school year, everyone in the group was a more skilled and confident conversationalist, something that never could have been accomplished in their regular classrooms with 35 students.

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.

— Isa Marrs, speech-language pathologist

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapists work with children who have special needs to ensure their success at school. They assist youngsters on the autism spectrum with sensory issues, helping them take in and process information from multiple senses. They also support children with fine-motor skills, such as learning to how to hold a pencil correctly and how to cut properly with scissors.

Inclusion alone is not enough for children with poor fine motor skills. They need on-going occupational therapy.

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 “bloody murder” 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.

Let's look at an example of how occupational therapy helps in kindergarten. Mr. Charles, an occupational therapist in the school district, worked with a 5-year-old child with autism named Clare. The muscles in Clare's fingers and hands were weak so she tired easily from classroom activities such as writing and coloring and got frustrated with activities such as stringing beads, doing puzzles, and tying her shoes.

Mr. Charles worked with Clare once a week for 30 minutes in the resource room. He did activities to strengthen her hand muscles so she'd 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 finder. Clare picked up small objects with chopsticks and tweezers, peeled stickers, pulled up duct tape, and made pictures with 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 in special education.

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.

— Shea Brogren, occupational therapist

This Is a Must-Have Resource for Parents Who Have Children With Sensory Issues

The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, Revised Edition: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (The Out-of-Sync Child Series)
The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, Revised Edition: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (The Out-of-Sync Child Series)

Even though I was an experienced teacher with a master's degree in special education, I was totally clueless when my son got diagnosed with sensory processing disorder followed by autism. Thank goodness, we had a fabulous occupational therapist who guided me through my confusion. She recommended this book to me, and it became a precious resource. I tried so many of the activities with my son and found the ones that worked best for us. I saw him getting stronger, improving his balance and coordination, and having more fun with movement.

 

Questions & Answers

  • 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?

    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.

  • 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?

    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

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