Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Inclusion: Make It an Open Classroom Discussion

Diane Levinthal
http://www.socialstrides.com

Sensitivity and compassion can result from having kids with autism and social challenges included in regular education classrooms. It is also likely that there will be no choice other than inclusion, financially, in the future. Classrooms will have to accept differences (and I write this knowing that every child is "different"). How do we make inclusion positive for everyone involved?

I taught in a district autism spectrum inclusion project, have worked in speech for 25 yrs, and have a middle school child with PDD/ADHD. In my experience, what is important and overlooked is that regular education peers are not given good information. The teachers are trained (supposedly) as are the other staff, but the kids themselves are told little besides "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It has been my observation that in kindergarten and early elementary school, most kids are either fairly supportive of an included classmate and may try to help them out in the classroom, or -- more often -- politely ignore them. But once they hit the last half of third grade, all children are aware when a classmate is significantly different.

One of the most helpful things I was able to do for my son and his classmates in an included setting (and for the other included peer in that same class) was to talk with them all about social, organizational, attentional, and sensory "challenges" and "how to handle this as a peer." Students were absolutely astounded and relieved to find that it would be okay, for example, to tell a socially challenged peer that they were tired of listening and now it would be their turn to speak. Yes! It's okay to be direct and spell out the rules for "social"! Please do! Kids need to know that included classmates are not "out of step on purpose!" Regular education peers need roadmaps and information, and their included classmates can provide them.

Regular education peers are more helpful and more understanding when they know what the heck is going on with a classmate. After I spoke about social challenges in my son's fourth grade class, his peers not only started coming up with helpful solutions that the staff hadn't thought of, but they asked  better questions about things they needed to know. Their parents showed up afterward to learn more about the "workshop" that held their child's interest and developed more understanding of social challenges.

My presentation was effective not because I am a wonderful speaker, but because I had information that classmates wanted, and I shared it in a very practical way. All parents of special needs kids have this information, can share this information with their children's classmates. The object is to demystify and share practical strategies which allow peers and classmates to help themselves, and which end up helping our kids.

On a social level, it's the other students who have to deal with our kids 99% of the time, not the staff.  We tell siblings what's going on, why not the regular education classmates? I think they deserve that much and can handle it. This is nothing like pointing out who does and doesn't have challenges in a particular classroom -- it is just about understanding and learning to cope with something that they are going to see during each year of school.

And that's what I told my son's classmates: "There are certain learning challenges on the rise and you will deal with this in your families, in class, and in the community." As I wrote, kids know who has social challenges -- no one needs to use names or point fingers. I found that the two kids in the class who were on the autism spectrum welcomed a discussion, and ended up sharing out loud what life is like for them. The regular education peers were absolutely glued to their seats, listening and learning. They got it, and at a deep level.

After the workshop one regular education fourth grader said, "I really don't know what this autism thing is (and I never used the word 'autism'!), but I just know that if it didn't exist, there is a lot I would not have in my life." This was a kid who had two friends on the autism spectrum who  could deal with his "ADHD-ish" challenges without teasing him or making him feel weird. Lovely. Again, everyone has "differences" in a classroom. One of the kids with autism wrote me a letter saying, "Thank you for telling people that it's okay to tell me what I should do -- I am so scared when people just yell at me."

So, if you have a child with autism who is included in a regular education classroom, think about going into your child's class and sharing some specific yet age appropriate information, especially if you plan on having your child stay in that school for several years. An added benefit is that if aides or teachers are present during your talk, they may learn more about the realities of children with autism and social challenges than they would at a teacher in-service training, and they can also feel freer to ask questions about challenges "on behalf of the children."

A version of this essay was originally published at Squidalicious.com