Why fit in when you were born to stand out?
“If our goal is to train and educate our students with this disability so that they can grow up to function as contributing, independent members of society, then we must enable them to apply what they have learned. The inclusion classroom is the most practical place to do this.” (Cammuso, 2011)
The writer here explores the option of inclusion for individuals on the spectrum. The heading, ‘Why fit in when you were born to stand out’ is a quote by Seuss which the writer thinks suits the context very well as most of the families having individuals on the spectrum often worry about ‘fitting’ them into the community as it is known clearly that most individuals on the spectrum have difficulty with social engagement (Bauminger-Zviely et al, 2013). However, one often forgets the skills they possess like attention to detail, intense concentration, memory etc. which sets them apart compared to neurotypicals (Autism speaks, 2012).
There are some provisions made by the Government of India for Inclusion. The newly launched Rights of Persons with Disability Bill, 2014 currently covers 19 conditions including Autism Spectrum Disorder, The National Trust Bill- ‘National Trust for Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act which was passed in 1999 considers autism as a condition of its own and individuals with autism can avail its benefits and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (2001) which translates as ‘Education for All’ is a disability inclusive program and not specific to any disability considers all the benefits for people with disabilities. The Action Plan for Inclusion of Children and Youth with Disabilities also asserts that all of them will have admission to mainstream education and through the collaboration with Rehabilitation Council and the National Council for Teacher’s Education, it will warrant that there are trained staff and resources to aid the process of inclusion in schools. The Inclusive Education for Disabled Children at Secondary Stage launched in 2009 provides a provision for children who have special needs or disabled children including autism of 11th and 12th classes (Kohama, 2012).
It has been observed that individuals on the spectrum gain a lot when they are a part of the general educational set-up (Vander-Wiele, 2011). In fact, the National Autistic Society in London, UK believes that an inclusive education system is an imperative component of a more inclusive society (Batten, 2006).
It has been observed that if all the services required by such individuals are provided in an inclusive set-up along with the neuro-typical peers, then the benefit is maximum both for the individual as well as in terms of resources and money involved ( Allen & Cowdery, 2005; Bailey & McWilliam, 1990). Having an inclusive set-up will make individuals without disability generally more comfortable being around those who are and this leads to increase in the awareness and acceptance (Giangreco et al. 1993). Contrary to this Nowicki and Sandieson (2002) asserted that neurotypicals actually favoured interacting with only those without any physical or intellectual disability. However, another study (Lynch & Irvine, 2009) on this have also pointed out how individuals with autism can imitate their peers and learn different skills including socially acceptable behavior and this can lead to positive relationships and self-growth among them (Copeland et al. 2002).
A study (Eldar et al. 2010) conducted in Israel showed how inclusion led to improvement in these three areas: Social, Behavioral and Cognitive. In the social domain, individuals with ASD received high social support and built a good social network, in the behavior domain, they not only became more independent but they also learnt to cope. Although improvement in cognitive domain was slow, it still showed some improvement in their learning and academic skills. The study also explains the importance of providing and preparing other students for inclusion to be successful. These students need to be explained about different behaviors of individuals on the spectrum and the reasons for it which will influence the way they will treat their peers who are on the spectrum in the same classroom (Eldar et al. 2009). The same was also reported by Campbell et al. 2004, 2005).
A study (Vander-Wiele, 2011) explains inclusion in terms of Least Restrictive Environment. It asserts that inclusion must be the choice whenever it is possible and it should involve teachers, psychologists, peers, parents and administrators working together to make the classroom least restrictive for individuals with ASD. Another study (Horrocks, 2008) suggested that if principal of the school believed that individuals with autism could be included in general classrooms, then she/he is most likely to follow and recommend others to follow inclusion. An interesting study on inclusion reveals positive outcomes related to peer interaction and engagement in activities (Sansosti, 2012). There are different techniques and strategies that could be employed to make inclusion possible. One such study which looked at effective strategies was conducted by Harrower and Dunlap in 2001. It explains strategies such as priming or prepractice, prompt delivery, picture schedules, some self- management strategies, peer-mediated interventions like peer tutoring, utilizing peer support, cooperative learning etc. These strategies if applied consistently and systematically could provide some good outputs.
Considering the number of positive results found in literature on inclusion, the writer asked some practitioners and parents about their views on inclusion. They are presented below.
“In my opinion, inclusion is necessary as children with autism need to develop their social skills and pragmatics of social communication which can happen only in the context of mainstreaming. On the downside there is a fear in most parents that their ‘normal’ children will learn some inappropriate behaviors from children with autism. However with awareness and educating children, it would be possible to offset any negative consequences attached to mainstreaming”. This view has been supported by a study conducted by Lynch and Irvine (2009) where they discuss how inclusion leads to positive social interactions and a greater chance to learn and improve social skills. Another study conducted by Simpson et al. (2003) states the importance of all inclusion programs to include different methods to raise awareness and acceptance among not just students but also parents, teachers and administrators about autism and the rationale behind inclusion.
A special educator’s view on inclusion was as follows, “Inclusion is definitely beneficial not only for individuals on the spectrum but even for typically functioning individuals. As we all know that social interactions poses a biggest challenge for individuals on the spectrum. It is not that they “hate” social interaction but do not know “how” to interact. So an inclusive setup gives them this opportunity to observe and learn appropriate social interactions from peers and supporting teachers”. This view is also explained by Egel et al (1981) in their study explaining how students with autism gain a lot through observing their peers and imitating them.
The special educator being interviewed further says how “For typically functioning individuals, this can be an opportunity to learn lessons on values such as acceptance and compassion right from a very young age. This can lead to a future society where people learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and accept the differences. Also typically functioning individuals can observe and learn from individuals on the spectrum- they can learn how to observe minutely, how to complete a task meticulously etc. The key is that typically functioning individuals can learn from the strengths of individuals on the spectrum and in turn individuals on the spectrum can learn appropriate social skills from them”. This view was also conceptualized by Kellegrew in 1995 and by McDonnell in 2003 explaining how inclusion leads to acceptance and greater awareness among neuro-typical children and that they learn from each other.
“Inclusion is good if students and staff is well aware of Autism and the special needs of these children. The students with autism should have good support system to develop their social and communication or any other special needs they might have” was the view of the principal of a special school in Bangalore. A study by Vakil et al in 2008 also points that a lot of changes and accommodations will need to be made, regular classroom education and special education needs to be joined and the educator needs to plan with all the concerned members to make inclusion of such children to be successful. This point leads to another publication by Hampshire County Council in 2010, where it clearly points out a whole school approach to management of children with autism spectrum disorder. It puts across key points like commitment to inclusion, awareness of the nature of the disorder, the responsibilities of the staff members, planning and arranging classroom, resources etc. to ensure inclusion of children with ASD is meaningful.
It is also important to reflect on what parents thought about the idea of inclusion of children with ASD. Below are some excerpts from the parents:
“Each child with ASD is unique in his/her characteristics and needs. Factors like his attention levels, eye contact, cognitive capacity, behavior issues, independence etc. are to be considered before inclusion. But to put it briefly, I would say Inclusion should definitely be an option for all children with ASD ,as unless u include ASD children in regular set ups, how would you know their potential and capacity to achieve what other children can ,if not better. Children with ASD have a lot of hidden potential which can be enhanced only through inclusion and customized individual education programme”.
The Inclusion Development Plan in the UK, published in 2009, clearly specifies guidelines for practitioners to support young children on the autism spectrum. The writer thinks, if such guidelines are made keeping the Indian context in mind then inclusion of such children can be made possible. This addresses the views of the parent stated above and below. With guidelines like how to address the individual needs using different kinds of resources to enhance their learning and development, by providing early intervention in inclusive set-ups, it will be possible to give them a great beginning to not just their education but the rest of their life.
“Inclusion of children with ASD? I personally feel that it is far from reality. There may be schools who are trying, but I can’t imagine my son in a set up like that. Who will accept him? Will they be okay if he suddenly runs out of class? Will they be okay if he hurts himself because of sensory overload? I am not sure they will all be equipped to handle it. If there are schools with trained and experienced staff, then maybe we can try”. This point is supported by a study where it explains how teacher training is the most important factor that is considered by parents in an inclusive set-up (Humphrey, Symes, under review).
Considering all the points mentioned above, the writer feels that only if a whole-school policy is employed, inclusion will live up to its meaning. The same has been explained by a study (Barnard et al, 2000) which explains how inclusion cannot be dependent on the ideas/interest of one or two staff but there requires an alteration in the perspective and thinking of the entire school for inclusion of children with autism to be successful.
Swathi Vellal Raghunandan
Ishanya India Foundation
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