Fellow blogger, Sam from It's Me, Sam, made a comment recently on a post I wrote relating events that had occurred over the course of a day in my special needs classroom:
"Jane, do you teach children with Autism or special needs in their own class, or are they mainstreamed like all children with special needs here? I'm just reading about your day and thinking to myself, if my nephew could be in a classroom like yours, he might be able to manage the school routine better than he copes now."
I promised I would speak to this and other comments so here goes. There is a ton of controversy out there over the benefits of full inclusion of children with special needs in the regular classroom. For me it all boils down to this: inclusion must be meaningful for everyone in order for it to be worthwhile. This is my own philosophy and not everyone agrees with it. But I am not going to get into arguments - I just want to let you know how it works here.
Every student is an individual - we can't just lump them all together and expect things to work out - elaborate planning must take place. What works for one doesn't work for all. In elementary school all students are included in the regular classroom; however, some are withdrawn to work on alternative goals from time to time, and the amount of time depends on the needs of that particular student. Levels of support from educational assistants also varies depending on the level of need.
In highschool I have more leeway in developing individual plans for each student. My classroom is called the School to Community room because that is the "path" my students are on. Over the years we have called the various "pathways" by different terms like "streams" etc but in effect they mean the same thing. Every highschool has a School to Community classroom and we consider this to be "home base." My students range in abilities from non-verbal, extremely low intelligence to those who have a mild intellectual disability and are able to achieve a few credits. ALL students leave the classroom throughout the day - some just for a few minutes of exercise and some for up to the WHOLE day! Quite a range!
Currently I have 5 students with Autism which is a record for me. The 2 Gr. 9 boys only leave the classroom for lunch (which they eat in the cafeteria), for physical activity and 1 of them has started helping out at our candy store. In the second semester the boy who is helping at the store will also start going to a physed class now that I know him better.
My students with autism all follow visual schedules and have the same routine day in and day out. There are of course days when there are changes like last Friday there was a musical being put on by the drama department and we all went to that. As long as students are prepared in advance for the change in schedule they usually manage ok. We are always prepared to bring any student back to the classroom if need be.
Sam - it could well be that with a more structured program and a "home base" your nephew would cope better. Inclusion isn't for everyone all of the time. The classes I choose for my students to be included in are geared to their interests - I am totally against putting a special needs student in a class where the content would be over their heads and thus either cause them to be embarassed or non-participatory- the time could be much better spent on other activities geared to their interests and needs.
There are a very few students who will never take a class outside of my room due to their behavior and/or intellectual level. However they are included in many other ways (who said inclusion is just for academics anyways?): they go to all of the masses, assemblies, concerts, the cafeteria for lunch, to the mall, on all sorts of community outings, to various parts of the school for vocational tasks, to the library and footballs games etc. We also have a club called Best Buddies wherein my students are matched (by me - do I sound like a control freak??) with mainstream student volunteers. These kids are amazing - they love to come in and interact with my students. Remember my tupperware boy? The volunteers will squat on the other side of a doorway and pass the tupperware back and forth to him. Some of the friendships that have been formed over the years are still active.
There is so much to be said for meaningful time spent with peers.
See "Norman" up there at the top of my post? He is graduating next June and I will be absolutely heartbroken. And I won't be the only one. I once overheard Norman's EA say to him - "you light up my world" and he truly does. Norman is non-verbal and mentally is at the level of an 18 month old. He can walk but not well enough to get too far, hence the wheelchair. A hero of mine, Jean Vanier, once said that if the only purpose a person has on earth is "to give love and receive love" then that is purpose enough. This describes Norman's life: he "hugs" us all day long by walking up to us and putting his head on our shoulder. One time he put both arms around me and "patted" my back so hard I was off for 3 days lol! Doesn't know his own strength.
Norman will approach even our hardest-to-serve aggressive students and they are putty in his hands. He hugs them, pats them, and laughs and laughs. He doesn't speak but he understands just about anything we say to him. One day he was patting Michael and they just instinctively started to roll around sort of wrestling on the floor. I don't think either had any previous "roughhousing" experience and Todd (although getting the worst of it) couldn't stop laughing. (And yes I got some pictures).
Another wonderful thing about Norman is how he allows us to give him our love. You know how there are days when you just need a hug? Just need some physical contact? Norman's our man. I don't think I can put into words the benefits to all who know him of his affection and love. The more love and attention you want to give him the better he likes it. (Now, just to be entirely truthful Norman does have his days when he is a real grumpus but usually comes around after a while.)
I took the photo above when I spotted Norman and his mom sitting on the corner of the street where they live. Norman just loves to watch traffic go by - he loves anything with wheels. Every day after school Norman's mom takes him to the end of their street where there is a busy intersection. They sit for hours and have become a well-known fixture at this spot. When I saw them I quickly parked the car and went and had a chat.
You can bet that when Norman graduates I'll be making more trips to that part of the city so I can get my "Norman-fix"! What I have learned from that boy is too enormous to be completely captured in this post - he has taught me about humanness - there is nothing greater than that.
Norman deserves his own chapter in my future book. Heck - maybe the entire book!