“All Things Considered” recently did a segment questioning whether children with autism do better in an inclusive classroom or in a specialized school. I think a parent’s decision about the type of learning environment that is best for their child with autism considers much more than whether the environment is inclusive or specialized. I don’t see how the conversation can be complete when you do not talk about the vast differences in services offered in each learning environment. There are a limited number of hours in the day thus making it very difficult for a child with autism to receive appropriate access to services like speech, OT, ABA, and physical therapy if an appropriate not is offered at school. (Don’t even get me started on the difference between medical, educational, and developmental delays and who is responsible for paying for therapy in each area.) These therapies are vital to our kids success in the classroom and in life, generally.

Caroline working one on one with a therapist while her Montessori classmate select "work" to complete.

Caroline working one on one with a therapist while her Montessori classmate select “work” to complete.

Philosophically I agree with Ari Ne’eman, head of Autistic Self Advocacy Network who argued that, “Segregated schools lead to segregated societies. Inclusive schools give us the opportunity for inclusive societies.” Ne’eman explains that in his experience many segregated schools and classrooms have what he calls a culture of low expectations. “If we have an environment in which autistic people are over there, in that other classroom, in that other environment, it really sends a very clear message that we are not a part of your society,” he says.

I, however, do not think the philosophical underpinnings of Ne’eman’s comment should be used as a juxtaposition explaining why kids on the spectrum “fare” better in inclusive classrooms.

I don’t think Caroline would ‘fare’ better in an inclusive classroom where she was not given the resources she needs to thrive which unfortunately has been the case to this point. Schools who offer inclusion hide behind “least restrictive environment” and do not provide adequate access to therapeutic services.  Inclusion is so important, I don’t want to go back to the days where kids with special needs are relegated to receiving instruction in a coat closet. But it is important to set up all kids up for success and for many kids on the spectrum, Caroline included, that means providing a great deal of therapeutic support.

I guess until inclusive classrooms come with adequate therapeutic support, I am in favor of segregated or specialized schools that do provide daily therapy.  But then again maybe not. One of the biggest joys of my life was watching Caroline perform in a ballet recital alongside her typically developing peers at the Montessori School she attended in Chicago. Yes, she had to have a teacher sit next to her to make sure she didn’t walk off stage but seeing her next to her peers not only gave me joy and hope at a time when I really needed it but it also pleased Caroline–she screamed with delight when the curtain was opened. And in this Montessori environment Caroline was able to receive one on one therapy right beside her peers–she worked with a therapist while they completed various “works”. However, once she aged out of Early Intervention this was no longer an option. But why can’t it be–why can’t kids like Caroline be offered the access to services they need alongside their typically developing peers? Caroline deserves the opportunity to have “normal” childhood experiences AND access to the therapy that will make life easier for her to navigate as she gets older.

What do you think?  Are discussions about inclusive classroom instruction for kids with autism philosophical/political conversations or does an inclusive classroom create an opportunity that will allow kids with autism to thrive? Is it possible for kids on the spectrum to receive adequate therapeutic support alongside their peers in a public school, inclusive classroom setting?