My child has joined a ‘mainstream’ classroom but is struggling. What can help?
The U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to include children with disabilities in the least restrictive classroom settings that are possible. At the same time, studies show that different levels of so-called “mainstreaming” present different benefits and challenges.1 And parental preference often varies.2 So the first question to ask yourself is “what type of school placement is the best for my child?”
For instance, you have the option of full inclusion, with all classes taught in a mainstream environment, or partial mainstream, with some proportion of classes taught in a more supportive setting. I also encourage parents to keep in mind the potential advantages of a specialist autism school. Making these decisions should always involve a consultation between parents, teachers and the pupil with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Beyond teaching support, we know that bullying and social exclusion affects the mainstream-school experience of many children with ASD. A recent survey estimated that 44% of children with ASD have been bullied.3 Bullying, in turn, can lead to an increased social isolation and mental health difficulties. Another study suggested that the support of classmates is very important to making the mainstream experience a success for the student with autism.4
One method for encouraging peer relationships is a technique called Circle of Friends, where the child with ASD is at the center of a peer group. This group periodically works on specific goals. Another method, which avoids such a strong focus on the child, is to work on social skills in private or with a group of other children with ASD.
Of course, teacher training remains pivotal to supporting the success of children with ASD in a mainstream classroom. Federal law requires that teachers make reasonable adjustments to their teaching strategies and classroom environment to accommodate the needs of pupils with disabilities. In particular, teachers should be encouraged to adjust the content and delivery of the curriculum, to consider the sensory needs of the pupil, and to welcome the input of both parents and special-needs students when planning their educational programs.
Here are some useful resources, along with references to the studies I mentioned:
1. The Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit
2. The Asperger Syndrome/HFA and the Classroom chapter of the Autism Speaks Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Tool Kit
3. Bullying and ASD: A Guide for School Staff (UK)
4. IEPs, iPads and Bullies: 10 Tips from a Dad Who’s Been There, a recent Family Services blog from dad James Vaughan
1. Full inclusion and students with autism. Mesibov GB, Shea V. J Autism Dev Disord. 1996 Jun;26(3):337-46.
2. Parental perspectives on inclusion: effects of autism and Down syndrome. Kasari C, Freeman SF, Bauminger N, Alkin MC. J Autism Dev Disord. 1999 Aug;29(4):297-305.
3. Bullying among children with autism and the influence of comorbidity with ADHD: a population-based study. Montes G, Halterman JS. Ambul Pediatr. 2007 May-Jun;7(3):253-7.
4. Inclusion as social practice: views of children with autism. Ochs E, Kremer T, Solomon O, Sirota K. Social Development. 2001;10(3):399–419.
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