To mainstream or not to mainstream? That is the question addressed in this week's episode. It's not just any question, but the question: do we offer safety and security, or the wider world of general education and mainstreaming? Do we continue to segregate children with autism as we did in the past, or do we open the doors to the big, bad world for them?
Most parents of children with ASD who are being educated away from a general education setting struggle over this question. For a few, it's an easy question to answer; for many, it's very difficult. There are many factors that parents must consider when making this decision: Can their child do the academics? Will his behaviors interfere with the classroom and disturb the other students trying to listen to the teacher? Will their child be affected by the larger class size? Will she be bullied and teased? Will he have the necessary support to make inclusion a success? Will they learn? And then the really big worry - will he make friends?
For each child with autism spectrum there is a unique answer, since children with this disorder are so unique themselves. Research has clearly shown that children with ASD need intensive intervention - along with positive social and language models to increase appropriate behaviors and to decrease inappropriate behaviors. We also know that the earlier they have this exposure and training, the better. It's a myth that children with ASD do not imitate; they certainly do. But they are selective imitators, and will imitate inappropriate behaviors just as much as appropriate ones, since they have a hard time telling the difference. Thus, if they're surrounded by other children with inappropriate behaviors, imitation will occur, and the child will acquire a new collection of inappropriate behaviors to add to the ones he has developed on his own.
The decision to mainstream shouldn't hinge solely on the student's ability to adapt and learn or even the severity of the disability, but on whether or not the appropriate supports can be put into place to make inclusion a success. It's unfair to put a child into general education classes without a thorough analysis, teacher training and appropriate support necessary to achieve success. This would not be "mainstreaming" or the broader "inclusion," but rather "dumping." Too often, analysis and provision of support doesn't happen. Ultimately, the child's behaviors escalate, teachers and parents are frustrated, the child regresses and then adults come to the erroneous conclusion that mainstreaming (or inclusion) doesn't work.
Max is a very smart child and deserves to be challenged academically to fulfill his promise. But it would be unfair not to train his general and special education teachers on Asperger's Disorder and on his individual Asperger's profile; provide a gifted teacher for those classes in which he needs enrichment; set up a positive behavior plan similar to what Adam and Kristina have learned from Gaby; and also to start using programs in the classroom that will build a network of peer support for him. Max can succeed in the mainstream setting when he's given a fair chance.
Is this a lot of work? Yes. Is this scary? Absolutely. But is it worth it? The ultimate question that Adam and Kristina must consider is not should we mainstream, but will mainstreaming help Max be an independent, successful and happy adult? That's the final, critical question to be examined. Autism spectrum disorder greatly affects individuals' functioning throughout their lives; they need time to learn and adjust to being the independent, successful and happy people they deserve to be. This means their parents must start exposing them to the real world early. If Max is completely sheltered and protected throughout all of his educational years, then being faced with the broader world for the first time as he graduates into the adult world will be a devastating shock to his system indeed.
Mainstreaming Max requires strong advocacy from his parents as well as everyone's firm belief that he can be successful. Adam and Kristina are taking a big step, but they appear to be very capable of solving the predictable hurdles that go along with mainstreaming and inclusion. It will be interesting to watch how they solve the various challenges in this new environment.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.