Where you live can have a major impact on whether your child with autism will end up in an inclusive or segregated class, according to a study in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Looking through U.S. Department of Education data from 1998 to 2008, University of Kansas assistant professor of special education Jennifer Kurth found that “considerable variations exist among states in placing students with autism spectrum disorders in inclusive, mainstreaming, self-contained and separate schools.” Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just IQ and other child characteristics that determine what kind of class a child with autism will end up in.
On average, about 37 percent of students on the spectrum spent at least 80 percent of their school day in inclusive environments, reports Disability Scoop. Yet there was a wide range in stats, from 8 percent of kids in inclusive classrooms in Washington D.C. to 62 percent in Iowa. All in all, states in the Eastern U.S. have more restrictive placement rates than those in the Western U.S. The states that tend to favor inclusion: Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. States that tend toward more restrictive settings: Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Washington D.C. Surprisingly, Kurth’s findings did not indicate that state funding had a clear-cut impact on placement.
What’s the takeaway for parents of kids with special needs? Same as it always is: It’s up to us to make sure our children get the education and services that are the best fit for them. Educators and other experts may steer us in one direction, but as parents, we have the right to push for the educational settings in which we feel our children will flourish. We also have to work with the realities of our school districts, no matter what the law is. My son is in a private special needs school, and our district pays for it. Several years ago, I looked into the possibility of including him in a local public school. At the time, our district had fired all of the long-term aides and brought in hourly workers. Our district liaison said to me, straight up, that the quality of the workers was dubious and that my son was better off staying put in his special needs school. I could have pushed it, I could have tried to find my own aide, I could have done any number of things. In the end, though, my husband and I felt that the special needs school Max was in was the right choice for him.
Bottom line: Regional differences may exist in terms of classroom placement for kids with special needs, but parents everywhere know what’s best for their child.
Max goes to a wonderful school for kids with special needs. Yet at times, I have second thoughts about whether I’m doing him wrong by not sending him to an inclusive program in a public school. When I’d checked in with our district coordinator a couple of years ago, a woman whose opinion I value, she was negative about the possibilities. For one, the aides in the system were not up to par, she told me; our district had recently fired the longtime, experienced aides and brought in hourly-rate staffers of dubious quality, Also, Max would have to be pulled out a lot from class for the various therapies he needed. She thought it would be disruptive. We both agreed that his current school is the best place for him.
I worry about Max growing up in the hothouse of special needs, in which he mainly interacts with other kids who have disabilities. Someday, when he is out of school, navigating the real world may come as a shock to him. I also think it would be beneficial to him to be around typically-functioning kids. He is a really social child who loves being around other people. Is he missing out?
NPR ran a powerful story on inclusion this weekend, Learning With Disabilities: One Effort To Shake Up The Classroom. A federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), declared that students with disabilities had the right to the “least restrictive environment” in educational settings. Still, NPR says about 17 percent of students with any disability spend all or more of their days separated from their peers, though that figure may be a lot higher: According to a report several years ago by TASH–an international advocacy association for people with disabilities—at least 57 percent of students with intellectual disability received all of their instruction in a special education classroom or separate school.
The NPR article took a look at San Francisco’s Presidio Middle School, where about 10 percent of 1200 students have special needs ranging from a mild learning disability to severe physical, emotional and mental ones. The school has a handful of mixed classes. There is a also a segregated classroom, though Presidio includes those kids in gym class, art and other electives.
Documentary filmmaker Dan Habib, father of a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and an advocate for inclusion, notes that Samuel’s inclusion in school classrooms has carried over to relationships and peer support outside the school. “He’s also had a tremendous impact on his peers,” Habib noted. “His peers now see disability as part of the natural diversity of our world.” He points out that changing special education systems can be a lot of work, but it’s “the only way to go forward.” He makes a powerful case for inclusion in his TEDx talk Disabling Segregation. It’s very much worth watching, and will give you yet more pause if your child is in a special education setting, as it has for me. I will, once again, be bringing up the possibility of inclusion with our district coordinator.
Ultimately, you have to do what you and the experts in your life think is what’s best for your child…but sometimes, it is so hard to know.