I remember the spring of 2005 like it was yesterday. This may seem like a long time ago, but in many places education hasn’t changed very much with regard to attitudes towards autism and inclusion.
Parents will often have to make sure they keep themselves informed on their rights and make sure that they are advocate number one for their child.
My Story About Getting Inclusion for my Son
I was very nervous as I headed into my son’s first Individualized Education Program (IEP) planning meeting. I had been working in the Early Intervention Field (EI) for the past three years and knew what I wanted for my son as he transitioned into the Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) program. I had made my list of priorities for my son’s educational experience and what was important to us as a family.
Priority #1: Inclusive Education and the Same Opportunities as Other Children
My number one priority was to make sure he was going to be receiving an inclusive education and have the same opportunities the other children were going to have, with proper individualized supports.
As we started the meeting many of the educational team members had done their “research” on my son and read through his file and suggested that he be placed in a segregated setting with other students with autism. I asked how they came to that conclusion since many of them hadn’t even met him as of yet.
The response was shocking to say the least…
“Well Mrs. Morgan he has autism and doesn’t know the routine of the classroom so he has to learn this within a small group with one on one supports.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, how could they just make such a snap decision based on a diagnosis? My response to them was very straightforward…
“What three year old does know the routine of the classroom? This is, for the majority of them, their first time in a preschool setting. We should always assume competence and place children in the least restrictive environment, diagnosis does not drive placement.”
Be Clear on What Inclusion Means
I was then told that our son would be educated in an inclusive setting as the whole preschool is set up that way and that they would incorporate times for him to be with “typical peers”. I thought, do they know what inclusive education is? It appeared my definition and theirs were very different. Where was the collaboration and discussions about options?
It felt like it was us against them and my anxiety went through the roof. I was very upset and didn’t feel heard at all as part of the team. I truly believe that my son’s educational team were a group of individuals that genuinely cared for my son and the students that they were teaching, but highly misguided on two very important things: Inclusive Education & Collaboration of ALL IEP team members.
“Inclusion is more than a set of strategies or practices, it is an educational orientation that respects and builds on the uniqueness that each learner brings to the classroom, and supports and benefits all learners” (Kluth, 2010, p. 23).
Inclusion is not just about sharing space or oxygen with other people but rather engaging ALL students in an educational experience side by side their peers while having access to enriching grade-level curriculum. Anything can be modified and/or adapted for individualized learners.
In my opinion, collaboration is when individuals on a team share their perspectives, strategies and concerns with each other and develop a process, creating a win/win situation for all stakeholders, and is in the best interest of the student. Barriers that have continued to plague the collaboration among families and professionals were a parental feeling of given menu-driven options, mindset from teachers that they knew best, parental mistrust and a lack of interest by teachers and administration to explore the diverse cultures in schools (Rock, 2000).
Swick & Hooks (2005) suggested that there were four major beliefs that parents expressed regarding inclusive education: First, there was a desire from the parents for their children to live a comfortable, happy, healthy and normal life. The second was that the parents were to be an active member on their child’s IEP team and that they felt respected and valued by the professionals. The third and fourth beliefs focused on how restrictive self-contained classrooms were for their children both academically and with regard to social development.
Smith & Rapport (1999) pointed out how concerning these challenges were, as students who started out at the preschool level in a self-contained or segregated classroom, many times, remain in those placements throughout their educational career. It is critical to take a closer look at early childhood education and make this a priority.
The law is clear and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) supports inclusive education and least restrictive environment for ALL students.
Inclusion has Led to Success
Through collaboration and many discussions we decided to have our son placed in an inclusive setting and worked together to incorporate push in supports for him within that classroom setting. Today our son is flourishing. He has graduated from high school and is the first non-speaking person with autism to attend University of Missouri-St. Louis to get his bachelors degree. I truly believe that providing an inclusive education for him from the very start (preschool) has provided an educational foundation for him to be successful.
It is so powerful when someone believes in their potential instead of focusing on their limitations.
While that is a huge achievement, it has not been a success only journey for our family. There will always be obstacles on the way, and it is important to recognize that.
As we continue to strive for inclusion and acceptance in all aspects of life, we have hit a few bumps in the road but seem to always find a way to work through it. Our son is the oldest of four children, and many questions from his siblings friends have emerged.
Advocating is Important; Expert or Not
As a parent of a child with autism as an attribute, professional in the field of Special Education, & a Certified Autism Specialist (CAS) I believe, I bring a unique perspective to the table. I hold a bachelor’s degree in behavioral psychology from Western Michigan University, master’s degree in education with an emphasis in early interventions in autism and sensory impairments from Lindenwood University, & pursuing a doctoral degree in education with an emphasis in andragogy from Lindenwood.
You don’t have to have these credentials to be an advocate for your child, and advocating for your child can make a big difference throughout their education.
Make Sure to Advocate for Your Child
I wrote this article to help other parents of children with autism that you are not alone and that it is important to stand up for your child’s rights in their education. Many educators have different opinions in this area, but know that the law is on your side.
Inclusive education and the least restrictive environment for all students is what the law requires. Remember that.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and my passion is for ALL children to be given opportunities to share their gifts! Believe with your heart, not just what you can see, and the skies the limit!
If you know a professional that can benefit from autism-specific training, please let them know that there are position-specific tracks to become a Certified Autism Specialist™ so that they can learn how to help other children with autism to learn to believe in their potential as well.
Rachel Morgan, MA, CAS
Learn More About Earning an IBCCES Autism Training and Certification