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A Classroom for All: A Study of Autism Inclusion Classes

By: Leah Goering

The Autism Experience: Putting the Pieces Together
April 3rd, 2017
A Classroom for All: A Study of Autism Inclusion Classes 2

Children with autism are all extraordinarily unique and different from one another, so

much so, that autism is considered a spectrum disorder. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder

that impacts the affected individuals ability to communicate and interact with others. For parents

receiving their childs diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, this moment can be filled with

dread and fear. Often one of the first things these parents consider is their childs future.

Following Diagnosis, parents views of the future for their child are often altered by extreme

measures, including in regards to education. Upon hearing the word autism, some parents shift

their expectations from general education classes to special education classes, and from teachers

to para-professionals. While this is one route, many students with autism are integrated into

inclusion classes. An inclusion class is an entirely regular, general education class in which

students with autism spectrum disorder are placed to give them social experiences with children

in their respective grade levels. These classes can be extraordinarily beneficial for some children

with autism because they provide them with positive peer mentors to learn classroom skills from,

and can build their social repertoire and abilities. While not all students with ASD benefit as

much from being in inclusion classes, it is one option that many school systems are currently

taking advantage of to help provide equal opportunities to all students.

Because of the unpredictable behavior that can be an effect of autism spectrum disorder,

students with autism are often placed in special needs classrooms in order to minimize

distractions for the general education neurotypical students. While many professionals agree that

for some children on the autism spectrum, learning in an enclosed autism classroom is the most

productive and beneficial option, many also support the integration of these students into age

appropriate neurotypical classrooms to promote development of social skills; a very crucial area

for many students on the autism spectrum. With the proper support from the general education
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teachers and peer mentors, placing students with autism in inclusion classes can be very

beneficial to the social lives of these students.

The differences between special needs classrooms and inclusion classrooms are vast.

Special needs classrooms often have more money to spend on creating the proper environments

to fit their individual students needs. According to statistics from ASHA, the average annual

funding for a student without disabilities is four to ten thousand dollars, and the average funding

for students with special needs is between ten and twenty thousand dollars a year (ASHA). This

funding helps to reduce the number of students in special needs classrooms, along with the

purchasing of products to customize the spaces. These products can be anything from fluorescent

light covers, to trampolines, to balance stools, to computers, laptops, and tablets for the students.

However, general education teachers often do not have the funding to implicate many of these

strategies because these classrooms have primarily neurotypical students and are designed to

educate students on their appropriate curriculum. Instead, many inclusion classes also serve to

train other students to provide the comfort and assistance for the student with autism via peer-to-

peer programs. These peer programs may teach neurotypical students how to help students with

autism, and they do not require expensive programs or equipment. Many times, inclusion classes

will look like a completely normal classroom, but there will be buddy systems implemented to

assist the student or students with autism. These are just a few of the physical differences

between special needs classrooms and general education inclusion classrooms.

With acts such as the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and the Every Student Succeeds

Act currently in place to help children with autism receive equal opportunities in school, there is

a focus on inclusion now more than ever. With the understanding that autism presents itself very

differently in every individual, and that some children benefit more from being in special needs
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classrooms, as of 2014, an average of only 37 percent of students on the spectrum spent at least

80 percent of their school day in inclusive environments (Heasley, 2014). These numbers are

encouraging, since the push for inclusion classes has increased recently, but this number is still

low compared to what it could be. One of our guest speakers, Dr. Meaghan McCollow, informed

us that her philosophy was not that every child should be placed in inclusion classes, but rather

that every extra moment that a child with autism could be benefiting from an inclusion class,

they should be in one. She reported that for some children this is four hours, and for other

children it is four minutes, but both can gain so much from that time (Meaghan McCollow,

personal communication). One of the greatest ways in which inclusion classes can benefit some

students with autism is through social interactions with their peers.

For individuals with autism, one of the largest challenges they often face is forming

positive relationships with friends and family. Therefore, autism is described not as a learning

disorder (a common misconception), but rather as a developmental disorder. Friendships can be

challenging, so for students with autism that already often lack social understanding, they can be

extraordinarily difficult to decipher. Social situation immersion is one of the greatest benefits that

can come from inclusion classrooms. In most special education classrooms, there are between six

and twelve (elementary) children per class, and there are commonly multiple para-professionals

along with the teacher in this room (United Federation of Teachers). This one-on-one attention

can greatly benefit some children, but it can be restrictive on friendships as well. One study

completed by two psychology professors at Swansea University found that having more staff in

the classroom (in other words a high staff to student ratio) negatively impacted the students

feelings of school belongingness (Osborne and Reed, 2011). These special needs classrooms also

dont provide any neurotypical student models for children with autism to learn positive social
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behaviors from. This has the potential to reduce social progress and growth in some children

with autism that spend their whole days in special needs classrooms. In a study completed by

four psychology professors, they found that peer modeling can be an effective strategy to help

increase the social skills of individuals with autism. The results for response times and prompting

for conversations done with two second graders and one fourth grader (all with ASD) following

time working with student mentors were generally improved. This study also found that it was

helping the other students in the inclusion classes learn how to best interact with students with

autism, and they became more willing to approach the students with neurological disorders

(Owen-DeSchryver, Carr, Cale, and Blakeley-Smith, 2008). In this study, the inclusion classroom

ended up being a great tool for both the students with autism, and the neurotypical students to

learn from each other and help one another grow.

While the prior study found only positive results, there are also some studies that are

finding inconclusive or even negative results from inclusion classrooms. In a study completed by

research professors at the University of California, they found in the specific classroom that they

examined, that the students with autism were not benefiting from the neurotypical students in the

classroom (Locke, Ishijima, Kasari, and London, 2010). This study was different from the first in

that it focused on high school age students with autism. Also, instead of having one or two

students with autism integrate into an inclusion classroom, they studied a class that had seven

students with autism and thirteen neurotypical students. This ratio could have influenced the

overall impact on the social skills of the students with autism. The studys results largely showed

that the neurotypical students were focusing on building relationships with the other neurotypical

students in the classroom, while the students with autism werent willing to approach the

neurotypical students, so their friendships were mainly formed with other students with autism
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(Locke et al., 2010). I believe that the older age of the students, along with the fact that in this

specific inclusion classroom no peer mentor programs had been pre-established, caused the

relative ineffectiveness. I feel as if the results may have been slightly different if from the

beginning of the semester each student with autism was paired with a neurotypical classmate.

In many studies completed on inclusion classes, they have found that not only the

students, but also the teacher of the class plays a large role in the success of inclusion programs.

If a general education teacher does not feel confident in taking on the challenge of making their

classroom into an inclusive environment, then they will have a much more challenging time

successfully integrating students with autism into their classes. Two behavioral scientists

researched if teachers attitudes played a role in the overall success of inclusion. They found that

there was a positive correlation between teachers dispositions and behaviors and the results of

integration. They also found that most educators have positive feelings towards creating

inclusive spaces, and that the more positive a teachers attitude towards it is, the more successful

the program is (Segall and Campbell, 2012). These results make sense because working with

students with autism can take patience, and it often helps if the individual has some knowledge

of the disorder and how to interact with the children. The more positive their feelings toward

integration, the more likely they are to put time and effort into educating themselves and

preparing their classroom.

There are many current treatments for children with autism, but not all of them are

helpful. Teachers that are educated in autism are more likely to be able to distinguish positive

treatments from those that are harmful. In a 2005 study by a special education professor at the

University of Kansas, they created lists of treatments that are harmful, that have not had a

definite impact one way or another, that have had some successes but have not been tested
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enough, and that have been proven with ample evidence to be beneficial (Simpson, 2005). This

information has been providing teachers and caretakers of individuals with autism a list of

treatments to utilize. Another study then took the information provided by Simpson and

researched which of these treatments were being most implicated in inclusion classrooms. The

results showed that for the most part the focus for helping students with autism was on skill

based strategies like assistive technology and Gentle teaching. Furthermore, utilizing Simpsons

tables, they determined that less than 1/3 of the teachers surveyed were using evidence-based

practices, and that 4.7% of these teachers were utilizing harmful strategies for working with their

students (Hess, Morrier, Heflin, and Ivey, 2007). This brings up the controversial topic of the

lack of autism education that general education teachers receive before attempting to convert to

inclusion classrooms.

Currently, general education teachers must seek out training and ideas because they will

not receive any extra information prior to having students with autism integrated into their

classrooms. Our special education guest speaker revealed to us that there is so much useful and

important information out there, but it is not being communicated well to the inclusive classroom

teachers (Meaghan McCollow, personal communication). While self-teaching works for some

teachers, others that are not quite as enthusiastic about working with students with autism may

not take the time to educate themselves. As a result of this, some inclusion classrooms end up

being harmful to the students with autism as they harbor negative environments and may utilize

non-recommended treatments such as holding therapy and facilitated communication (Hess et

al., 2007). As previously stated, inclusion is much more successful when the teacher has a

positive attitude. The same study that found this to be true also discovered that teachers with

substantial training in working with students with autism had much more positive attitudes
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towards creating inclusive learning environments (Osborne and Reed, 2011). That being said, if

we as a nation were able to better prepare our general education teachers to teach and support

these students, inclusion success rates would very likely increase. Along with extra training,

technology has the potential to greatly assist general education teachers to help their students.

In this technology driven era, there are many different programs that can help students

with autism. There are the more well-known options such as assistive communication devices to

help non-verbal students with autism communicate, but there are also many ways in which

general education teachers may be able to take advantage of technology. These methods go hand

and hand with the TPACKs movement. This teaching revolution includes a teachers skill in

their content knowledge, their ability to teach that content (pedagogical), and their ability to use

technology to support that teaching style and content (Hobgood and Ormsby, 2013). One new

program that has the potential to help students with autism learn about how to behave in

inclusion classrooms (and on a larger scale; society), is called 3-D Worlds. This new program lets

the students create avatars and communicate with other individuals using their characters. The

game-style learning teaches the students different skills, primarily communication, social, and

functional living. Creators of the program report seeing large increases within most of these skill

areas for the students they have tested 3-D Worlds with (Stroud, 2009). Programs like these

could be very valuable in the future for helping students with autism to become accustomed to

general education classrooms. This type of program also has the potential to provide general

education teachers with technological resources that they can integrate into their lessons to fulfill

TPACK style teaching and help the students.

While there are many different strategies for helping students integrate into inclusion

classrooms, I believe that one of the best ways to gain a feel for the similarities and differences
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between special education classes and general education inclusion classes is by visiting and

observing in both types of environments. I completed observation hours in both kinds of

facilities over Spring Break. Through this opportunity I was provided with truly interesting

grounds for comparison. Neither environment was obviously superior to the other. Both different

types of classroom had benefits and drawbacks for the students with autism.

In the enclosed-autism special education classroom I visited, there was one teacher, two

para-professionals, and six students. A speech pathologist also visited the classroom for a couple

of hours to work with some of the students. This staff to student ratio was amazing for allowing

the children one-on-one attention. That being said, I also noticed that there was virtually no

communication amongst the students, for the most part conversations were initiated and led by

the adults in the room. Two of the children used assistive technology devices to communicate for

them. One of these individuals (a 3rd grade boy) was very proficient with his device and there

was almost no lag between questions asked of him and his answers. The other individual (a 5th

grade girl) was much less fluent on her device and had to be reminded and prompted for answers

further than yess and nos. In this situation, the enclosed program seemed to be the superior

option for the 5th grade girl because the extra staff allowed for more people to remind her to use

her assistive communication device. Overall this classroom was obviously designed especially

for children with autism. It had covers over the fluorescent lights, balance stools to allow the

students to wobble while they sat, a U-shaped table so the teacher could be close and monitoring

every student while they did their work, and a small sensory corner including mats and a

trampoline. Each student worked through their schoolwork earning pennies on their visual

schedules until they had earned the toy (or activity) they had been working towards. The

classroom was very structured and scheduled allowing the students to know exactly what was
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happening, and what would happen at all times. This same kind of organized day was mimicked

in the inclusion classroom that I visited.

While the inclusion class also had an obvious focus on organization, the schedules

provided went hour-by-hour (instead of the minute-by-minute schedules in the special education

classroom). The inclusion classroom that I visited was a 5th grade classroom and included one

student with autism, and 25 neurotypical students. The student with autism did have a para-

professional with her, but for the most part the classroom was run so that the other students were

responsible for helping the girl with autism to understand what she was supposed to be doing.

This was completed through a program they called POW. POW consisted of students that chose

to be helpers for the child and rotated on a daily basis. She was provided with at least one helper

for the classroom, recess, specials (electives), and lunch. Whoever was her helper would get

prompt cards that reminded her what she was supposed to be doing, and the child with autism

responded very well to this guidance. The classroom teacher was able to continue on with her

normal routine with the assistance of this program. The student with autism sometimes had

issues with controlling her volume level (she got quite loud when she was excited), but her POW

assistants would prompt her to remind her that she was supposed to use her inside voice and talk

quietly. This 5th grade classroom seemed like any other ordinary classroom, and it was exciting to

see the bonds that had clearly been formed between the student with autism and her peer

mentors. Overall, the POW program that this school had implicated in this inclusion classroom

seemed to greatly benefit all the students involved along with the teacher of the class.

While this was just one example of students with autism in special education classes

versus those in inclusion classes, it is obvious that there are benefits to both environments.

Inclusion classrooms have the potential to help students with autism learn valuable social skills
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and to be in environments with their peers. Integration can be done many different ways. Some

inclusion classrooms utilize peer-to-peer programs like POW, while others focus more on using

technology to help students become accustomed to different atmospheres and classroom types. It

has been proven that the general education teachers attitudes towards integration is an integral

part of the success of these programs, and that positive environments attribute to more successful

students. Special education is by no means the only route for the education of students with

autism. Autism is such a unique disorder with so many different aspects to it that each childs

education plan will look differently. Some students need the one-on-one work with educators and

specialists, but for many children with autism spectrum disorder, inclusion classrooms are

helping them to become more independent and social.

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