Mainstreaming, or inclusion, is educating children with special needs, including those with autism, in regular education classes for part or all of the school day. According to federal guidelines, children with special needs should be placed in the "least restrictive environment," meaning that, if possible, they should be given the benefits from being with other children without disabilities and not be placed in a classroom with only other children with disabilities. Mainstreaming offers children with disabilities a lot of benefits, but there are some drawbacks as well.
Students with mild disabilities have been included in regular classrooms for many years, however those with more severe disabilities usually went to a separate classroom. They might have been included in classes such as art or music but for the majority of the day, they were taught in the special education class. In the 1970s, there was a more concentrated effort to mainstream these children. Inclusion is meant to show that every student is a valuable member of the school community.
Inclusion essentially combines special education classes with regular classrooms. Special education classes, in the past, included students with many types of disabilities, including cognitive impairment, physical disabilities and autism. Each student who is currently eligible for special education is assessed to determine what amount of the day, anywhere from one subject to the entire day, can be spent in regular education classes, even if that requires support services.
One of the benefits of mainstreaming is helps in preparing students for life outside of school, including college and work. In these areas, children and adults must interact with many different people, both with and without disabilities. Having children with autism spend time in regular classrooms provides the opportunity to interact with different children, not just those with disabilities. Some studies have shown that early inclusion can help children with autism improve both IQ scores and social skills.
Many proponents of inclusion also point out that for children with autism, interacting with neurotypical peers is essential to their growth. It allows for friendships with children without disabilities and provides a model for appropriate social interaction, an area where children with autism have difficulty.
Besides helping those with autism and other disabilities, mainstreaming helps children in regular classroom. It fosters an environment of tolerance and friendships. It helps students learn to accept, relate and become friends with those that might be "different." It helps teachers grow personally and professionally by giving them an appreciation of differences in children and learning new teaching techniques.
Many children with autism have been successful in mainstream classrooms. Some require additional supports, such as an aide that stays with the student, helps him transition from one task to the next and is available to help when the child becomes frustrated. If the student is disrupting the class, the aide can take the child to the resource room. A thorough assessment will help parents and school officials determine where the child will be best served and what supportive services are needed to help him succeed in a regular classroom.
While inclusion offers many benefits, there are also some problems. In special education classrooms, teachers have training on working with a number of different disabilities. They can tailor their teaching to the specific needs of each child. But in a regular classroom, the number of students is much higher and teachers not only don’t have specialized training in autism or other disabilities, they don’t always have the time to provide the attention each child needs.
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, children can range from high functioning to severely disabled. Some children don’t speak and have a difficult time communicating even simple requests. To effectively teach some students with autism, teachers need to understand autism spectrum disorders and possibly change their teaching methods to include different learning styles, sensory sensitivities and communication difficulties. Many special education teachers have received specialized training to effectively work with students with disabilities. Regular education teachers do not have the benefit of this training.
Children with autism may also need intensive and focused instruction, which isn’t available in regular education classes. They may not learn based on traditional teaching methods. They often received social skills training and teachers might have worked on these skills throughout the school day. In a regular classroom environment, this isn’t available as the teacher has a set curriculum and must teach the entire class. While many teachers will provide individual instruction on a nominal basis, there isn’t time for the intensive teaching that some students with autism may need.
Some people believe that mainstreaming will cause children with disabilities to be rejected by their classmates. Because of their difficulty with social skills, there is concern that some will be made fun of or bullied. They feel that this could cause unneeded emotional pain.
It is important that inclusion be considered based on the child, not the diagnosis. While many children with autism are very successful in mainstream classrooms, others need more specialized and individualized lessons. For these children, a smaller classroom, with both teachers and aides, who can provide intensive teaching and individual attention might be best. Whether included in a regular classroom or a smaller, specialized classroom, parents and teachers need to work closely together to make sure that each child’s educational needs are met.
"Going Mainstream," Date Unknown, Cindy Long, National Education Association
"Inclusion," Date Unknown, Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA-D, National Autism Center
"Inclusion of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders." 2005, Melisa Daily, John Hopkins School of Education
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.