Autism and thoughtful inclusion

Michelle Garcia Winner

I was recently asked to write about the social skills kids need to have acquired to benefit more fully from an integrated setting. While this is a huge question I will write some basic thoughts on this concept.

Many of you who are familiar with my work know that I talk about the social complexities of the classroom learning environment. While we often only teach social skills for the context of playing or conversing the reality is that students use social thinking and related social skills every moment they are around people including more structured environments like classrooms. While I know our political education plan is quick to advocate the inclusion of all kids into “integrated” settings as much as possible, I encourage “thoughtful inclusion” rather than making blanket statements that “all kids should be included”. I think kids with social learning challenges have extraordinary problems with processing social information “in mass”. These challenges are far beyond the challenges of students with more typical learning disabilities. I think that much of the research on inclusion of special needs kids fails to really look specifically at the inclusion of kids with social learning challenges and how much they are learning of a functional nature of how to participate with others given the amount of cueing and support (Paraprofessionals helping to complete their work for them, etc.) in this environment. Now take what I am saying here with the understanding that I have gone to great lengths to explore different levels of the social mind in other articles on my website, so I am not making blanket statement here. It is all about really thinking about the student and what we are REALLY teaching them so they can learn to function as more independent, self-regulated students and then adults who can also have command of academic information (as much as their brains allow them to learn).

I do think “inclusion” is much more realistic for many in elementary school and becomes increasingly unrealistic for many of our more socially challenged learners in middle school and high school not only due to the social complexities of this age group but also because of the social abstractions taught through the curriculum.

As we discuss “inclusion” or “integrated” settings it is important to make sure we define these terms as part of an IEP team to make sure we are all on the same page. I have seen many kids “integrated” or “included” who do their own curriculum and don’t spend much time with the larger group as they are mostly off by themselves with paraprofessionals having individual instruction in the back of the class. While I actually have no problem with this, it is not what I think a parent thinks “inclusion” means for his or her child. Let’s be honest about what we can really do to help children learn. We can’t make all kids good group learners just because public law says we should unless they have some magical potion or cure for deep neurological learning problems that they have not shared with us? Even “highly qualified teachers” cannot teach some of our more challenged high-functioning kids with autism or Asperger Syndrome to learn effectively in a group of 30. Some of our kids cannot attend to people talking even in a group of 3 (and these can be some “high functioning” kids!).

On the other hand, there is real value in having students in a school become “mentors” to our students with social learning challenges to help guide them through social interactions and learning the “hidden rules”. I am careful to distinguish between a “mentor” and a “peer model” -- as Pamela Wolfberg would describe these kids as being “expert players” or having been given explicit instruction on how to help guide our more socially challenged peers. This is a lovely combination and through this relationship many of the “mentors” also learn the remarkable skills of many of our socially challenged learners.

I do not agree that for the most part our students benefit from the simplicity of being around “neurotypical peer models”. If they were to benefit from peer modeling we would not need all this specialized teaching. But our students social learning challenges are deeper than just modeling appropriate social skills; they are also about learning (when possible) the related Social Thinking concepts to help them figure out more intuitively how to use their social skills.

The below list details a few of the many aspects that need to be considered when integrating a child into the “mainstream environment”.

1. Basic joint attention: the ability to understand that you have to follow what someone is looking at to follow what they are thinking about. Group education is about understanding that even in kindergarten 20 kids can follow the intentions and thoughts of one teacher. While I realize paraprofessionals are assigned when a child cannot do this, the question is how much is that child learning as part of a group.

2. At the very least, a basic functional communication system for expression of basic wants and needs. Putting non-verbal or minimally verbal students who lack the ability to effectively process and respond to language in a classroom is not to their benefit. While it may look good on the data a school reports about integrating students, kids in groups need to have a way to communicate with each other.

3. Recognition that when you communicate in a class you need to track if someone is listening to you. Those who talk without tracking how people are responding to them (reading some basic non-verbal cues are actually not communicating, they are just simply talking.) Group education is dependent on having students track not only the teacher but others students in the class.

4. It is helpful to try and teach all our students that everyone in a classroom is to “share the same thought”. Some of our students (even some of our high IQ students) do not realize the teacher is teaching everyone the same lesson.

5. Learn how to ask for help; your paraprofessional or teacher should not anticipate a child’s every more. If adults do this with students they actually enable them to become more disabled, rather than teach them strategies to learn to cope on their own.

6. Assess the students basic functional attention span for learning tasks he is motivated by and tasks that he or she finds unmotivating. Make decisions about including a child based on how long they can attend to a topic being addressed in our classes. Some of our kids can attend to basic math for 30 minutes but can’t attend in language arts at all. Realize that there are differences in the amount of social thinking required in these different subjects. One subject may be much harder, so move away from assuming you should include a child for every aspect of learning especially if they are showing signs of stress or lack of ability to attend!

7. If a child is having consistent negative reactions in a classroom and a good attempt has been made to help the student acquire a classroom routine and strategies are used to help the child learn the lessons in a more abstract way, the team may have to realize that the function of the behavior is to try and escape a complex environment (that seems intuitively simple to his peers) that he simply can’t learn in. Some of our “brighter” kids are very fragile as they don’t have coping strategies for moving at the pace of a larger group..and a paraprofessional makes them feel really “stupid”.

8. For more advanced kids we also want to assess and then possibly teach skills related to:

* What is blurting and how to you avoid it by tracking and thinking about who the teacher is directing their attention to.
* What does it mean to raise your hand in class? Should you expect the teacher to call on your every time you raise your hand? Why not? Does a teacher notice that you are participating when you raise your hand even if she doesn’t call on you (yes!)?
* How do you work with peers in a group (center based activities or peer work groups). Can you take over the group; should you tell people their ideas are “stupid”; should you allow everyone else to do the talking and you just sit there quietly?

This is a difficult topic that could go on and on. There are NO EASY answers. Every kid is not easily summarized by his eligibility category, they also have phases of development, levels of cognition that allow some learning to be very easy or incredibly difficult, they may have mental health problems, such as extreme anxiety, that add to the complexity.

Please understand I am not making a blanket statement about inclusion being “good” or “bad”; I am just saying that it is not as easy as it sounds and many (not all) of our kids are not benefiting as much as we might think they are from learning in an environment that their brains cannot easily process: working as part of a larger group of students when they struggle to understand perspective taking, while having to demonstrate they are learning a curriculum that may not be user friendly to their brains, in a set period of time because the academic curriculum is a curriculum on a clock. Teachers know all the lessons they have to teach to prepare for the state’s spring high-stakes testing; they cannot slow down the learning clock because students have IEP goals (welcome to No Child Left Behind!).

The bottom line is, does the inclusion of this child in the curriculum help him to learn social information about how to work well with others (e.g. problem solving, group participation, etc.) while also learning the academic information of the classroom to help the student develop functional skills for transitioning into the adult world? Because at the end of the day or the end of a child’s life as a student in public education what really counts is whether he has developed skills to help him be more successful as an adult.

If we coached a child through his school years with such intensity that he never figured anything out for himself it can be argued that he did not really “learn” but instead was just “managed”.

I have some ideas on how to assess some of these skills under my “informal assessment” section of my book, Thinking About You Thinking About Me, 2nd edition. I also raise many more questions and have a deeper discussion around the exploration of the topic “what are social skills?” and “how do we teach them?” in my book, A Politically Incorrect Look at Evidence Based Practices and Teaching Social Skills.

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