Inclusion is a term coined to describe the notion that students with disabilities including individuals with autism can or should be educated in the general education classrooms (mainstream of public education) despite of the severity of disabilities.
The debate about the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings started 1975 when the US Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA – Public Law 94-142, 1975 formerly: Education of All Handicapped Children Act). This law established that all children with disabilities would receive a free appropriate public education designed to meet each student’s special needs. In 1986 the Regular Education Initiative (REI) called for placing students with disabilities into regular education classrooms. Rapidly, a division emerged among REI supporters, one group considered that REI should be for students with mild disabilities and alternative settings outside of the general education classroom should remain for individuals with severe and profound disabilities. On the other hand, another group felt that all students with disabilities should be included in general education classrooms regardless of disability type or severity level (Reynolds, et al., 1987; Lipsky and Gartner, 1989; Buell et al., 1999; Pivik at al., 2002).
The controversy has continued among both general and special educators despite the 2004 version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, which has made the general education classroom the primary placement for students with disabilities including students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In order to resolve this debate, Dr. de Boer & Simpson (2009) exhort that general and special educators should develop an integrated system of inclusion as a continuum of placement and service options that meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Dr. de Boer & Simpson (2009) commend that to design an appropriate and successful inclusion program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders represents a challenge for the educational system.
An inclusion program is not simply to place students in the general education classrooms. For instance, students with autism are very complex in their disabilities. Some are non-verbal or with verbal delays or echolalic speech with severe cognitive or learning impairments; others function at a level of students in the general education classrooms. Students within the spectrum present deficit in adaptive behavior skills, self-care or self-help skills (e.g. toileting, sleeping, eating bathing dressing) and challenging and stressful problem behaviors (e.g. aggressive behaviors toward others, self-injurious behaviors, hyperactivity or psychomotor agitation, non-compliance behaviors with instructions, property destruction, stereotypic behaviors, inattention, obsessive-compulsive behaviors with objects, activities or routines). Moreover, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders have motor and physical challenges (e.g. difficulties with gross and fine motor skills) and sensory sensitivities (e.g. hyper or hyposensitivity to some stimuli: sight, sound, smell, touch, body position and movement) (Simpson, de Boer, Smith-Myles, 2003; Mesibov and Shea, 1996; de Boer & Simpson, 2009).
Educate students with Autism Spectrum Disorders requires thorough knowledge and understanding of the challenging conditions such as cognitive, social, sensory, communicative and behavioral deficits. Without an appropriate training in autism and a clear educational model by administrators, educators, school personnel and parents, the implementation of inclusive educational program for students with autism will not achieve the ultimate goal of developing their full potential (ASA, 1994).
The inclusive education programs have become more prevalent within the public school system and we have made some progress in the tri-state area [NY, NJ, and CT] preparing teachers to work with students with autism. But unfortunately, it seems that our educational system is not ready yet to implement a successful inclusion program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders due to the lack of teachers’ training and knowledge, limited research and resources and negative attitude toward teaching students within the Autism Spectrum Disorders (Simpson, de Boer, Smith-Myles, 2003; de Boer & Simpson, 2009).
A successful inclusive education program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders is a challenging and demanding process which should require special training and collaborative efforts for general and special educators, paraprofessionals, administrators and parents (Zager, 1999). Despite of the controversy, a full-time inclusion for all students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, which means that “students with special needs can and should be educated in the same settings as their normally developing peers with appropriate support services”, does not seem to be appropriate for all autistic children. Mesibov and Shea (2005) suggest that we do not have the enough empirical evidence for this approach. In addition, parents’ perceptions toward inclusion for their children with autism are divided (Kasari et al. 2004). It seems that a continuum model of placement and service options should be the answer (de Boer & Simpson, 2009). For more than two decades, TEACCH program has been offering appropriate educational solutions for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the public schools (TEACCH program).
A good resource to inform yourself of this topic is the book, Successful Inclusion for Students with Autism: Creating a Complete, Effective ASD Inclusion Program by Dr. Sonja R. de Boer & Richard L. Simpson (2009). It offers practical solutions and “a wealth of helpful forms, checklists, and handouts that will assist with implementing the inclusion program and ensure that all involved have the information necessary to make the program successful”.