Will Having Autistic Students in My Kid’s Class Impact Their Learning?

The day their daughter came home crying was the day Robert and Sara Soncini learned there was a problem in her second grade classroom in Las Vegas.

Every parent of a 7-year-old learns to roll with the crying jags and the hurt feelings that come from fitting into a sometimes unruly classroom environment. But something about this episode was different, as the Soncinis would soon learn.

Another student, an 8-year-old boy, had pushed and punched their daughter, then threatened her with scissors. And their daughter wasn’t the only one. Other students in class had been subject to the same behaviors and even the teacher had been a victim. The situation had escalated to the point where the teacher had created a code word for the other students to evacuate the classroom when the boy got out of hand.

As a special needs student, the school district was required under the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to put the boy in the least restrictive environment (LRE) available to serve his educational needs. But to the Soncinis, if that meant the needs of the rest of the class were not being met, there was a problem.

After meeting with the school district and finding no mutual solution, the Soncinis took the unusual step of filing for a restraining order against the boy in Clark County Superior Court. The motion had the desired effect: the school district removed the boy from the classroom.

The Soncinis situation was the realization of a nightmare for many parents of children enrolled in inclusive general education classrooms along with students with behavioral issues… but fortunately it is an extremely uncommon one.

The Shift From Special Needs To General Education Classrooms Has Brought Good and Bad To American Schools

The IDEA mandate for equal educational opportunity in the least restrictive environment requires that school districts do their best to accommodate disabled students in the same environments as their abled counterparts. The idea that an equitable education could be provided in a special, separate environment was rejected.

This was a sea change in the American special education system, shifting thousands of disabled students into general education classrooms. As of 2004, almost 95 percent of special needs students were being accommodated in general education classrooms.

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Studies on the efficacy of inclusion have been mixed, with most showing marked improvements in social and behavioral areas, but no significant differences in academic performance. Yet those social and behavioral improvements could have a greater bearing on long-term success than purely academic measures.

But many parents of non-disabled students have perfectly reasonable questions about the potential disruption of having autistic students in their child’s classroom. After all, social skills—the basic mechanics of sitting and listening, cooperating and co-learning—are exactly the skills impacted by ASD. And although most parents are understanding and supportive of equal education for ASD students, they also want to protect the opportunities available to their own children.

In general, studies have found neutral to positive effects on general education students in inclusive classrooms. Academically, results tend to be mixed. A 2010 study found no differences in academic achievement in reading between general education students in an inclusive classroom and a control group in a non-inclusive class, but when it came to math, the results showed significant impairment in achievement for those in the inclusive class.

However, other researchers have found that inclusion is generally beneficial to even neurotypical students in some unexpected ways. Social cognition skills have been found to improve when disabled learners are included in classroom environments, and a surprising number of non-disabled students gained self-esteem as part of the process. In one case, for example, a girl assigned to help tutor a disabled student in her class found her own grades improving—by helping him, she was also helping herself.

Inclusion Done Right Offers Value To Everyone

Unsurprisingly, stories like that of the Soncinis and that of the tutor who found her own performance improving in an inclusive classroom can largely be distinguished by the level of support and methods of integrating ASD students into general education classrooms.

IDEA does not simply mandate putting disabled students into those classrooms, but also with providing them with the support they require to learn in those classrooms. In districts where those accommodations are sufficient, inclusive classrooms tend to benefit everyone; but where accommodations are lacking, problems occur.

Applied behavior analysts (ABAs) are often key team members responsible for making inclusive classrooms run properly. By working with students, teachers, and administrators, they can devise behavioral strategies to help integrate classes in a way that helps ensure the success of all students. Their understanding of the antecedents and resulting behaviors from ASD students, as well as techniques for modifying them, can be taught and shared to make inclusion a group effort.

With applied behavior analysis being the only scientifically proven treatment for autism, schools have been scrambling to find qualified ABAs to either train or serve as co-teachers in inclusive classrooms. Co-teachers can provide support to regular general education teachers as well as direct intervention for autistic students. They can also help devise techniques and accommodations particular to the curriculum and the class, tailoring responses to the challenges faced.

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In other environments, ABAs are used to intervene periodically in a general education class when an autistic student is being disruptive. There are a variety of approaches being explored in different school districts and the right solution can be a function of the staff, students, and resources involved—there is no magic bullet.

But parents of both autistic and non-disabled students have all learned that in the right environment, inclusive classrooms can be good for everyone’s kids.