The child is more important than the system
We have spoken and written about this many times before, but each time the conversation comes back to the topic of education, it seems like we need to mull over it one more time. There is certainly no singe answer to the question of what education could look like for a child with autism. Keeping in mind that ASD is a spectrum disorder, the needs of the children vary depending on where they are in the spectrum. Though all typically developing children are painted by the same brush of perceived learning ability for the sake of convenience and resources, the truth is there will be learners on either side of the norm who may struggle to cope or who may be bored by the level of challenge. And yes, every child would thrive if the curriculum was customized for them and their interests and needs, but that’s not feasible. If the child has different needs, then education will be beneficial if there is an understanding of that child’s needs, current baseline, learning pace and expected long-term outcomes.
Which takes us to the objective of inclusion. We often hear parents say that they would want their child to go to a regular school for two reasons:
- The child will learn social interaction when exposed to his peers.
- The child must be in a regular school just like his peers.
Inclusion is defined as providing age-appropriate educational opportunities in their neighborhood schools to children with disabilities, with supports and services as may be necessary (Francisco, Hartman & Wang, 2020). In implementing the concept of least restrictive environment (LRE) for children with different needs, by default a mainstream classroom is perceived as representative of LRE and a special needs environment as the most restrictive. Beyond this narrow definition of LRE, researchers have identified criteria such as opportunities to engage and learn, the duration of learner-teacher interaction and the positive social interactions among all the students as being critical to define LRE (Francisco, Hartman & Wang, 2020).
Among studies in India, inclusive education has been similarly defined as a concept that allows children with different needs to learn in a mainstream school with an appropriate network of supports (Mathur & Koradia, 2018). Studies have also looked at what inclusion really implies for children with autism. Many young children with autism struggle with poor understanding of language, below par communication skills both verbal and non-verbal, low attention span, poor social skills, and repetitive behaviors. When a child presents with these challenges and more, then early intervention may be mandated before considering mainstream schooling for the child. The study went on to conclude that the predictors of success in mainstream schooling included the time spent on intervention, the level of language both verbal and gestural and management of behaviors (Mukkiri et al., 2021).
What are the prerequisites then for a child to be school ready?
Again lets take it off research from India on the subject because that is a fair representation of the schooling environment that our children are likely to encounter.
The child at a minimum must be able to:
- Sitting in place when required
- Orienting to teacher and attending to his/her teaching
- Following classroom rules
- Be able to communicate basic needs appropriately in a way that will be understood by others
- Wait for turn
- Ask for help when needed
- Tolerate the presence of other children in close proximity
- Be able to manage discomfort caused by noise, crowds and demands
- Be able to seek the attention of the teacher, appropriately
- Be able to engage with peer or decline engagement appropriately
- Comprehend basic language to process what is being taught
- Conceptual understanding of basic academic goals
- Copy from the board
This is not an exhaustive list of course, but each of these requirements has so much more to it than just saying done. And the skills required will also vary depending on the chronological age of the child and the grade that he is a part of.
The points listed here are expectations from the child. Lets also look at what should the deliverables be from the institution that is inclusive:
- Trained staff
- Adequate teacher aides if required
- Uniform policy towards inclusion so that inclusion is independent of individual teacher’s attitude and patience.
- Clear expectations from the child, keeping in mind his/her baseline
- Curriculum modification
- Modifying testing protocols
- Engaging the other children in the process through education and training of differences
- Actively working on play and social inclusion at break times
- Engaging with the child with an attitude that is all about enabling the child
Research shows that often times when a child is non-verbal, then teachers and peers find it challenging to interact with him, teach him or understand how much the child is learning. Besides, teachers need to be trained on managing challenging behaviors if any like odd behaviors, wandering in class, running away from the class, lying down on the floor, screaming, snatching stationery from other children, hitting other kids or the teacher, eating snacks/food during class times, snatching the snacks/food of other children and so on.
Parents and educators need clarity on the objective of sending the child to school at any point. That he will be with other children and learn is not a clear enough goal. Because with no learning aide or plan in place, the child cannot be expected to just learn by being in that environment, be it social interaction or language and communication. Does the child have the ability to observe and spontaneously pick up language and skills? Else the stated objective may not be achieved. If the objective is for him to learn academic skills, then does the child have sufficient language to comprehend lessons? Does the child have conceptual understanding or is he a rote learner? Without comprehension, the child will often start falling behind his peers as expectations increase.
At the end of the day it is all about providing the child with a nurturing environment, an environment that will help him thrive emotionally. Remember, many children on the spectrum may need additional supports to thrive in the schooling system and that is often beyond academic skills. Speak to an expert and make the choice. And keep watching and observing. The child is more important than the system.
Francisco, M.P., Hartman, M.C., & Wang, Y. (2020). Inclusion and Special Education. Education Sciences, 10, 238.
Mathur, S.C., & Koradia, K. (2018). Parents’ Attitude toward Inclusion of their Children with Autism in Mainstream Classrooms. IAFOR Journal of Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences.
Mukkiri, S., Kandasamy, P., Subramanian, M., Chandrasekaran, V., & Kattimani, S. (2021). Inclusive Education for Children with Special Needs and Autism: Status in the Schools of Puducherry, India. Journal of Child Science, 11(01), e255-e261.