These days it’s not rare to find a child with severe autism actively participating in a public school. A generation ago, parents would have sent those kids to a private school or maybe institutionalized them.
But studies show kids with autism improve in a regular public school. There they are able to socialize and learn how to communicate better because they’re copying the other children.
But not everyone agrees this approach is good for all students.
In our ongoing series Challenges of Autism, NHPR Correspondent Sheryl Rich-Kern has this report.
(sound of teachers singing in a nursery rhyme tune) “Olivia, Emma and Lily are ready…"
At Maple Wood Elementary School, the first grade teacher reins in her class of about 25 kids for a writing lesson.
(sound of teacher writing on board) "I’m going to write a sentence on the board and you are going to find…"
Daniel is a tall six year old with jet black hair.
He also has autism and has trouble paying attention.
A teacher’s aide helps him follow along with the lesson.
Daniel: (shouting) "No, no."
Aide: (whispering) "Raise your hand, please."
Teacher: "Daniel, am I missing something else?"
Aide: (whispering) "Tell her. Period."
Teacher: "Period? I don’t need a period, do I?"
Teacher: "How come?"
Daniel is with the multi-age class most of the day. When he has a meltdown, the other kids don’t really pay attention.
Laura Basdekis is the inclusion facilitator at Maple Wood. Basdekis says she’s seen other programs where kids with autism were in a classroom — with kids with autism.
Basdekis: "If they need someone to be able to model turn-taking or asking for something that they want and no one in the classroom can do that, it’s a lot harder to teach them that versus if they can just observe it happening in the classroom."
Daniel sits in a chair and desk — just like his peers. But he doesn’t always do the same work. For example, while others are composing sentences, he’s drawing pictures. His teacher’s aide writes the words and then he traces the letters. He speaks, but also uses an ipod application that converts symbols to speech.
Rae Sonnenmeier is with the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. Sonnenmeier says that teachers can design a curriculum that’s universal for different learners.
And it’s important, she says, not to presume what kids do and don’t understand.
That’s why special educators resist using terms like low and high functioning to define autism.
Sonnenmeier: "What we really want to be focusing on is what their talents are. And so many adults on the autism spectrum who, when they’ve been given a means to communicate, have shown us that they were paying attention, they were learning, even if they weren’t able to demonstrate it at the time."
Sandi Glover of Merrimack is the mother of a young adult with an autism spectrum disorder. When Curtis was a toddler, doctors weren’t sure if he would ever speak. Today he’s finishing his senior year of high school while also attending Nashua Community College.
Despite her son’s progress, Glover is not a proponent of inclusion education.
Glover: "Inclusion is not black and white. It is the biggest gray on the planet. I think it is imperative that Curtis today has full inclusion. When he was little, it would have been horrible for him. The other kids wouldn’t have gotten the attention they needed. And that’s not fair to them. And it wouldn’t have been fair to Curtis to expect another five year old to understand that."
But does a young child need to behave like everyone else?
Ne’eman: "There is no harm if an autistic child is allowed to hand flap or rock. Those are things that often are meaningful to us and are helpful in dealing with the outside world and in coping with stress and anxiety or expressing excitement for us."
That’s Ari Ne’eman. He heads the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. Ne’eman promotes inclusion as a civil right. He says it’s the people who don’t have autism who put too much focus on becoming normal.
Ne’eman: "Students with disabilities are done a disservice, and this is the case particularly in autism world because of that historic focus on normalcy instead of quality of life."
Ne’eman has Aspergers, which some would call a high-functioning form of autism. Language wasn’t a primary problem for him. But other kids have severe development delays.
Michelle Waldron teaches kids like that at a public school in Hudson. Waldron says inclusion isn’t all that clear-cut.
Waldron: "You want them to be included, and we include them as much as possible, but you also want them to get that instructional time that they really need. And sometimes when they’re spending a lot of time in a classroom on things that are not at their level, we need to decide to pull them from there for more time to work on things at their level."
Waldron says it’s not easy to find a balance. But that’s what schools in New Hampshire will have to do in the years ahead. In the last decade, the number of children diagnosed with some form of autism has risen 300 percent.