I noticed a post while idly cruising Blogher written last week by Emily Kingsley, an autism mom who blogs at Our Holland. Blogher featured one of her posts, a reaction in writing to an encounter with a woman who doesn't believe children with autism should be mainstreamed. At all. Because she believes its "not fair" to the normal kids.
The post itself had my hackles up, but reading some of the comments has got me feeling indignant as well. Of course there were a majority of commenters who expressed their outrage at such outright ignorance. But there were a few commenters, especially one in particular from the Facebook stream, who also believe children with autism or other disabilities don't belong in the mainstream classroom. "They're a distraction," said one. "Its not fair to the other kids," said another.
I simply do not accept that these parents' children have more of a right to an appropriate learning experience than my son does simply because he has autism and they don't.
I believe that my son benefits when he is in his autism classroom AND when he is in the mainstream classroom for academics. I also believe that the time he spends in the mainstream classroom benefits his neurotypical peers. My belief is somewhat instinctual, but it is also an informed belief based on results and research.
Someday my son will be an independent adult. He will need to function in a world where the majority of his coworkers and peers are neurotypical. His time in the classroom and on the playground with his mainstream peers gives him many opportunities to learn the behaviors that make his interactions with others less frustrating and more rewarding. The time he spends learning how to interpret social cues and how to interact appropriately with other people his age enhances his ability to succeed not just now, in school, but later in life as well. This has been our experience, but various studies over the years on inclusion programs statistically support inclusion. Children with autism who regularly interact in a mainstream environment (with appropriate controls and support) show marked improvements in their social skills and peer-to-peer interactions.
At the same time, spending time with other children who share many of his differences provides him an environment where he fits in. In his other classroom he is less likely to be bullied for his autism. He has the benefit of learning under the direction and care of teachers and other professionals who know how to help him gain better control over his behaviors. He isn't the 'weird' kid in the class, he's one of the crowd, just another kid with autism.
I don't think my son needs to "act normal." His autism doesn't need to be "cured," it is a part of who he is, it contributes to the many qualities that make him a wonderful and unique person. The goal of mainstreaming him is rather to help him become adept at surviving in a world where the majority of people he encounters do not share his non-neurotypical traits. For him to have the best chance of success in the workplace, he needs to have as much time as possible learning how to read social cues, how to regulate his behavior and emotions, how to navigate change and disruption. These are the same skills all children, normal or differently abled, need to learn in order to be successful adults, really.
I have a firm opinion that children - all people, really - benefit greatly by learning to have compassion and empathy for others. Very often people fear what is unfamiliar, and fear and ignorance create division and hostility. We are not so many generations removed from a society that segregated the different and the disabled to an extreme. Fortunately many parents, educators, medical providers and opinionated and outspoken people who are differently abled have made huge strides in gaining access to education, to the workplace and to the public consciousness.
When children have the opportunity to interact regularly with other children who are differently abled, the perception of difference diminishes. A wheelchair becomes not something strange to stare at, its just the way your friend with CP gets around. A text-to-speech device becomes the normal way your friend with apraxia of speech talks to you. Kids can learn early that people's behaviors are sometimes a direct result of the way their brain processes information, and that kids who have difficulty in social situations aren't just being naughty or mean, they are having a hard time managing their reactions to stimuli or unable to understand social cues. Kids with Tourette's aren't saying things to get attention or be disruptive, their brains are sending them signals they may not be able to control.
I'm a mom. I love my kids and I want the best for them. I want them to be happy and healthy people who have strong, loving relationships and who do work that satisfies them emotionally. I want them to be productive, contributing members of our society.
Segregating children with differences only serves to create adults who don't function as well in society, who are more likely to have difficulty interacting with their coworkers or the guy who sells them groceries or the lady who collects their rent. I don't want to see my child's potential diminished to suit the attitudes of another parent who doesn't have the first clue about what it is like to walk a mile in my son's shoes.
Just as my son ought to learn how to navigate a world that doesn't function the way his brain thinks it should, so does that other parent's child need to learn to navigate a world where not all of the poeple he interacts with will be just like him.