What Does Inclusion Look Like?

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(This is a guest post about special-education inclusion written by Michelle, a Florida resident and  mother of two. Her 23-year old daughter Brittany was diagnosed with autism when she was three.)

Inclusion is like a well-choreographed dance, everyone has to know and do his or her part and it can be something of beauty and grace. On the other hand, if everyone isn’t doing his or her part, it can be awkward and downright difficult to watch.

Inclusion is merely an illusion without the proper supports. I’ve seen “inclusion” where the included student in reality is the pariah of the classroom. Sitting in front of the class, doing their autism thing while the kids would laugh at or get annoyed by the constant disruptions. The teacher is miserable and not able to meet the student’s needs effectively, the classmates are disconnected from the student and the student with autism is physically there, but getting little to nothing out of the placement and anything but included. Sometimes we have to be careful what we ask for.

My Brittany has classic autism. She is nonverbal and her receptive skills are profoundly impaired. Britt has severe sensory and social impairments, OCD off the charts as well as all the other bells and whistles that come with classic autism. She was a perfect fit for a small, self-contained classroom somewhere in our school district, but fate and circumstances had other plans for my special girl.

Brittany ended up in an amazing, well-orchestrated inclusion model from kindergarten throughout HS. It was unanimously decided in Pre-K that she would be a good candidate. We began the long journey by carefully choosing a kindergarten teacher that was excited about the prospect of having her very first student with autism in her classroom. To help assure mainstream success, Brittany was assigned a 1:1 aide in kindergarten. It turned out that Britt kept the same aide (more accurately, her Guardian Angel) throughout the entire19 years and three schools (elem., middle & HS). I’m quite certain having the same aide for 19years is a world record and if there’s one thing I know for sure, a Godsend.

Brittany was always set-up for success by the language in her IEP, everyone being on board and most importantly, by Brittany’s cooperation and obvious love for being exactly where she was. Britt had  a modified curriculum and homework in order to make her placement doable and successful. We were carefully guided by Britt’s progress each year and we would tweak her inclusion model if and when necessary.

Typical peers were a gift in Brittany’s life in countless ways and their constant presence helped her develop strong coping skills that today are invaluable. We never asked the kids to modify their behavior to meet Brittany’s autistic limitations; we let them be guided by their hearts and instincts under the careful and considerate guidance of Britt’s aide and teachers.

Britt’s differences were vast but the kids accepted and met her exactly where and how she was and consistently treated her with kindness, understanding and acceptance. Britt participated in every class trip, field trip, PE, sports, etc.…all in her unique way, keeping in mind Britt’s story is success with autism, not one of cure/recovery from autism. Britt loved every single day of the 19 years she attended school, the true litmus test of the success of her unique placement.

As graduation day was approaching, I was proud that there were several requests to walk Britt onto the stage to get her diploma. I felt Britt’s aide should have the honor for obvious reasons, but her aide, always the selfless one, insisted Britt walk with one of her favorite peers.

On graduation day, Brittany and the other 1,200 graduates entered the open-air stadium. Britt and her peer walked the long walk to the podium when Britt’s name was called. The crowd cheered and people that knew Brit from preschool came to watch her take that walk, which was symbolism for so much more.

I will always remember the sight of the two  girls, so young, beautiful and full of hope, dressed in their caps and gowns. I cried. Tears of joy and gratitude for the wonderful years Brittany loved so much and sadness of the reality that this amazing chapter was officially over, almost two  decades gone by in what seemed like a blink of an eye.

Brittany’s inclusion was a perfect storm of timing, people and circumstances…the planet aligned for my beautiful girl. I will be forever thankful that Brittany ran with the opportunity and never turned back for a moment.

The phrase “It Takes a Village” accurately describes Brittany’s school years to the letter. We all worked together and teamwork prevailed. Brittany was our Team Leader even though she was totally unaware of it and the hand of God was present throughout her journey.

Most gratefully,

Michelle

You can follow Michelle on Twitter @AutismJournal. Michelle is a longtime autism advocate and past presenter at the ASA National Conference.

Is your child in an a mainstream or self-contained classroom? Please share your thoughts on either model in the comments below.