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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Let’s Talk About Inclusion!

Last year, the principal at my son’s elementary school asked me to write a short essay about inclusion of students with special needs for the school newsletter during Autism Awareness Month.  I wrote a 450 word piece and submitted it a week before the deadline.  She never printed any part of it.  I think my direct approach to the topic made her uncomfortable.

Inclusion was on my mind again yesterday when a friend who lives across the country sent me the following message: “Do you have any good links to resources for first and second grade students to help them learn more about autism?  I teach a combined class with 25 general ed students and 7 autistic students, and today I found myself disciplining my gen ed kids for unkind words spoken in ignorance. I was incredibly angry until I realized that the kids have gone the whole year in a combined class and no one has ever talked to them about what autism is to help them understand their classmates.”

Talking about inclusion to general education students and their families

Inclusion is a hot topic in education today, but it’s usually discussed behind closed doors at IEPs and other school meetings.  Too often, it is not presented openly to general education students and their families – sometimes because of a fear of backlash.

A failure to teach inclusion to all students equals exclusion.  General education students are excluded from an understanding of their classmates with special needs, and students with special needs are excluded socially because of a lack of understanding.  Sometimes the exclusion can escalate into a bullying situation – I know this because it happened to my son.

So let’s step out of the comfort zone and talk about inclusion.

Resources to Teach Inclusion

Autism Acceptance BookThe Special Needs Acceptance Book and The Autism Acceptance Book by Ellen Sabin: these books have open-ended exercises and classroom activities for kindergarten through sixth grade students.  I always give a copy to my son’s teacher during the school year.

My Friend With AutismMy Friend With Autism by Beverly Bishop: the author, a parent of a child with autism, created this book with vivid illustrations and a charming storyline as part of her inclusion curriculum for her son’s classmates and teachers.

The Kindergarten Adventures Of Amazing GraceThe Kindergarten Adventures of Amazing Grace by Briana Pacelli: A brother and sister wrote and illustrated this storybook about acceptance.

Peer to Peer Support

In 2011, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that peer-to-peer support is the single most effective intervention for students with autism.  Furthermore, the peers who receive training are enriched by their experience, because they are actively learning interdependence, a necessary life skill.  Therefore, peer-to-peer support is an essential part of every child’s education!

Person Centered PlanningThe social worker at my son’s school coordinates a type of peer-to-peer support called Circle of Friends.  She made a presentation about autism to my son’s class in the fall, and she invited students to volunteer to be in his Circle of Friends.  The social worker provides training and group activities on a weekly basis.

Links program 2Some schools use slightly different peer-to-peer support programs such as Peer Pals and LINK.  These are cost-effective, evidence-based methods that benefit all students.

Frequently Asked Questions About Inclusion

Did you insist that your child be moved from special education into general education?
Other parents are surprised when I answer, “No.”  Federal law requires that students be educated in the least restrictive environment, and since my son graduated from all available self-contained special education classrooms in first grade, the only option remaining for him was a general education classroom.

Does your child know that he’s different?
Yes, he does.  He literally spends every waking minute working to catch up with his classmates’ academic and social skills.  He doesn’t want to take  breaks, because he knows that he’s already far behind.  Part of my job as his mom is to make sure that he has fun every day, too.

Does your child want to have friends?
Yes, but he’s afraid.  He has learned the hard way that some students do not have good intentions with him.  He becomes confused during transitions and unstructured times of the day, such as lunchtime or recess.  He’s always looking for a friendly face or a kind word.

Does your child have anything to offer in a friendship?
Yes, but it takes time to get to know him.  He loves roller coasters, skyscrapers and art museums.  He rides his bike and plays basketball.   He excels at spelling and phonics.  He loves to help with whatever is happening at the moment.  He’s on the school Safety Patrol and he submitted two entries to the school art contest.  In other words, he’s a typical American kid.

What inclusion stories or questions do you have? Share in the comments below.

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Karen Wang

Written on April 12, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • DS Mom

    My daughter has Down syndrome. For the past 3 years (3rd grade through 6th grade) I have gone in and spoken with the class about what Down syndrome is, what it means, and point out that those with disabilities are more alike than different. I open the floor to the student questions, which are always mind blowing what they ask (you have to be prepared to answer anything!). I always scheduled it when my daughter was on a “special project” (reading to another class, etc) so her classmates wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. You have to set up the presentation to be age appropriate. Each year I have given additional details, and this year, I went as far as talking about the r-word and how it isn’t cool! The students (all 101 – I went to ALL of the 6th grade classes!) signed the special Olympics End the Word Pledge. You can’t wait and ignore it. You have to teach about disabilities (all of them). My experience is with Down syndrome, but I think a talk about autism would be equally received by the teachers. I have had teachers say to me “they didn’t know all that about Down syndrome.” Our society as a whole is not educated about disabilities and what it really means to be “included.”

  • Friend Across the Country :)

    Thanks for this post, Karen! (I am the “friend across the country! 🙂 ) When the classroom teacher and I talked to the class, she started by talking to them about how they’d been learning about the human body and the brain, and how everyone’s brain works a little differently. When I told them that some of the students in the autism classroom could read faster than they could (which is true–two of the boys in that class are way above grade in reading and are also bilingual), one kid’s jaw dropped and he said, “No way!” He had no concept that a boy who struggled to speak clearly or participate in movement activities might be a superstar reader. I spoke to the school counselor, and he is going to take a morning with the class to talk about differing abilities with them.

  • Recently I shadowed my son (who is 12 and is high functioning with DS) at school. We went to the science class, when we entered the class, the special education students were placed at the back of the room together so the first issue for me was they were not mixed in with the general education students. My second issue was, after 5 min is the class, the para said, “let’s go kids”. I looked at her and asked, why we were leaving the class. Her response to me was, “the curriculum was over their head” and they were going to go find somewhere else to discuss the assignment. This really made me upset. At my son’s IEP meeting I brought this up to the teachers (both the case manager and science teacher). I was told that it was not productive for him to stay in class during this time. My response to that was, who is the decision maker on what he “gets” and what he doesn’t “get”. He wants to go to college some day and he will not be given the option of leaving the room when it gets too hard! I instructed them to leave him in the room and NOT pull him out. The next week, my son (who they say would not understand) came to me and asked me this: “Mom, where are your buttocks; where is your skull; where is your ESOPHAGUS! Yes, he said the work clear as day!! He then proceeded to tell me how the digestive system works! swallow your food, goes down your esophagus into your stomach which munches it all up and then you poop!! Now, I ask again, who decides what my son can and can’t learn? Keep advocating people. We are the experts on our children!

    • Mary

      Love this!

  • Charlie Dolk

    I believe every student should get a chance to participate with the class they are assigned to at the beginning of the year. This means the teacher will have to work a little bit harder to make sure every student is understanding the subject matter, but isn’t what we as teachers are supposed to do? We teach all students no matter what “level” they are at. I truly feel every student can learn what is being taught to them. Now maybe when I was in high school I would have disagreed with you, but that was me just being point blank lazy, and I was not willing to put in the work in which was required. I think inclusion can work as long as the teacher is willing to put forth the effort to make sure all students get to a level of understanding. All students deserve to be in the classroom with their friends. I think that including all students will help every student learn more about one another and help every student learn more as well. Yes, I said more. The students that have a better understanding of the subject matter will be able to help the students that aren’t quite at the same level of understanding of the subject matter. This will also help the teacher having some of the students teach other students. I think that inclusion can be wonderful as long as all parties are willing to fully buy in and truly give it 100%.


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