Things changed when Charlie entered middle school. It was far larger in size and Charlie, who has lots of cognitive and communication challenges, could only attend music, art or PE if, and (we were told) only if, he could function at pretty much the same level as the students without disabilities. We didn’t get too far contesting this protocol (which quite overlooks the notion of “accommodations” in the IDEA) because Charlie himself, having entered puberty, had an increase in the intensity and number of difficult behaviors.
Months of efforts to keep Charlie in his in-district classroom only led to him being more excluded and stigmatized. By the time the decision was made for Charlie to attend an out-of-district county autism center for children with severe behavioral challenges, the district’s behavioral consultant had him in a helmet with a face guard and staff hovering over him every minute, and he was more or less confined to one room for the whole day.
My Son Is Thriving At a Separate School, But Did We Give Up?
It took Charlie the better part of a year to settle into the out-of-district center. He’s been there now for almost three years and has been quite content, and the school with him. Since the school is specifically focused on children (aged 3 – 21) with the same diagnosis and behavior issues as his, they have plenty of trained teachers, therapists, aides and other staff including a music teacher, an art teacher, vocational education teachers and teachers for Adapted Physical Education (APE). The school is in a large building with its own gym and Charlie spends his time in different classrooms, in the cafeteria and in the hallways for walks to work out his energy.
The question of “inclusive setting” or “separate school” is often a very delicate and sensitive issue for families with kids like Charlie. Sending a child to a separate school can feel like a surrender, as if you’re giving up on keeping a child in the community. In the end, we made the choice of a separate school for Charlie based on his educational needs, rather than on principles, by juggling between the reality and beliefs and choosing the best thing for Charlie himself.
Charlie is on the severe end of the autism spectrum. For children who have Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, cerebral palsy and/or other diagnoses with varying degrees of severity, a placement in a separate school could well be a sign of a school district not making all the efforts it could to accommodate a student. The administration at the middle school that Charlie left long ago did not exactly go out of its way to accommodate his needs or those of other students with disabilities. We could have kept fighting to keep him in the middle school but concluded these efforts were adding to Charlie’s struggles. He was telling us, without words, he didn’t want to be there as he knew he wasn’t welcomed.
Have you had an experience – positive or, like ours, fraught with difficulties — with inclusion and mainstreaming?
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Photo of Charlie attending an ice cream social with students at his elementary school in 2004 by the author
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