As a toddler, Ben Adams, now 5, would hide from his family, refusing to be touched - even by his mother. At 18 months, he had not yet spoken his first word. Just before his second birthday, doctors diagnosed him with autism, the developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others.
“The worst thing to me was that my son might never know how much love I have for him; he might never be able to give love,” says his mother, Jill Adams of Alexandria. “That was devastating to me.”
In his first five years, Mrs. Adams says, she spent more than $100,000 taking Ben to speech therapists and development specialists, hoping to help him connect with others. However, she said, his “breakthrough moment” came in a small classroom that mixed autistic and typically developing children together.
“A typically developing boy of the same age had chosen my son to be his friend,” she says. “The look on his face showed now he knows love and he knows friendship.”
Often characterized by a lack of interest in connecting with others and an inability to communicate, autism affects 1 in 150 children in America, and 1 in 94 boys. Deciding on an educational plan for a child with autism can be a challenge for parents seeking the best range of language, behavioral and academic development programs without isolation from society.
Some parents are embracing a trend toward inclusive education, which brings all necessary services together in an environment for both typically developing children and children with disabilities.
“Inclusion in school requires a shift in the paradigm; instead of getting the child ready for the regular class, the regular class gets ready for the child,” says Beth Pellowitz, a special education teacher and co-founder of Give Autism Hope, a nonprofit organization founded with the mission of opening an inclusive school in Alexandria. “It is about being included in life and participating as a member of the community.”
An inclusive classroom teaches a child with disabilities how to interact with other people, while the typically developing child learns compassion and empathy, Ms. Pellowitz says.
Most options for special-needs education require either one-on-one therapy or tutoring sessions outside of the mainstream classroom or, alternatively, a program, class or school purely for children with disabilities.
“Traditionally, a lot of programs will take the child back to a room. We expect to have in our room everything we need, a swing for vestibular motion, we can put [in] any sort of ball pit or trampoline if need be, everything that needs to be in a special-ed setting can be in a classroom so all kids can benefit,” Ms. Pellowitz says. “We desire not to have any pull out; if a child needs quiet time, there will be something in the classroom.”
Proponents of inclusion argue that every therapy or special program for a child’s unique needs can exist within an open classroom setting.
Mandy Leap, a speech therapist who works in an inclusive classroom in Alexandria, says any classroom activity or playtime game can be made into a language exercise without removing a child from the normal setting.
Yet no child with autism is the same, and some educators question whether an inclusive classroom can really accommodate every child’s needs.
“Meeting the range of needs of both sets of kids and across the entire mission of the school to educate academically and meet developmental needs could present a practical challenge,” says Dave Nelson, director of the Community School in Decatur, Ga., a school for adolescents and young adults with autism or other nonverbal learning disabilities.
“One boy in my class freaks out completely every time he hears a siren go by. It disrupts everybody because he can’t deal with it,” says Lucie Canfield, a teacher at the Community School. “I don’t see how that could work in a different kind of school for all types of kids.”
For the typically developing child, the challenge will be, “Can you make it interesting and challenging enough over an extended period of time?” says Mr. Nelson, who has a 20-year-old son with autism.
Ms. Pellowitz says her inclusive school will have a team of multidisciplinary professionals to create a plan to meet the needs of every child in the classroom.
“By building an inclusive environment, we can create situations where children can just be children and won’t be children with disabilities or children who are typically developing,” Ms. Pellowitz says.
• Give Autism Hope is holding its first fundraiser, Hockey for Hope, at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex at 627 N. Glebe Road in Arlington. It will feature a kids vs. adults hockey game and a silent auction. For information, call 571/224-0555 or send e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.