“We have a wide variety of seating, so students can choose how they learn.” This was a statement I wasn’t expecting to hear when I met my son’s teacher. I grew up when all the desks were the same, and students were expected to sit quietly and follow along with the teacher’s lesson.
But when my son was in second grade, I realized that education was much different than when I was a child. It had become an inclusive classroom. Gone were the conformity and uniformity.
It should be noted that just 18 months earlier, my son, Jeremy, had received his autism diagnosis. He was similar to most of his peers but liked getting up and moving around. By the time third grade rolled around, he was comfortable discussing his diagnosis with his classmates.
Still, he couldn’t always sit at the desk. But his teachers had gone a long way to ensure he, and every other child in the class, received an inclusive education.
So, what is an inclusive classroom? Simply put, an inclusive classroom supports all learners regardless of how best they learn.
What Is An Inclusive Classroom?
An inclusive classroom also provides a maximum amount of support while providing minimal disruption. Many special education students require inclusive classrooms as opposed to general education classrooms.
For students with autism, an inclusive classroom can include:
- visual supports
- classroom routines
- ways to escape sensory overload
- a variety of seating
My son was allowed to use the traditional school desk, a stand-up desk, a bean-bag chair, and other types of seating to get comfortable enough to learn his lessons.
In contrast, my younger son’s classroom is a special education classroom. It requires a teacher, a teacher’s assistant, and each student has a paraprofessional assisting them. This can lead to chaos in his classroom, but teachers go a long way to ensure it is inclusive for all students.
Why Is An Autism Inclusive Classroom Important?
According to the Institute of Education Sciences by the US Department of Education, an inclusive classroom is a right for a student with autism. The Education Department argues inclusive classrooms help reduce the stigma surrounding autism and increase educational opportunities for these students. Inclusive classrooms have also been shown to create respectful and positive student relationships.
An inclusive classroom can teach students about their peer’s situations, leading to vast improvement and equal access to quality education.
10 Practical Ways To Build An Autism Inclusive Classroom
1. Use Intervention Packages
In the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, a teacher used an intervention package to teach two students with autism to read what they called “social stories.” The study found increased participation and an increase in appropriate social behaviors for at least ten months. Many of the children were also able to complete work independently.
2. Provide Structured Routine
Numerous autism studies have found children on the autism spectrum tend to prefer structure and routine. Knowing what will happen next can comfort students who are anxious in the learning environment. My son has specifically spoken about how he liked the classroom setup or the remote learning setup during COVID restrictions as opposed to the hybrid format his school attempted to use while he was in fourth grade. He needed the routine and the structure.
3. Use Visual Aids
The auditory learning process can be complicated for some kids on the autism spectrum. While all children learn differently, research has shown many kids with autism will prefer to see something than be told.
Communication tools like the Picture Exchange System are used to teach children who may be nonverbal to communicate. It makes sense that they will be visual learners in inclusive classrooms as they age.
4. Use Simple Wording
It may take longer for special education students to process what is being said, so teachers in inclusive classrooms may have to speak less often and show things more often. If my son is upset, he will become more upset and anxious if a teacher talks too much because he can’t focus on his work. It’s also important not to use sarcastic phrases or colloquial terms. Some children with autism will take those phrases too literally.
5. Give Focused Choices
In my personal experience, too many choices given to my son with autism can lead to anxiety. Having an entire world of options can become overwhelming. But, research has shown if the choice is more focused, two to three items at maximum, it can be one of many effective teaching strategies and produce an inclusive environment in the classroom.
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6. Build In Breaks
Any teacher will tell you one of the most effective teaching strategies includes breaks. Inclusive classroom strategies would consist of breaks as well. Breaks are an important part of a routine, and a child with autism will respond better if they are a part of the classroom rules.
7. Teach Social Inclusion
Social inclusion can be an important part of social skills, especially for children with autism. Teaching these positive behaviors can go a long way to helping children with autism build and maintain friendships. Social situations can lead to anxiety when not tackled correctly. Still, there’s an option that will help teachers ensure an inclusive classroom.
8. Identify Child’s Development
Special interests can be used for motivation. Suppose teachers identify the special interests of a child with autism. In that case, they can then use those interests to provide inclusive education, whether general education classroom or special education.
9. Avoid Sensory Overload
Unfortunately, as many parents of children on the spectrum know, sensory overload happens. But inclusive teachers will go out of their way to make the classroom a place to avoid too much sensory input. Autism advocacy groups have called for earplugs, light dimmers, and preferred seating to tackle potential sensory overload.
10. Be Flexible
An inclusive classroom may include a strict routine with the students. Still, teachers need to be flexible if their lesson plan for the day needs to be fixed for their students. This is especially true when it comes to class participation. Many students may prefer to avoid speaking in front of other students. And many children with autism may be nonverbal and unable to present a traditional classroom presentation. Teachers can create an inclusive classroom by being flexible.
Every child has the right to an education, regardless of cognitive abilities or potential developmental delays. Many children with autism may struggle with classroom lessons, but creating an inclusive classroom environment can open a wide range of opportunities to children who might not have experienced it in the past. Many inclusive classroom strategies will help special education students achieve the ultimate goal. Ultimately, we must keep working to ensure these children have what they need to succeed.