Socialization as a reason to mainstream special needs children

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(An introductory point on language through-out this post: I will refer mostly to autistic children as my example of a special needs child, since I am most familiar with autism. But most of my comments will apply equally well to other special needs conditions. I will use the term “normal” to refer to children who do not have special needs – I don’t mean to imply that every child who doesn’t have special needs is otherwise completely normal, it is just a useful piece of terminology for the purposes of this discussion.)

One of the arguments for mainstream schooling special needs children, is that they will pick up normal social skills and behaviour, from the other children. Autistic children need a lot of help in this area – social skills do not come naturally to them. In tandem with this argument, it is often said that these children would otherwise pick up bad social skills from the other children at special needs schools who are similarly challenged. The core claims here are (1) that normal children have good socialization skills, (2) that special needs children will learn from those normal children, and (3) that negative social skills will be picked up in a special needs environment.

(1) “Normal children have good socialization skills.”

Kids without autism do have an easier time socializing and behaving correctly in given situations. But it is another claim altogether that they will always choose to act as they know they should. Screaming, swearing, disrespect, picking noses, hitting, teasing, are just some examples of the charming behaviour you’ll find in every classroom and school-yard. If autistic children were social sponges, they would just as easily pick up these negative behaviours from the other children.

In fact though it is worse than just some exposure to positive behaviour, and some exposure to negative behaviour, from the normal kids in the mainstream schools. Because the normal kids know the special needs children are different, and (kids being kids), find a way to amuse themselves at the expense of the different child. A common problem that occurs is the normal children realise the special needs child will copy them – it is a very basic way in which many autistic children attempt to interact. So the normal children go out of their way – sometimes maliciously, sometimes not, the result is the same regardless of motive – to get the autistic child to copy some inappropriate behaviours.

The normal children will otherwise tend to avoid interacting with the special needs child. This is completely understandable – if someone can’t understand you, and their behaviour is confusing and at times scary, you naturally tend to avoid them. So the chances to pick up normal and positive behaviours at a mainstream school, are not as great as you may expect.

(2) “Special needs children will learn social skills from the normal children“.

Even if we accept that normal children will only teach special needs children good habits, it is highly questionable whether the special needs children will actually learn from them beyond the simplistic copying I’ve mentioned above. The idea that special needs kids can then universalize those copied skills, so they can use them in the correct situations, is also assuming a lot.

In fact, an autistic child needs to be explicitly taught social skills, and preferably by a very patient and observant adult, who can teach at the level the child is at, in a way that the child can understand. New skills need to be broken down into a step by step progression, and repeated – usually until rote-learned. It is expecting too much to think normal children can teach these skills to these special needs children, especially when you consider that many adults struggle to teach autistic children such skills. The teachers at mainstream school have not being trained how to achieve this with these special children, nor have the time required to do so. It is though built into the curriculum at a special needs school.

(3) “Negative social skills will be picked up in a special needs environment.”

There is some truth to this – in the same way that there is some truth to the two claims above, but again, there are important factors that must be taken into account before each or any of these statements can be used as reasons to enrol a special needs child at a mainstream rather than a special needs class.

Yes there are some very negative and incorrect social behaviours going on in special needs schools. But at the same time there is a much better teacher to child ratio in those schools, making it easier to intervene and correct those behaviours where they originate, and to be able to correct any copied instances as they occur. Furthermore, as pointed out above, it is assuming too much that special needs children will simply learn from what they see around them – regardless of whether what they see is negative or positive; you can spend years trying to teach an autistic child to respond in a particular way to a stimulus.

There are also the aforementioned negative behaviours they can pick up in mainstream schools – in fact there are certain types of negative behaviours you’re less likely to find in a special needs school than a mainstream school. For example, going out of one’s way to bully someone requires a certain level of forethought and verbal and physical capacity that would be challenging for special needs children. An autistic child would sooner be left to their own devices and not interact with anyone – which of course is part of the socializing challenge.

There are benefits to be gained from having special needs children interact with normal children, I have seen them myself while my son has been attending kindergarten over the past two years. But the socialization benefits must be weighed against the social harms. In and of itself, “socialization” is not a strong enough argument for sending a special needs child to a mainstream school.

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10 Responses to Socialization as a reason to mainstream special needs children

  1. mamafog says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I am at the start of my year of obsessing about kindergarten. We’ll be applying next Feb. So many people tell me that inclusion is the only way. But I have been thinking about everything you mentioned.

    What is a strong argument for sending a child with autism to an inclusion class? I wonder about academics. Here in my city the special ed classes are combined, she would go into a K-3 class. Will I have to become an expert on what typical elementary school kids learn to make sure my daughter has the proper educational goals on her IEP?

    Hoping you will write more on this topic!

    • Thank you for your comment mamafog, I really appreciate the feedback 🙂

      I’ve written about the pro-inclusion schooling argument for autistic children, in this post: “A Right to the Wrong Education?“. I think you’ll also find that quite relevant and interesting, I’d love to hear your opinions on what you read there too.

      • Ivette says:

        Wow, totally agree with you. Is painful for me too see all the lack of patience, knwolagable, positive, helpful, educated, kind, lovely teacher are there. I have so much to say how one of my kids had been treat last year by his teacher.

  2. Helen Love says:

    My son stopped being aggressive when h entered an ASD pre-K. They deliberately taught him communication and social skills. He couldn’t pick them up from being around typical children. The only “negative behavior” he has learned is to cover his ears when a loud noise is coming. The teacher taught the kids that so the sound defensive kids would only need to cover their ears sometimes, not all the time. Since my son doesn’t mind loud noises, I told him he didn’t need to do that at home and he stopped. Did I mention they taught him to communicate with words? Before, after 2.5 years of public school mainstreaming, he could talk but not communicate. Our plan is to keep him in an ASD kindergarten next year, and the next year have him go to mainstream kindergarten, basically hold him back since he was very premature. The effect will be to have him in the class level he would be if he was born on his due date. ASD pre-K in our case was awesome and really helped my son.

  3. Jen B says:

    I have a question if someone wouldn’t mind helping me out. I very recently dating a man who has a 4 1/2 yo autistic son who was to my knowledge diagnosed with PPD-NOS, my son is also 4 1/2 and my daughter 6 1/2. I have done my best to ask questions and made it a point I would like to know more about his sons diagnosis, what it means for him at this age and in the future, and almost a year later, I haven’t heard much if anything. I was told that he will be a fully functioning adult as he gets older who will be completely independent. I have also done some reading on my own, and have a few friends with children with varying diagnosis’s of autism, if that would be the correct term. I have spoken with my children about sharing with him when we’re together, not mimicking him when he says inappropriate things or egging him on, and I believe my children have done a pretty good job. My daughter thinks he’s cute and funny and likes to share, however my 4 yo who has had his toys broken by this child and hit on several occasions is not so game, and rightfully so…Having been divorced myself, my children on occasion have anxiety issues with going out of state to visit their father and adjusting to coming back, although it has been much better in recent times. The children have not shared time together because of past occurrences for about 8 months, and the man I’m dating says that his son is still imitated and mimicking my children’s behavior from one weekend they had together 8 months ago…is that reasonable to say? I’m not disagreeing it’s not possible but it’s new territory for me.

    And this past holiday weekend was actually the breaking point. During our one day with all the children together as well as family, his son sent my daughter three times flying across the room and was removed, twice she could have cracked her head open. Swore up and down, making my 34 yo brother who plays rugby shake his head, licked the 12ft dinner table all the way around, had his hand down his pants on several occasions while trying to taste test food as it was being prepared, rolled around in dog poop as well as stepped in it in bare feet, all unsupervised (because he’s a big boy and was raised to be independent, seriously that’s what he told me), hit my son in the face with a shoe as well as constantly had his hand drawn back teasing my son as if he were going to get hit, and on several occasions tried sticking his tongue in my six year olds mouth when he was asked to leave.

    I later received a nasty email that I never took the time to read and educate myself and my children about autism. If I had simply had the “sharing” conversation with my son over toys we could have avoided that situation. We all know how much four year old’s like to share their toys while having them thrown at them…told the failure of the get together’s were in my hands, it was disturbing to know that I have made no attempt on my own part and want to put his child into a NO-WIN situation them correct or punish him for his behavior. I was told he thought the task was perhaps too difficult for me, and the ghetto children his son goes to school with are more protective of him than my own who have only been with him perhaps a handful of times…

    I consider myself pretty well educated as both of us have Masters degrees in serious concentrations…and we also had a similar problem the same weekend at another friend of the families with only his son (my children were not there) with him pushing another little girl who didn’t want to play with him, and constantly being in her face.

    He also proceeded to tell me what my daughter was doing to his son when he couldn’t even see what was going on we were in the car…not to mention his son was kicking me the whole ride from his own seat. He said in front of my daughter that she was lying and i didn’t want to admit it was my kids who start the problems because they’re “smarter” than his son and know how to manipulate. Having served in the military and come from a long line of family in the military, i am certainly not one to defend my kids when they do wrong…but I feel my kids went out of their way to divert him, never hit or pushed back and always asked him to stop. They were excited they were coming to stay with us overnight, and rightfully so my daughter was very upset over the conversation that happened in the midst of them suddenly leaving.

    As a parent of two healthy children, I know that children don’t always want to play together, it’s not their “job” to protect other children, nor supervise them. I wouldn’t leave my own 4yo nor my 6yo at someone elses house to fend for themselves and play outdoors alone…I don’t think my 4yo is independent enough, am I crazy for thinking his son isn’t. Or is it denial on his part…wanting his son to be one of the “regular” kids??? And I honestly don’t mean that to offend anyone…it’s just hard for me to grasp his thought process.

    Am I crazy or is he completely out of line allowing his son to continue ANY of this behavior even if he did think it was my kids who instigate everything? And thinking his son is big enough and independent enough to go off on his own or play unsupervised when this has been occurring over the course of the day? The relationship actually ended and that but I’m still curious to know other views…Thoughts please?

    • Jo B- Early intervention Teacher says:

      Just reading your blog and digesting it in its entirety, I am surprised you managed to stay together for so long! He doesn’t seem to realise the impact he has made on his son by allowing his child to raise himself at the age of 4. He will not have had the chance to learn fully the nuances of appropriate social skills when left entirely to his own devices. There are tried and true methods of teaching social skills to a child with autism, and it’s a team effort by all- once you have worked out how to push the right buttons. Ask any parent and teacher who has worked on it continuously and there can be some great success. Gaining communication skills through signing, pointing at pictures or teaching words is essential to reduce the frustration of not getting /saying what you need. It definitely triggers bad behaviour. Short stories drawn or written can help a child with autism understand and preempt a situation as well. A predictable routine and regular environment is also almost essential.
      At no point however does it help anyone, if bad behaviour including hitting someone and intimidating them is left to thrive. You need some really, really clear rules and consistency from everyone helping to raise that child, so the child is not left guessing how to behave with others or to gain attention.
      Your children are probably completely baffled as to how to be with him as are you by the sounds of it. To be honest it sounds like the dad has no clue either and is flying by the seat of his pants blaming everyone else for his sons behaviour. I would suggest he joins a support group of other parents with children with autism as they can be an enormous support and share some very helpful insights as to how the dad can manage and teach his son giving him the right environment to thrive. Nobody wants a child who can’t get on with others, and there are ways to help but it requires eagle eyes, consistency and work.

  4. Great thoughts. But on a side note, it can be very offensive when you refer to “normal” kids. They are typical, not normal… no one is normal!

  5. L. Swinson says:

    Thanks for this article. I realize it was penned a few years ago, but I am the mother of a high-functioning autistic 6 year old boy, and I’m concerned about his upcoming transition from a specialized autism school to mainstream kindergarten. They tell me he’s ready but I’m concerend.This helps.

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