(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.