What Rachel Smalley, and the public, doesn’t understand about mainstreaming special needs children.

Today a reader of my blog asked if I’d read a recent article written by Rachel Smalley, up on the Newstalk ZB website. The reader was not happy about what she read there, and having read it myself I also feel the article needs a public reply. There is just so much wrong with the way Smalley frames the debate she is looking at, that it is hard to know where to start, so I might as well begin at the beginning.

Bu Via Tsuji, via Flickr

Smalley’s article starts off with the recent example of the child with Aspergers and dyslexia, who had been expelled from school because of an incident with a skateboard. She uses this example to launch into the question of whether it is a good idea to mainstream children with special needs. She uses two examples to frame the debate: One where an autistic child was changed enough to be just like their peers at kindergarten and therefore was successfully integrated into mainstreaming, and another example where an autistic child was so demanding and difficult that a teacher quit her job and the children in the class suffered. Her concluding remark is we need to rethink mainstreaming special needs children.

From the very start, she takes the view that two worlds – the one of normal children and the one of children who don’t fit the norm – are naturally separate and will enter conflict when you bring them together: “Worlds can collide when you merge children with special needs into the mainstream education system.” This is a sadly loaded statement, one that presumes these two groups of children don’t fit or belong together at the outset. The fact is people with disabilities and differences are in every community together, in shops and on streets, in families, playgrounds, work-places and in doctors’ offices; everywhere. The idea that they belong together should be the starting point of any discussion, surely, rather than the view-point that the current division is somehow natural and that change to the status quo of divison is what needs justification.

The two examples Smalley uses to form the basis of her view that “sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” are written up in such a way that is fundamentally distorting and really quite upsetting. Yet I honestly think Smalley has no awareness of what is so wrong with how she makes her points, so I’ll try to explain what is wrong with her examples.

First, the example of a child who learnt to fit in: She describes an autistic preschool child, who was “dysfunctional” because “[h]e didn’t socialise, he sat on a chair, he rocked back and forth, and he slept where he fell.” If that is a description of dysfunctional, then I can tell you that parenting is frequently a dysfunctional experience. I know what she’s trying to describe and how much it can matter though, so I’ll give her that much, but the way she expressed herself that really upset me was this: “He is now a fabulous, functioning little boy who’s social and interactive. You would never know he’s autistic.” Ouch. He’s fabulous now but he wasn’t before, and all because you can’t tell he’s autistic anymore? It’s clear that Smalley has a very limited understanding of the complexity and varieties of autism, and she appears to have a very negative view towards autistics. Let’s move on to the second example though, because her opinions don’t get better as we go along.

The second example is a high needs autistic child that had “dreadful behavior,” she says it was a “nightmare.” A nightmare for whom you may ask. It’s abundantly clear she hasn’t considered who is really in hell here, and why. The child would scream and yell and be violent she says, and goes on to give examples where it’s obvious the child wasn’t receiving adequate classroom support and supervision, though she doesn’t seem to pick up on that vital point. The child clearly wasn’t being adequately prepared for changes in routine, wasn’t being supported with coping strategies when things went wrong, was clearly under huge amounts of stress and deeply distraught, but Smalley’s conclusion is “you had 22 mainstream children whose education for a year was disrupted and adapted to appease the needs of one special needs child.”

Instead of arguing for better classroom supports, better understanding and training for teachers, a more adaptive and sensitive classroom situation, a more tailored response to a deeply distraught child, her conclusion is we need to rethink mainstreaming. I find that astounding. She takes a situation where a child is being seriously let down by the mainstream classroom, and instead of insisting for change to the classroom to be a better environment, she thinks it shows that mainstreaming can’t work for these children. It’s almost bizarre, but it is predictable considering the tone of the rest of the article.

In all of that though, there is another major point that I think she is overlooking: The autistic child is not choosing to act poorly, when autistic children act out that strongly they are typically in deep distress outside of their control. Here is the crux of the matter then, for me: What she – and many members of the public – don’t like, is bad behaviour that disrupts others learning. I get that. But you know what: bad behaviour that disrupts learning is not exclusively in the realm of those with special needs. Plenty of “normal” kids do it too, but we don’t say “see that kid with the brown hair / brown skin / etc, well they have bad behaviour and so I think we need to question whether everyone with brown hair / brown skin (etc) belongs in the classroom.”

What we do instead (what we should always be doing) is treat people like individuals: we look at why they are doing the bad behaviour – is it reacting to someone or something that we can change, that we can improve, that we can remove – before we decide the only answer is exclusion. This investigation into what can be done to improve the behavioural problem, is more complicated when it involves those with special needs, because you need a general understanding of the child’s condition to make a meaningful enquiry into the cause and appropriate response to the behaviour. But just because it requires more thought and even possibly more work to find a solution, does not mean it is not worth doing or is impossible to do.

It’s exactly that sort of attitude – that lack of consideration of the relevance of the condition and lack of flexible problem-solving – which has led to the recent court case of the excluded child with Aspergers and dyslexia. And yet Smalley uses that court case as an instance in favour of her argument that sometimes mainstreaming just doesn’t work. The details of the case that have come out so far simply do not support her using this as an example of bad behaviour that argues towards questioning the mainstreaming of special needs children. In fact, to me, it adds insult to use this poor teenager’s situation to argue for the exclusion of others.

As a final point to all this, I don’t think Smalley – or the public more generally – have an accurate understanding of how schooling is done in New Zealand for children with special needs. She says: “Is the merging of special needs children into mainstream education giving every child the best possible education? Sure, it saves money, but every child has a right to learn in a safe and nurturing environment that’s tailored to their needs.” I’m not sure what she thinks is going on – special needs children are not all being shifted into mainstream schools, not by a long shot. There are still special schools and no aim by the government to remove or shut them down right now. There are still a huge number of options for children, tailored to their needs, from special schools to satellite units, to residential schools and wrap-around support, teacher aides within mainstream classrooms, and so many other ways that education is made to be flexible to diversity. Are there some who want to shut down special schools? Sure, but it’s not happening right now. Are there children for whom no suitable education option currently exists? Of course there are, that’s why many of us fight to make education more inclusive and responsive to the true variety of humanity.

And part of that journey – that improvement of education all round – is making sure that mainstream schools are improving their practices so that special needs students can take their place in the community alongside their peers. I am of the unambiguous and firm opinion that a school which is adapting its practices and attitudes to be more accommodating to special needs children, is a school that is better for all students that attend. There is no firm dividing line between who has special needs and who doesn’t, an education system which accepts and welcomes diversity is also going to be better for the gifted students, ethnically diverse students, and anyone else who doesn’t fit some mould of the “usual.” It will also cope better when discipline and behavioural problems arise, which are hardly the sole realm of the disabled.

We haven’t completed that journey towards a great education system yet. When we do – when our schools are adaptive and responsive and welcoming and well-run – we will also have schools that successfully integrate the majority of special needs children within the classroom. But we’re not going to get there by deciding in advance that these children don’t belong in mainstream classrooms. And we’re definitely not going to get there by thinking the problems all lie within special needs children and not with lack of support and understanding within the classroom and school. And we sure as heck are not going to get there by scare-mongering with the notion that all special needs children are currently being pushed into mainstream classrooms, because that simply is not happening right now anyway (even though it arguably should be). Any debate about what we should be doing around mainstreaming and special needs children, must be had with an accurate eye to what is actually going on within the education sector, I don’t think an informed debate can happen otherwise.

I don’t think Smalley means harm, even though her article does harm. I don’t think she set out to misconstrue reality, I just think she did inadequate research into autism, special needs, and the state of the current education system. I would like to think that when we engage in the debate that she calls for – about mainstreaming and special needs children – that people like her will hear our arguments and realise that moving towards inclusion really is in the best interests of all students; that our children are not a threat, they are an opportunity for everyone’s betterment. That there is nothing inherently impossible about integrating our classrooms to better reflect societal reality; the disabled, the different, the differently-abled, are all around us anyway, they are part of our world and deserve to be. We can recognise that some students may never fit well into a mainstream classroom, but we need to know and make sure that the reason they don’t fit in is not simply because we gave up on the disabled. We need to be sure that when a child is excluded from a school, it really is because it was the best and only decision left, rather than the current situation where our kids are so often not even allowed in the front door.

We need to reply to pieces like that written by Smalley, and we can only hope we are listened to with the same open-mindedness, patience and willingness to learn, that we hope to get from mainstream schools someday too.

This entry was posted in Attitudes to Autism, Commentaries on NZ News Stories, Disability more generally, Schooling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

100 Responses to What Rachel Smalley, and the public, doesn’t understand about mainstreaming special needs children.

  1. nostromoswife says:

    Could not agree more…

  2. Sacha says:

    It would help if the education sector stopped using the term ‘special needs’ to refer to the perfectly ordinary needs of disabled students.

  3. Quintorpian says:

    Well argued. I hope you will send it to her. One really important bit for me that you mention is that valuing and supporting diversity helps everyone. I couldn’t agree more. It’s time we stopped thinking of all this in terms of these children just being problems because it just seems to make everything worse. I guess because extra attention and support may be involved, it ends up being the main thing people look at, instead of focusing on all the wonderful things about these same children, or even just the ordinary interesting things that make every person worthy of our interest.

  4. Jenny Koch says:

    Such a well written article. Thank-you. So many people don’t adequately understand the Education system in NZ, and I long and strive for an Education system that you describe.

  5. Dearna says:

    I am a Mum to two boys, one who is Autistic. I am also a teacher aide in a mainstream school to three children with a variety of needs. I see every day the good that is done by having inclusive schools. The children that learn so much by learning early that we are all different and we all have our challenges. I work with one child with very high needs and on the way home today my son said from the back seat “everyone cares about C dont they Mum”, he has great friends”. It made me smile.

    • That’s lovely Dearna, thank you for sharing that, and thank you for your precious work within the school; your lovely attitude and clear dedication to the well-being and inclusion of our kids is so valuable and deeply appreciated.

  6. Cassie says:

    Thank you for your well-written, thought-provoking article. After I graduated I spent time in a secondary school (even though primary trained) special education sector, and it frustrated me so much I had to leave because I couldn’t fight the system. Unfortunately I don’t see anything changing anytime soon and actually the whole education system is profoundly flawed.
    One of the major problems is teachers (and others of course but I’ll generalise here) are (still) not being trained to accommodate for students with or without different learning needs other than those that “fit” into the model the education system/government/ERO etc wants. This if course is not their fault, but there are not enough resources- time/money- or understanding of all kids’ learning needs and styles. There is an interesting video on http://www.ted.com called “how schools kill creativity”. Primary schools are starting to get better, but high schools definitely have a way to go. Thanks again, Cassie.

    • Thanks Cassie. I think I’ve seen that TED talk before (and remember liking it), still I appreciate you sharing it, and sharing your insights and experiences.

    • vivaviamedia says:

      While I agree that mainstreaming has benefits for all students, as both this and the original article demonstrate, I also think it depends on the individual student. I’ve taught several autistic students in senior level writing courses and yes, they struggled, but just in a slightly different way from your average student. On the other hand, there are many special needs students who would never be able to take this writing course. And that’s okay too. Inclusion should be done whenever possible so long as it’s not detrimental to any student’s education, both the general ed student and the special ed student.

      On the other hand, there are some aspects of mainstreaming that are problematic. As you noted, teachers are overwhelmed and are usually not trained properly. And they are overwhelmed not just because of special ed students being mainstreamed, but by the demands of the profession in general. This is why special education classrooms tend to have much smaller class sizes (6-10 student vs the typical 25-35) as well as teachers specifically trained in addressing those students’ disabilities. However, when you put 5-6 special ed students in a class with 25 regular ed students (who are also very diverse in their abilities and interests), it becomes much harder for a classroom teacher to tailor their lessons to the needs of the individual students.

      For example, I have 130 students and I teach 3 different courses over five 50-minute periods each day (my other 3 periods are my “plan”, lunch, and supervision). Typically, the only “instruction” I get for special ed students comes via an email with their IEP at the beginning of the school year (in addition to lists of students with medical issues and ELL learners). I would love to be able to consider every student in my instruction and planning. Unfortunately, while I think a diverse classroom of learners is lovely as well as important for the social development of students, it is literally impossible for one teacher to do what parents/administrators/government/the teachers themselves would like them to do for every student. Even if I did have more training, I am already killing myself to do what I can, spending around 25-30 hours each week outside of the 7:40- 3:40 school day on my job.

      The other problem is that special education is expensive as many special ed students “cost” 4-5 times more to educate each year than a general ed student. They also tend to stay in school past 18. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s not money well spent, but it is something that shouldn’t be ignored in this debate.

      Another problem is when special ed and regular ed “work together”, there can be a lot of resentment created. While I know many co-teaching experiences that have gone well, more often than not, the regular teacher is complaining about how little the special ed teacher knows/can help with the instruction due to their lack of expertise in that subject matter. (Which is to be expected since a special ed teacher can be co-teaching in several different subject areas simultaneously) The result is that the regular ed teacher often feels like they not only have to do their regular duties but also “teach” the special ed teacher the subject matter as well. Moreover, the grading load typically falls on the regular education teacher, which also fuels the resentment. As a teacher, I can tell you the one thing that boils my blood is people wasting my time. I have so little of it and already spend so much of it on my profession that any time spent on something that yields more work or little results is infuriating. Perhaps if I had one less class to teach and classes with 18-25 students, this wouldn’t be the case. But that’s not looking likely to happen anytime soon. (And I work in one of the better school districts in a “good” state for education).

      I just wanted to bring up these points because while I agree with your sentiments, there are many practicalities that need to be addressed before this educational policy can be as widespread and effective as we’d all like.

      • Hi viva, thank you for that. I do think we need to hear from and appreciate the challenges involved, and yes we need to make the best system we can to address those challenges (which, to be honest, I believe come about because the system was set up to have these groups separate in the first place, imagine how different your training and experience would be if you were expected and trained from the start with inclusiveness in mind). I do not see anything you have said as an insurmountable hurdle, and neither do I get the impression you see them in that light either; rather what I take for your comment is that you also want this to work and are reminding us that we need to be realistic about the hurdles in the way and understand why they are in the way and figure out how to address them. So thank you for that, and thank you for commenting, I appreciate hearing from different people within the profession.

      • James says:

        Hi Viva, Agree with most of your sentiments. Much of the ‘problems’ attributed to issues with ‘special education’ are actually issues with Education in general. eg underfunding, class size, ongoing professional development, mismatched expectations etc.

        I’ve often looked at the support received by particular students and speculated at the value of every child being able to receive that level of support.

        In an earlier life, I was the sole teacher at remote area one-teacher multigrade schools. (Absolutely loved it). I used a model where the kids basically ran the school (within certain parameters) with me as roving facilitator. Older kids teaching younger kids etc. I had the luxury of having heaps of time to work with each individual student.

        With what was previously a very problematic school within a dysfunctional (violent) community, the children’s abilities soared out of sight. From kids designated at having severe learning & behavioural issues to having to be held back from jumping several age classes. The department ended up flying out (light aircraft) inspectors to check if we were faking the children’s work.

        All because of having the time and resources to attend to fulfilling the potential of each child, regardless of ‘label’.

        So there is a tendency for those services consuming more resources to bear the brunt of the angst of other services struggling for resources. This is a divisive bureaucratic ‘Shell Game’, which misdirects the wider discussion focus.

    • Paula Hawke says:

      Thank you so much for your comments Cassie. I’m also a mum of two boys, one with a mild form of ASD who has been mainstreamed since primary. Because he’s never fit any of the Ministry “boxes” he’s never had adequate classroom support or a teacher aide – from which he would benefit immensely. This has meant he’s always struggled to achieve to the same level as his peers. As a consequence, my husband and I have had to fight against prejudice, ignorance, lack of understanding/training, (among other things), for his basic right to receive an education at each school he’s attended. He has now started high school and we’re bracing to do it all over again.

  7. Great blog. Thank you
    We are MoM (www.mindovermanner.co.nz)
    We began a year ago and we are growing. We are using applied theatre and action methods really help sort stuff out.
    I have a son with aspergers and because of the school system not meeting his learning needs our family became very stuck.My background is theatre and now I am on a mission…to work with other parents who struggled as much as I did to find a learning environment for my child.
    I have created MoM – Mind Over Manner – Heres how it goes
    Using a skilled facilitator, hypothetical and real life scenarios are played out by experienced actors and then improvised ,shaped and altered using the input and suggestions of the audience.
    The focus of MoM is to work with the parents, family members,caregivers, teachers and other working professionals who associate closely with teens who have difficulty with existing learning methods and who struggle to participate in large groups.
    You may want to have a look at our website or you may want to come to our next workshop for the public on Tues 25th Feb at TAPAC theatre , Motions Road , Western Springs 7 – 9pm
    Koha welcome
    We do not give a theoretical set of answers to core issues.Instead the MoM experience actively empowers and encourages people to be instinctive,flexible and strategic in their way of relating to someone who has difference
    Come and have a look!

  8. Thanks for this wonderful piece! My experience of a now 20 year old special needs daughter in Edmonton, Canada, is that the VAST majority of the general public is familiar and comfortable with the whole range of disabilities, different abilities, special needs in our children, simply because most of them have friends, relatives, coworkers or schoolmates somewhere on that range. Our public schools system has a range of programs from full integration to sites dedicated to special needs students. Certainly we haven’t achieved some kind of utopia, but it is so reasurring and comforting that as we go around town, my daughter is treated like anyone else, a person and citizen valuable for herself, not an oddity.

    For the sake of ALL students full development, mainstreaming is necessary. There must be no return to warehousing of some of our children

  9. nommopilot says:

    National’s change in class sizes was a massive step in the wrong direction. I think this is probably the biggest obstacle to successful integration of autistic and differently abled students, particularly those with an aversion to noisy and confusing environments.

    Personal individual interactions both formative and conversational with the teacher are absolutely crucial and next to impossible with the class sizes of 30+ commonly found in secondary schools now.

    There are many obstacles, but I think lowering class sizes is the first step.

    • Class size is an interesting topic, one I have given a lot of thought but haven’t written on before, perhaps I will so thank you for bringing it up nommopilot. My son went from having 3 teachers for 8 students in a satellite class, to 1 teacher plus a support teacher for about half the day, in a class of 20+ in a mainstream classroom. That’s a huge change in numbers, but because the support teacher was there to particularly keep an eye on my son it wasn’t a massive change in the amount of one-on-one teaching support he received, also the way the classroom is run each day means the main teacher does whole-class and small-group work throughout the day so there is that chance for individualised support there too. I can imagine things are perhaps run quite differently in high schools, and that without the support teacher the job would be a lot harder, I can also see how out-of-class workload is that much higher and harder with more children to cater for. Anyway, it is an interesting topic with conflicting experiences and evidence presented whenever the debate arises, and I’m sure it will come up again as we head further into the election year.

  10. Note: It used to be possible to comment on the NewsTalk ZB article itself, and that article had received a fair few critical comments that I found quite thoughtful and well-considered. For some reason the article no longer allows comments, and has removed all comments that were already published. I find this a tad ironic considering the article’s stated intention to get involved in and restart a debate. Make of it what you will.

  11. dave says:

    Great article.
    Smalley’s article was nothing but a blinkered publicity pop at inclusive education by a paparazzi journalist (I use the word journalist loosely).
    All children have the right to be included while at the same time protected of their individuality. Anyone or anything that threatens to restrict these basic rights needs to feel the full force of the community.
    It’s also time to stop making excuses for those who oppose inclusiveness whether that be actively, passively or ignorantly.

    Of course the article no longer accepts comments. Its easier to hide than to face the music.

  12. LivinginaRednecktown says:

    I now Homeschool due to societie’s breaching these rights and simply saying oh sorry, yet continuing the cycle, again and again and again..

  13. awax1217 says:

    I taught for forty years plus and had many students mainstreamed into the class. For the most part the mainstreaming went well. The students helped them and they became part of the class. What is needed is more training for the teacher. There is a fine line on how to handle the student. It takes a special teacher. Some teachers were great with these students. I do not feel that keeping them apart from the other students for the whole day is beneficial.

    • James says:

      I guess I’d be inclined to swap out ‘special teacher’ for ‘authentic’ . Enablement of broad curriculum guidelines is a different skill set to enablement of individual learning.

      Not intending to imply a value judgement. Establishing individual learning relationships with respect to particular needs can require a much more authentic and personal (obviously with professional boundaries) engagement style.

      Not all industry trained teachers are necessarily comfortable with close quarter engagements which may be challenging to their own perceptions and expectations.

  14. segmation says:

    Such a well written article! Thanks for sharing.

  15. mellam says:

    Great article, I totally agree with you! In Sweden where I went to school, so many of the regular kids were disruptive and no one said anything about taking them out of school. (one kid chopped of a chunk of my hair in 3rd grade and didn’t miss one day of school, while I was traumatized for the rest of the year) I’ve worked with children for 9 years now and have met a lot of them with autism, add, downs syndrome etc…who have functioned great in mainstream classrooms because the teachers around them knew how to work with them. I believe that the more exposed children become to diversity at a young age the more accepting they’ll be as adults.

  16. Catherine Delahunty says:

    Thanks very much for this great contribution, the approach to inclusion says so much about what kind of values we hold as a society and who is considered “normal” and who is resourced and valued. The Green Bay case was interesting in terms of lack of resources but also they claimed the student undermining their rules created a precedent. This suggests a lack of understanding of the student in question. I do understand that majoritarianism appeals to people who benefit from it but its no way to run an education system.I have supported satellite units and inclusive classrooms but primarily a child focussed approach. One example in politics has been having an MP who is also a member of the Deaf Community ,this has been a huge benefit to the Greens Caucus, we have changed, and learned and we have more learning to do, but we are all the better for it!

  17. jaywhip says:

    Reblogged this on welcome to my world and commented:
    I aim of the belief that all children and teenagers should have the support to learn equally. My sister has Down’s syndrome and my biggest hope for her is that she won’t be made to feel differently or suffer form an misguided education system that excludes special needs children, truth be told these children will become adults both with and without learning disabilities, we should all be encouraging of a patience and respectful attitudes towards all children.

    One of the most fulfilling moments I have ever experienced was watching my teenage brother come over break away from his own friends to play soccer with myself and our little sister.

    All humanity starts from learning and understanding why it’s so important to make the time and considerations for those people who may need a little more help then others.

    Thank you for writing this

  18. summerpena03 says:


  19. redpixi50 says:

    Reblogged this on huntress post and commented:
    this post is amazingly detailed and I recommend it smalley was only thinking about the needs of the normal children she most of my readers would completely and utermostley offended if she was saying this about African American kids wouldn’t you this is no different those kids need some extra help so help them don’t decide to just not let them learn it is inhumane

  20. redpixi50 says:

    I think that post was great and I honor you for standing up for the people that cant stand up for themselves but I have one thing I don’t think you should call the people with special needs ”special needs kids” cause that just difines them with their disability and not the fact that they are human too

    • Hi redpixi, I do understand the point you are trying to make, but the reason the language “special needs” is used in the first place is to place the emphasis on the needs rather than fixating the challenges to the child’s identity, and it is the term currently officially in use at Government level here so it has an official meaning too. If what you’re taking issue with is the “kids” on the end, please understand that sometimes when you’re writing, writing out the entire phrase “children with special needs” becomes clumsy and ultimately pointless when your readers already know you are coming from a respectful and well-intentioned position. Now quite independently of all that, also be aware that very many people in the autism world take absolutely no issue with identifying with their condition; that there is nothing wrong with seeing being autistic as a huge and inescapable part of their very identity. It is with that background that I approach my posts; I have no issue with my son being different, I accept it, it’s part of who he is, there is no shame in seeing and knowing that, so to me he is not separate or less than human just because I acknowledge that reality: He has special needs, that is nothing to be ashamed of, he is a special needs kid, still not feeling any shame or inhumanity here!

      This is actually something I do intend to write on soon, if you still take issue with me or want to discuss it further, please do come back again. I might not change your mind – or anyone else’s – but I still like to think I can encourage debate and get people seeing things a bit differently 🙂

      Regardless, thank you for your praise for me and my post, I do appreciate it.

  21. Pingback: Reflection #6: Keeping Students Together: What Rachel Smalley, and the public, doesn’t understand about mainstreaming special needs children

  22. Excellent post! All human beings have the same worth and deserved to be seen as such. Children are a diverse bunch and there is no one educational program that will fit every child. That said, every child deserves to be a part of the world. I see the continuing intolerance of consumers of special services as so very backward.

  23. James says:

    I was once asked to asses a young child’s inclusion in Year 3/4 class. ‘Tim’ was of appropriate age with obscure complex disabilities. He was mostly non-verbal, had difficulty in walking, and was affable with others. He had a personalised education program with an aide to assist. Though mostly solitary, he was happy to mix with others when the need arose.

    I observed him for several hours, noting in particular, his innate empathy towards classmates. It was interesting to watch the body language of other kids as they interacted. Tim was the one person in the room who they felt safe with.

    Tim wasn’t judging or chastising or competing with them. They didn’t need to keep up appearances or try to impress him. Their bodies relaxed naturally when they were with him. Often there was competition over who would help him eg. swimming class etc. Each child seem to treat it as a valued privilege to be with Tim.

    One incident for example. Another boy was chastised by the teacher and sent to time-out in a corner for some simple misdemeanour. The boy was obviously resentful and felt unfairly treated. He was muttering away angrily to himself in his corner, his body & face, tense and rigid.

    At first, Tim seemed unaware of what was happening. As I watched Tim, I noticed him carefully sorting among his collection of small toys & figurines. A couple of times Tim looked over his shoulder at the other boy. He deliberated over his knick-knacks until with a gesture of resolution, he picked out one particular toy.

    In his usual clumsy manner, Tim carefully got up out of his chair, and waddled slowly over to the other boy in the corner. As soon as the boy saw Tim approaching, all the tension drained from his young body. He smiled at Tim. Tim reached him, extending out his hand with the carefully chosen toy. He handed it over to the boy, smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Then without a word or sound, turned back and awkwardly returned to his desk.

    The change in the other boy was amazing. He peered after Tim with a smile and wide soft bright eyes, clearly appreciating Tim’s gesture of solidarity and kindness. Amongst the busy interplay of the classroom, nobody else seemed to notice this incredibly empathetic interaction.

    It was one of many such displays of empathy and understanding I watched Tim broker among his classmates that day. At the end of the day I was asked by the school’s management what I thought about Tim. Was it right to include him in the classroom environment etc?

    As I recall, I laughed incredulously. “Are you serious? Tim is one of the greatest learning assets you have in the school. He should be on the payroll! You need ‘a Tim’ in every class.”

    Inclusion is always a case by case situation. In my experience though, the greatest barrier to classroom inclusion is often the attitude & skills of the respective teachers. The other kids? Not so much. They’ll generally take their cues off the adults around them.

    Most of these things are looked at backwards. Inclusion isn’t so much about including the ‘other’. It’s about our willingness to BE included in their lives and our humble openness to being changed by that experience. It’s we who allow ourselves to be included.

    Just as it is that the greatest ‘dis-ability’ is usually in the attitude & thoughts of the so-called ‘normals/NT’s’ . Difference being that the non-disabled have the choice & power to choose to have ‘disabled’ perceptions & attitudes.

    Reality is, we are all in this together, united by a common humanity. Our responses to the vulnerability of others, defines our own vulnerabilities and the sort of person we choose to become. The question about inclusion is whether we, as individuals, and as a society, can afford NOT to be inclusive?

  24. iamginamarie says:

    Re-blogging this wonderful post, thanks so much.

  25. iamginamarie says:

    Reblogged this on I Am Gina Marie and commented:
    Every ‘type’ of race, gender, personality, difference (this list could go on) are already part of our communities, societies, cultures, schools, universities, work places etc. Whether or not we all feel, or believe, or choose, or behave as if we’re all here is another matter. Well intentioned exclusion in its extreme leads to things like genocide. We need to be very careful about whether one person or group’s desires are of more or equal value than another’s and how we can all live interdependently not in isolated or isolating independence from others.

  26. The outstanding wife says:

    Brilliant! I loved reading this. And I was cheering on the inside most of the way through!! Thank you.

  27. Rachel says:

    Thankyou for writing this 🙂 Some messages desperately need to get out there and this is one of them

  28. Reblogged this on Dish with Mish and commented:
    People with special needs… ARE PEOPLE TOO!

  29. I enjoyed reading this and would like to commend you. As a foster mother to special needs children since 1998, I have been a strong advocate for all my children.
    I have had the honor to be mother to about 20 children in all. We have adopted our downs daughter who is now 18 and conserved our son who is now 28. We go both of them when they were 9 years old mentally they are 4 & 6.
    Good job, Merci’

  30. Reblogged this on LynneMe'Chelle and commented:
    I enjoyed reading this and would like to commend you. As a foster mother to special needs children since 1998, I have been a strong advocate for all my children.

  31. mylifeintheair says:

    Great article. Would Smalley also suggest kids with allergies have a separate school too. ?

  32. MissFit says:

    I agree that I hope you will send it to her. Awareness is so key. We all operate on a spectrum of emotions and behaviors and the notion of ‘normalcy’ has largely dissolved. It would help to have some family support and parenting classes if for nothing l If for nothing else than to encourage people to stop seeing teachers as nanny’s or babysitters

  33. sarahelwakil says:

    This is very well put, I found your blog post by coincidence and it gave me a push of encouragement and confidence. Tomorrow I’ll be witnessing in a court hearing in Egypt for a child with special needs who has been expelled by school for totally discrimination reasons, she was doing great in school and was fitting in perfectly well but the school just didn’t want her there.

    Your post gave me encouragement and supported what I was planning to say tomorrow and talk about, well said, children with disabilities or special needs like every other child in the world could have varying IQ levels, varying behavioral and communication levels, this is not solely because they are children with special needs but because they are children and all children are different.

    Growing up I’m sure everyone has seen children who were titled as normal and disrupted classrooms because it was cool, because it was in fashion, children who were titled normal who were struggling to keep up with academics and many other examples, could this children have done better if they were home schooled or given one to one education maybe, but then maybe being educated at home or one to one is just best for everyone, the whole point of schooling is integration and bringing people together as social beings.

    If the perfect combination of a school that fits all, educates all, develops behavioral and communication skills of all is not yet found then maybe reassessing the whole educational system is a must. Teaching and educating is hard and focusing the attention on every child and making sure they are all benefiting from the learning is not an easy task, but that’s the case for teaching all children not only ones with special educational needs even if the latter are harder to discipline.

  34. gaia mouse says:

    I’m a speech-language pathologist who regularly works with children with special needs, including children on the autistic spectrum. It is always a learning experience for both myself and the children. Inclusion is a good idea but should be implemented thoughtfully. One size does not fit all. Children all have different needs at various times both within a single year and over the course of their school career. I have seen children successfully supported in the inclusive general education classroom to the benefit of all the children. However, this takes a lot of training of staff members, requires appropriate support personnel and often requires the creation of specialized materials. It takes both time and money to train staff and create materials. Done well it can be a joy for everybody. Done poorly, without proper time or money or training, it can be a disaster. That said, I think it is our responsibility as a society to raise our children in the best way we can. I am delighted to be part of the process. My students have brought me enormous happiness and delight.

    • Hi gaia, I think all your comments stand true of any education system: That it needs to be implemented thoughtfully, requires special training, and appropriate support personnel, etc. I think these are all already part of the education system, they only need to be improved and adjusted so more children from wider backgrounds can succeed in school. I think that requires a systematic change, not just a classroom-to-classroom adjustment, and I do believe such a change would benefit all children. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, I appreciate it.

    • Bessy says:

      Great post. Your words ” I am delighted to be a part of the process” sums it all up. The bottom line is that we need teachers who are elated to serve children with special educational needs. It is definitely a process and it takes a lot of hard work from all involved, including parents. The student will not be successful if we are not willing to work hard. There are no easy answers. We must work more diligently to make everyone feel accepted and capable. If we are too busy fighting then we are not ready to help anyone. I know that inclusion can work, and it has worked, for so many children with autism. It is also beneficial for children without autism.

  35. tjphull says:

    I know someone who has 5 kids.. 4 of them has different levels of Autism… they was told that their son would never talk. But because NYC, merge the children with special needs; with what others feel are the normal kids… their son who is four had just started to talk and wont stop now! It was because of this merge that caused him to catch up.

    But not only this, with having autism he had focused on music. And now he sings and dance instead of rocking back and forth when people are around. So he learned to adapt to his skills as well as to other people. Now instead of seeing him as special needs, people come up to her and say i think you need to get him into music school. He cant wait to get to where people are now and rushes off to school.

    Instead of being classified as special needs now they looking at him as being gifted. And that’s what happened with all of them. thier 12 year old went on to an art school and he now wants to work on wall street ; and make an invention to help others. He started to walk at 2 and speak at 3. Teachers couldn’t tell he had Asperger. All they noticed was that he laughed when he got nervous.

    He had his OCD’s but would restrain from them because he learned social norms. But at home his room is organized everything has its own place. It is well cleaned and organized. He cant stand being in a dirty place or area. But he learned not to focus his nervousness outside. He is happy to return everyday to his room but he is also eager to run off to school to be around others.

    Their 11 yr old plays the viola and was accepted to writers and film school. Teachers say “shes smart brilliant just a bit shy”. But at home her room has to be a mess. She loves collecting things and building art from broken things. To her a mess is well organized and she loves it just like that. They call her a collector instead of a hoarder. But no one outside knows of her ocd. Because she learned to adapt . She spoke at 2 walked on her tippy toes and still do lol.

    Their 6 year old can do math from a blank of an eye but loves to dance and dress up and pretend to be beyounce. Her Ocd is singing and dancing for hours. Puts on shows and writes her own songs. She walked at 2 and learned to speak at 3 and a half.

    So if they did not merge them into the mainstream all they would have known was their interest. Thats the only thing they would have had. But now you couldn’t tell them apart except they have great interest in the field work that as a baby they was only focused on.

    So one key phase is “Early Intervention” As well as merging. NYC is doing a great job with this. Giving the class rooms 2 teachers instead of one. From there you get a transformation from special needs to talented and gifted!

  36. aussiejensblog says:

    People, I think in general, focus more on the fact that the child has “special needs” and forget that if the kid’s parents hadn’t bothered to get a diagnosis she would be referring to the child as the “naughty child” and mainstreaming would be the only option for the parents anyway.

    My autistic son attends regular childcare. If he went to a special-needs kinder, he might never have learned how to behave around “regular” kids, and could have gone backward by picking up behaviours from other kids. He has every right to learn how to function in the real world.
    The real issue is the lack of support for the kids in regular schools – both the kids with disabilities and the “regular” kids.
    The kids with disabilities need extra support to integrate, and the regular kids need support and good parenting/teaching that teaches them that different isn’t less. That, although Johnny may need extra support to calm himself down, he is still an awesome kid who loves soccer the same way your kid does.

  37. James says:

    Wish there was a ‘Favourite’ or ‘Like’ button!

    Let’s focus on the inadequacies of the educational systems & school cultures, rather than blame the vulnerabilities of children

  38. I think the word ‘mainstreaming’ is no longer appropriate. We need to be discussing Inclusion. The goal is for everyone to feel safe, valued and accepted. This process begins at birth and moves through adulthood and as you stated requires teachers, community, families, and schools to think differently about how we meet the needs of all children.

  39. James says:

    And though often understood, though not stated, meet the needs of parents, siblings, community etc. Inclusion is pervasive without boundaries, touching and affecting everyone. “Meeting the needs” creates flow and synergy for all. The economic and social impacts of this are vastly undervalued, especially by politicians and public servants.

  40. JAP Cupcakes says:

    One of my best friends works at a Catholic Education centre and the aim of their school is to bring better classroom support, and training for teachers and parents alike, to ensure that their environment as a whole is adaptive to the needs of each and every student. They have successfully merged all types of students with different needs, backgrounds, etc, and have been able to do so with help and cooperation from all.

    In order for anything to ‘work’ cooperation and understanding are of utmost importance.

    A thought-provoking piece, thank you.


  41. amandaripsam says:

    I am a mother of a child who has a rare genetic disorder. She is main streamed she has a iep in regular classroom setting and the debate is truly educational needs vs medical needs and the school trying to keep there funding at the same time meeting there bottom line. It’s not often about the student special needs but what the school can do vs what they should be doing.

  42. weareallsimilar says:

    Reblogged this on weareallsimilar and commented:
    Part of why the population should take special education classes. To gain understanding.

  43. Deidre says:

    All children are “special”, all children have “needs”! When we stop boxing in children with all our labels and accept that no child acts the same, looks the same, learns the same or have the same gifts, we will finally be getting somewhere. It is the differences among humans that we can learn the most from. Considering the rapid rise of Autism, who knows what society will call “normal” in 20 years.

    • Thank you for your comment Deidre. I’d only point out though that the rapid rise in autism, is far more likely to be caused by changes in diagnostic criteria and autism awareness, as well as reducing stigma and increasing supports around diagnosed autistic children; it’s very hard to get an objective read on whether numbers are going up or down or staying the same simply based on confirmed diagnoses. I suspect there is an increase, but one very much smaller than the numbers thrown around in the media. There is a very good book by Grinker called “Unstrange Minds” which looks at this issue quite well (among dealing with others things very well too). I wrote a post reviewing the book a while back, if you’re interested in reading up more about it: https://autismandoughtisms.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/review-of-roy-richard-grinkers-unstrange-minds-remapping-the-world-of-autism/

  44. BoobOnARock says:

    From a teacher in Maryland, USA…yes, yes, yes!

  45. I have been a Special Education Teacher for the past 13 years. When I started, I was given the class that nobody wanted…the students who had disabilities and for whatever reason, were not able to mainstream. These were not students with severe needs such as feeding tubes and such, these were students who may have had a little attitude to go along with their classroom personalities.After 5 years in that assignment, I moved into the world of creating inclusive environments for all children to the maximum extent possible. Battling at the front line as I encouraged general education teachers not to give up, and pointed out all the things that individual students COULD DO…It did not take long for teachers to get on board and begin to differentiate the work for students based on their needs. I have now moved on to another school, and I am once again, pushing into the general education classroom to support the inclusion of all students. I cringe when anyone suggests that I remove a student for the majority of the school day to an isolated setting for an extended period of time. I would much rather dedicate time to helping that student learn to manage the classroom and help the teacher learn to differentiate and provide what the student needs. After reading this post and comments, I see that I am probably somewhat of a visionary leader in the field where I live. So glad to have found your post today (my first sick day off of work this school year:-(….bittersweet

  46. I would like to weigh in here and say that most people seem to be making decisions on what they think is best for the child but have they ever asked the child what he or she would prefer? Many people autistic or disabled just want to be accepted and have a sense of belonging or fitting in, regardless of whether that is at a special or mainstream class. This “need” often ranks higher than educational needs with persons who have a disability if you ask them themselves.

    • I regularly have conversations with my own son about what schooling he enjoys and what he likes about it, and the other mothers I know also have these conversations with their children (when they’re capable of that level of communication). More to the point, I don’t think you can make the assumptions you seem to here that there is a dichotomy between what is in the best interests of the child and what child themselves want – what is in the best interests of the child inevitably takes into account what the child wants.

    • nostromo says:

      That’s a good idea and I think that question should be asked, but some children cannot answer those questions. Or any questions.

      • And some may communicate in different ways or need AAC to have the chance to communicate

        • It is remarkably unusual to assume that people commenting on an autism blog aren’t fully aware of alternative forms of communication. You can be assured that the person you are responding to was not intending communication to be taken in the strictly verbal and traditional sense, I find it odd that you found that highly limited meaning in their comment.

        • nostromo says:

          Perhaps I should have been clearer but what I meant to say (as A&O has pointed out) was children who have not yet developed communication methods to the point where that are able to answer a question; even a yes or no. In those cases we need to make those decisions for the children, and then sometimes it’s a bit of a case of then seeing if that suits the child – you can usually (but not always) detemine if the child likes or dislikes something or is happy or unhappy from their behaviour and work back from there. So that of course absolutely is valid communication, but the point I was trying to make is that that is not a consultative process like you were describing, as the child is not – yet – able to be consulted. I think we should always aim for developing communication channels for our children, thats the holy grail, for me it comes before everything else in importance.

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