For a term so frequently used, there can be a surprising lack of consensus or even thought about what ‘inclusion’ actually means in the context of autism education. Much of the debate within the UK continues to centre around the basic issue of placement: should a child be educated within a mainstream or a ‘special’ school, or in a mainstream setting with an autism ‘resource’ attached? Moreover, while in Italy, all parents have the right to request a mainstream placement for their child, the situation in Greece, rather like the UK in some respects, is rather more diffuse, where children are placed in different settings, and some experiencing a high degree of educational segregation.
The difficulty with such a conceptualisation of educational inclusion – one that focusses simply on what sort of school the child attends – is that the responsibility for achieving such integration remains essentially with the child, and whether or not s/he can cope with the environment, or ‘fit in’. However, on the TAE project, the teams from Greece, Italy and the UK are aiming for a more holistic and evolved understanding of inclusion. In the Schools Autism Competency Framework (which is a core document in the development of the TAE teacher training materials) created by the Autism Education Trust, for example, Christine Breakey is cited as follows:
“Any understanding of autism should not be approached from a position of ‘deficit’, but rather from a position of ‘difference’. Autistic people are not neuro-typical people with something missing or something extra added on. They are different. If we are serious about equality and inclusion within any area, then we must first of all understand that difference.” (p.8)
While the concept of ‘difference’ is in itself quite complex and multi-layered (and indeed, can be problematic), this principle makes it clear that the onus is on the school staff to understand the child in order to take that first step towards educational inclusion.
Similarly, when students at the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) were asked about how to facilitate inclusion for autistic children, teaching assistant Katie Hobson referred to the importance of learning about autism as a core part of teacher training, in order to enable educators ‘to plan and implement activities based around the children’s strengths and promote difference being seen as something important, to be cherished.’ Lisa Corbett, another teaching assistant, took this idea a step further, by suggesting, for example, that ‘social skills should be taught to ALL children, not just those with ASC.’ This viewpoint reinforces the notion that the autistic child is placed on the same educational footing as all other children, and is not deemed to need any more ‘social skills’ teaching as anyone else, for example.
Professor Gary Thomas, in a recent interview on the ACER blog, defined educational inclusion as follows:
“For me, inclusion is about much more than disability or special needs. It’s about a mindset of acceptance of everyone for who they are.”
These perspectives represent quite a different idea of inclusion than simply thinking about what sort of school the child attends. For the various partners of the TAE project, considering the issues around inclusion from a much broader and progressive standpoint not only adds value to the scheme itself, but permits a fruitful coalition between three countries, despite the different approaches to educational placement represented in our respective nations.
Lisa Corbett is a completing a BPhil in Inclusion and Special Educational Needs
Katie Hobson is studying for an Advanced Certificate in Autism (Adults)
Gary Thomas is Professor of Inclusion and Diversity in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham.
Breakey, Christine (2006) The Autism Spectrum: A Guide to Good Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley