According to IDEA (The Individual’s with Disability Education Act) assigning children to the least restrictive environment (LRE) is a mandate with some flexibility. It does not require that a child is “mainstreamed” if it is not in the child’s best interests. How that is determined however, often does not take into consideration a child’s self-esteem.
A parent whose 12 year old son is higher functioning on the spectrum had spent the better part of his school years in self-contained or semi-self-contained classrooms with an aide. When he entered 7th grade, it was decided by his team (including his parents) that he was ready to transition to “regular” classes, albeit with an aide. This did not work out. He seemed more anxious, his behaviors increased, and he wasn’t sleeping well. He would say that he liked his old classroom better, but his parents wanted to give him time to adjust. After a couple of months, the IEP had to be revised.
My grandson’s enthusiasm for school is obvious. Every morning, he rushes to get there. Sam, who is in kindergarten, is in a mostly self-contained environment. His special education teachers have told us that he loves to take care of the other kids – some of whom are non-verbal; and he often is the only one who answers questions of an academic nature. Sam has made remarkable strides this year in every area of functioning, but what is particularly notable is that his interest in other children has increased. He used to run away when his cousins visited, but now he makes an effort to play with them – particularly the 3 1/2 year old! Could it be that he feels competent around him?
A special education teacher once told me that children who had spent a great deal of time in self-contained or mostly self-contained classrooms felt it was a safe haven for them. They could learn proper behavior in a relaxed environment, where their behavior and its consequences didn’t get in the way of learning. What she didn’t talk about, was self-esteem.
Just because a child with ASD doesn’t seem to be aware of others, doesn’t mean he isn’t. I believe that self-esteem or lack thereof affects these children in the same way it affects everyone else. And what that means is that we have to be very careful when it comes to inclusion or mainstreaming. It may represent progress to the parent or to the child whose self-esteem has been diminished because he is aware that he is not in a classroom like most other children. But the research is still out on what happens to a child’s self-esteem once he is in a “regular” classroom. If a child feels incapable in his “mainstreamed” environment, there is a possibility that it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.