Achieving True Inclusiveness in Schools

Students with autism have the legal right to attend public schools and to receive accommodations appropriate to their specific learning needs. However, there’s much more to “fitting in” than being able to function in a “typical” classroom. If students are “part of” the class but …

  • Are never encouraged to participate according to their abilities;
  • Are patronized, pitied, or treated with impatience;
  • Are ignored or snubbed because of their autistic traits;

… what you have is inclusion without inclusiveness, which means that, even if these students are doing as well academically as their neurotypical classmates, they are not learning to be contributing and socially effective members of the school community. Since autism comes with extra social challenges to begin with, this problem can easily grow into a severe long-term handicap.

What can be done to nurture a truly inclusive school community, where everyone receives equal respect and encouragement? To address that question, we turned to Lauren Preischel, Programs Supervisor for Best Buddies in Texas.

Q: What practices are most effective in encouraging inclusiveness (and discouraging snubbing or bullying)?

Preischel: Inclusiveness is not a one-sided goal. Encouraging it requires effort from individuals (students) and schools (teachers/administration).

My recommended “best practices” are: 

  • Celebrate diversity. Make it fun and inspirational.
  • Provide training opportunities. People don’t know what they don’t know, and the best way to eliminate uncomfortable or difficult situations is to educate yourself. Once you feel prepared, you are likely to do the right thing more often, and encourage others to do the same. We can all grow by becoming aware of and addressing our own unconscious biases. 
  • Start being inclusive right off the bat whenever creating or growing policies, practices, or guidelines. Good leadership can help create a new norm for everyone.
  • Always encourage individuals to listen to and appreciate different perspectives, and to learn about others’ experiences. This will naturally create a better sense of empathy and respect. 

Q: What can teachers do to set an example of empathy and understanding? Of staying patient with “different” behavior?

Preischel: Teachers have the very important job of being a role model to all their students. They set the expectations in their classrooms, so their showing empathy and understanding on a daily basis helps everyone move forward. 

I recommend that teachers focus on:

  • Incorporating discussions and activities to practice empathy. 
  • Creating a classroom culture where differences are celebrated and all students are comfortable expressing their feelings. 
  • Promoting a positive learning environment through clear expectations for behaviors, boundaries, and classroom rules. 

Q: Your parent organization, Best Buddies International, is known for its work promoting social inclusion and friendship by pairing supportive peers with students who have autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities. How does adopting such a program benefit the school as a whole?

Preischel: Where other students see an example of acceptance and positive peer relationships, that contributes to an inclusive, compassionate, and accepting school environment where all students have the opportunity to thrive. And everyone learns the value of personal growth in social, leadership, and advocacy skills.

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