Have you seen stories on social media about a child with autism spectrum disorder who doesn’t have anyone show up to his birthday party, so a bunch of celebrities do? What about the one where a student with ASD who had been the basketball team manager is put in in the last 10 seconds of the last game of the season and makes a basket? Heart-warming stories like these help to raise awareness of ASD and are meant to highlight the inclusion of students with ASD. But is this kind of inclusion enough? Should we want more for our children on the spectrum?
Most educators and parents are familiar with the term of inclusion. Inclusion has been heavily researched, and the research is clear: inclusion done well can be a powerful tool for students with disabilities. Many districts and schools claim to offer an inclusive experience, but those experiences can look very different. We often think we know what inclusion means, but in reality inclusion looks different across the country, school districts, and even individual classrooms.
In many places, “inclusion” means one student with a disability, along with an aide, placed in a classroom of peers who may interact only briefly, or not at all, with that student. This student essentially is in a “classroom of one” that is physically located in a general education setting, but the aide ends up being teacher, gatekeeper, and even friend for that student. This student is not being included.
In other settings, inclusion means a student is placed in a general education setting, often without any kind of support, for a set number of periods or activities per day. The classroom teacher may be unable to help the child participate meaningfully. In these types of scenarios, students with disabilities are included, but often in superficial ways. Sometimes they end up being a sort of mascot for a class, as opposed to a member of the class. This student is not being included either.
While inclusion indicates an add-on, immersion represents complete membership. Full membership in schools and communities is best accomplished by immersing children with ASD, as early as possible, in age-typical environments with their peers. For students who struggle socially, the best place for them to learn these skills is in a diverse environment with experiences to socialize with typically developing peer students to model what age-appropriate social behavior looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Intervention delivered in natural settings provides countless opportunities for children with ASD to participate in normalized experiences as they grow and develop language and social skills.
What if that child from the first paragraph who doesn’t have friends show up to his party, not only has classmates at of a range of abilities show up, but has experience being invited to other parties? What if he has regularly attended parties, both at school and in the community, for a group of friends and classmates, therefore learning how to act and behave in a party setting? This is immersion.
What if that team manager from the first paragraph instead had the opportunity to try out for, practice with, and regularly participate with the team? If his excitement came not from 10 seconds of playing time, but from improving his skills or setting a new personal record of points scored? This is immersion.
What if every extracurricular club, every class, every party had students with ASD fully engaged and participating alongside of their typically developing peers? What if all students in a school respected each other, regardless of diagnosis, and all teachers in a school were able to effectively support those students? This is immersion.
Oakstone Academy is the birthplace of the Academic and Social Immersion Model, thanks to the research and practice of our founder, Dr. Rebecca Morrison. Our talented team of teachers, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, and classroom support staff have been practicing and perfecting this model for almost 20 years with students from preschool through high school.
We watch our students with and without ASD thrive in a setting built to respect and support all learners. We watch our students learn together, attend social events together, play sports together, and develop true friendships together. We watch preschoolers with ASD get invited to playdates at their friends’ homes. We watch elementary students play recess games with everyone in class participating, often without adult intervention. We watch high school students help each other study, persevere in sports, and travel the country together. We watch our graduates move to the world of college or work with skills to respect and care for all kinds of people. This is why we say immersion is greater than inclusion.