Skip Navigation
Inclusion of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

by Melisa Daily

Tommy's Classroom
Tommy is a fourth grader with Asperger's Syndrome, a higher functioning ASD. Take a brief look into Tommy's special education classroom:

Tommy began the morning in his regular classroom but came here for English as soon as lunch count was taken. As he waits to begin his lesson, three fifth graders walk in giggling and another fourth grader asks to use the restroom. The special education teacher is reminding the paraprofessionals of a meeting later in the day before they leave to help students who are in regular classrooms. Tommy's lesson is brief and he begins on his assignment. The teacher goes on to the fifth grade lesson until one of Tommy's classmates, Chris, asks her for help. She stops the lesson to help Chris and realizes that Chris is going to need her time more than the fifth graders will today. She briefly goes over their lesson and moves back to Chris. She is frustrated because she has not accomplished what she had planned for the day and the hour is almost over.

The array of abilities found in the educational setting continues to grow and change with the passing of time. New disorders are recognized and the expectations for classroom teachers become more rigorous with state and national achievement accountability. The term autism has changed greatly in the past two decades. What had once been termed autism is now part of a group largely known as autism spectrum disorders. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are challenging for the classroom teacher and the student due to the diverse needs and sensory issues faced by the student. Whether in the regular classroom or the special educational setting, the view is not as it was twenty years ago. Tommy's classroom is not unique.

A Brief History of Autism
In 1943, Leo Kanner formally documented Autism disorder through his observations of eleven children with developmental disorders. Since that time, many changes have been made in both the perception of the disorder and its prevalence of diagnosis. In 1960, autism was reported in 4 to 5 cases per 10,000 individuals. The prevalence of cases rose to 5 to 31 cases per 10,000 individuals in 1990 (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003). Autism was added as a category under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in 1990 and during the 1991-92 school year, over 5,000 students were educated under that heading. That number increased to over 65,000 during the 1999-2000 school year (Yell, Katsiyannis, Dragsow, & Herbst, 2003). The very nature of the diagnosis has evolved from the traditional autistic diagnosis, which often includes an amount of mental retardation, to the spectrum of disorders considered to be similar to autism.

The education and treatment of individuals with autism has undergone extreme changes since 1943. At one time, the education of a child with autism would only be considered within a specialized school or psychiatric facility. With increased knowledge of the disorders associated with autism, the public school system is now much more likely to be expected to provide an appropriate learning environment for these students. Researchers, practitioners, and parents do not always agree about the qualifications of the best environment, however. Ivanonne et al. (2003) states that due to IDEA and related legislation, litigation regarding the education of students with ASD is more common than any other type of litigation.

Educators are called to educate all children, regardless of race, gender, or ability. Students with autism spectrum disorders were once educated in alternative settings in extreme situations, in the special education classroom in moderate cases, or in the regular educational classroom if undiagnosed. As public policy is shifting and more knowledge is being gained about appropriate education of individuals with ASD, educators and parents are striving to find the most effective way to educate these students (Simpson, 2003).

Although the traditional model of lecture in the classroom is no longer the norm, classrooms instruction is not as individualized as these special students need in order for them to achieve success. Many of these students are lost in the shuffle of special education, or lost in a regular education setting that focuses heavily on learning methods that are difficult for them. Classroom teachers are rarely educated to differentiate instruction and recognize the needs of a student with ASD. As stated by Simpson, (2003):

There is overwhelming evidence of a shortage of teachers and other professionals who have the knowledge and skills to serve the needs of children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Indeed, I believe that preparing qualified teachers and other professionals to educate and otherwise support students with autism spectrum disorders is the most significant challenge facing the autism field (p. 195).

The number of students receiving education in the public school system with a diagnosis of ASD is growing. Not all school systems or classroom teachers are equipped with a knowledge base that will provide the environment needed for the student with ASD to become successful. Yell et al. (2003) listed this as one of the main areas that determines whether litigation will prove successful for a school district or for the parents of the student. Special Education faculty must be trained in how to work with students with ASD in order for the district to comply with the requirements of the 1997 revision of IDEA.

The purpose of this article is to discuss inclusion of students with autism spectrum disorders and the effect that state standards-based testing has on that decision. All individuals learn at differing rates, and with different degrees of success depending on their personal strengths and weaknesses. There is not one universal way to instruct students that will benefit all learners. When considering special needs students, this is especially true.

Why propose inclusion?
The most commonly debated question that arises is this; if the regular classroom teacher is not fully equipped to provide accommodations for a student with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), then why discuss the need for inclusion? Why not continue the previous trend of sending all of those students to the "resource room" to be educated by the special education teacher? What can be gained in a larger setting? Individuals with an ASD are often recognized first by their ineptness in social interactions with others. They often say things that are inappropriate or they may speak only rarely if at all. In play, they may remain off in a corner inspecting rocks while their peers are carrying on a game of tag. If the student remains in the special educational setting with fewer interactions with mainstream classmates, he will undoubtedly experience little or no growth socially. The child may grow into an adult who has difficulty in the work environment because he has still not learned effective communication skills. The regular educational setting will, of course, only be as effective as the adults who are caring for the child, but with intentional teaching of social skills in this setting, more positive growth is likely.

Teaching individuals with ASD how to form relationships and understand the feelings of others is likely more important than academic learning when considering the future potential of an individual. Because this is the greatest area of weakness, schools carry an important responsibility to work this into the curriculum whether the student with ASD is in the regular educational setting or the special education classroom. Schools do not always recognize this responsibility. Many professionals do not believe enough attention is being given to the social and emotional needs of children with ASD in the school setting (Bryson, Rogers, & Fombonne, 2003).

A second reason to explore inclusion for all students who are able was brought forth by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the requirements within regarding state testing and student success. According to NCLB, all students should be considered "proficient" or above by the year 2014, which means they should be operating on grade level or above in the areas of reading and math (DESE, 2004) . The purpose of this law was to ensure that students who were previously not succeeding due to whatever reason would no longer be "left behind" and forgotten by the school system. What this means, however, is that all students, regardless of disability will be expected to appear successful on the state tests given in their school. Whether or not this is honorable to expect is not the question. The question is whether or not it is practical to expect 100% proficiency. Proponents of the law are quick to point out that students who are unable to take the normal assessment can participate in an alternate portfolio representation of their work rather than take the written exam. This option is only open for 5% of the total number of special needs students within the total student population without penalties incurring for the school regarding their adequate yearly progress (DESE, 2004).

You may ask what this has to do with the topic of inclusion. In answer to this question, please think back to Tommy and his morning in the special education classroom. Tommy's teacher has eighteen different students coming to her room on any given day with an age range of 9-12. Each student has a different IEP and there is one point each day when she is leading lessons in two different subjects at once. Although learning is taking place in Tommy's room, it does not always tie directly to the objectives he is supposed to be covering. When Cole, a fifth grader, has a test on fractions coming up, the entire room focuses a little more on what will be on his test. Tommy is not the only fourth grader in the room, but he is the brightest. His classmate, Chris functions just above the MR range and determines the pace of the lessons. By the end of the year, Tommy will have only covered ¬Ĺ of the state standards that he will be tested on. Is it fair to expect that he will be able to score "proficient" or higher?

According to an IEP, a student may still have access to the regular curriculum regardless of being placed primarily in the special educational setting. In truth, however, these classrooms are often like Tommy's, overcrowded with students of differing ages and academic needs. Although special education teachers have received more training in the difficulties faced by students with ASD, it is difficult if not impossible for them to cover the needed curriculum with the array of students they serve.

What will be needed if inclusion is to become the norm?
Differentiating instruction in both the regular educational setting as well as the special education setting has been proven as effective. In order to do this, assignments may need to be altered or shortened according to the student. Lessons may not be able to be taught in a traditional way due to the lack of ability to learn in a certain way. All of these changes affect the success of a student with ASD. Most classroom teachers are not educated to make some of these changes. Due to the fact that few school districts feel able to offer training for their professionals and paraprofessionals in the area of autism or to provide enough paraprofessionals to accommodate the needs of students, differentiated instruction and effective inclusion are often more of a desire than a reality. Too often, a classroom is filled with twenty to thirty students, all of differing abilities, with one teacher entrusted with their care and learning. Although differentiated instruction is not often used effectively, it is believed to be one of the most effective determinates in the academic achievement of special needs students.

Successful inclusion of students with ASD in the regular educational setting will depend on the severity of the disability, the attitude and training of the educator, and the collaboration of the educating parties involved. Inclusion is the best situation for many students with ASD but it is not the most productive for all students.

The first expectation for school systems is to ensure that adequate paraprofessional support is provided to assist students despite the extra cost involved. The second expectation would be training for professionals and paraprofessionals. Each grade level must have regular educators who can provide the structured learning environment that students with ASD need for academic success. Students with ASD can benefit from inclusion, as can their non-disabled peers. With the higher expectations for performance from the implementation of NCLB as well as the social benefits of structured interaction, inclusion must be considered. The attitude and support of the adults involved, rather than simply the abilities of the students will determine the success of these situations.

Most successful programs incorporated by school systems are guided by the same principles; all students are not alike and should be educated in the manner that is most beneficial to the individual. No one program or strategy will benefit all students, ASD or not. Any program utilized by a school system will only be as effective as the educators in charge of implementing it. They must, therefore, be afforded as much training as needed, and the support of their administration.


Bryson, S., Rogers, S., Fombonne, E. (2003) Autism spectrum disorders: early detection, intervention, education, and psychopharmacological management. Retrieved August 1, 2005 from

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (2004). Questions and answers about no child left behind: update 2004.

Education Reform Studies, (1994, January). Education reforms and students at risk: a review of the current state of the art. Retrieved May 9, 2004 from

ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education Washington DC (2000). Collaboration between general and special education teachers. Retrieved May 8, 2004 from [editor's note: ERIC files no longer online]

Hayes, N. (2000). To accommodate, to modify, and to know the difference: determining placement of a child in special education or A504.@ New Horizons for Learning.

Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on autism & other developmental disabilities, 18(3), 150-166.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Office of Education Research and Improvement. (1993). Success for all. Retrieved May 8, 2004 from

Ripley, S. (2000). Collaboration between general special education teachers. ERIC Digest. Retrieved May 4, 2004, from[editor's note: ERIC files no longer online]

Schwartz, I. S., Billingsley, F. F., & McBride, B. M. (1996). Including children with autism in inclusive preschools: strategies that work. New Horizons for Learning. Retrieved May 4, 2004.

Simpson, R. L. (2003). Policy-related research issues and perspectives. Focus on autism & other developmental disabilities, 18(3) 192-197.

Westerlund, T. (2003). Catching the children who fall through the cracks. New Horizons for Learning.

Yell, M. L., Katsiyannis, A., Dragsow, E., & Herbst, M. (2003). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate programs for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on autism & other developmental disabilities, 18(3), 182-192.

About the author

Melisa Daily, B.G.S., a fourth grade teacher in a regular education classroom in Southwest Missouri. She is also the mother of two boys, one with an autism spectrum disorder.

©September 2005

Search New Horizons


New Horizons Links

New Horizons home

About Us (NHFL)

Current Journal

Submission Guidelines


Follow us on Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter!

Facebook Icon Twitter Icon LinkedIn Icon

New Horizons Shop

Featured Item: Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher

By Judy Willis | Purchase

Visit the New Horizons store on for more selections

New Horizons store on