The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) (P.L. 108-446) (http://idea.ed.gov/) guarantees a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for every student with a disability. The LRE provision mandates that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” In general, inclusion (or inclusive education) with typical peers is often considered to be the best placement option for students with disabilities.
Child characteristics such as IQ and severity of autism symptoms are thought to determine educational placement. However, where a child lives may significantly impact whether they are placed in an inclusive or segregated classroom, a new national analysis suggests. The study published online in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilitiesexamined external factors, including state of residence and state funding formulas, to determine their potential influence on placement outcomes. The findings revealed that considerable variations exist among states in placing students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in inclusive, mainstreaming, self-contained, and separate schools. Specifically, states vary substantially in the percentage of students with ASD educated in each setting, with some states trending consistently toward less restrictive settings (Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). Other states, however, are consistently representative of more restrictive settings (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C.). Furthermore, states in the Eastern United States tend to have more restrictive placement rates than states in the Western United States. State special education funding was found to have a minimal impact on placement outcomes.
These findings suggest that factors that are external to child characteristics (IQ, severity of ASD symptoms) influence educational placement decisions for students with ASD. Overall, it is unlikely that child characteristics alone determine placement outcomes. The author states that it is arguably safest to assume that the first placement for a student with ASD would be an inclusive setting. Analysis of the public data presented in this study suggests that many states are still falling short of including students with ASD in general education settings for significant portions of the day. This indicates the critical importance of shifting the argument from should we include students with ASD in general education to understanding how to include students with ASD meaningfully and successfully in inclusive settings. It is critical to identify how those practices that benefit students with ASD, including structure (visual supports, communication supports, and social supports), positive behavior supports, and systematic instruction, can be implemented meaningfully and seamlessly in general education settings. Lastly, those who place students with ASD in educational settings should determine the unique needs of the individual, and match those needs to specific supports and services that will be provided in general education settings.