Vikram Jaiswal is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Tauna Szymanski, an attorney and volunteer chair of the Arlington Inclusion Task Force. They are the parents of a child with autism. With an introduction by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post, they describe their 7-year-old autistic daughter's exclusion from regular education, and make a plea for inclusion.
Over 30 years of research has shown that students with disabilities learn more and better when they are given the supports they need in regular classrooms, alongside peers who do not have disabilities.
For example, in a recent series of studies, Jennifer Kurth and Ann Mastergeorge compared autistic middle schoolers who had been educated since kindergarten in either regular or self-contained classrooms. This placement in kindergarten was determined by Zip code, not ability: Those in the regular classrooms lived in a district that did not have self-contained classrooms; all children were educated together. Students in the two groups had similar IQ scores (none above 70), but those educated in regular classrooms scored five to nine times higher than those educated in self-contained classrooms on every measure of reading, writing, and math achievement given.
This is a dramatic difference, but the explanation is simple: opportunity and access. The autistic students in the regular classrooms had more opportunities to learn. They spent almost 90 percent of their time engaged in instructional activities; those in the self-contained classrooms did so just 60 percent of the time. Most of the rest of their time was spent taking breaks.
Autistic students in the regular classrooms also had more exposure to grade-level material: The curriculum they used was aligned with the one used by the students without disabilities almost 90 percent of the time. In contrast, the curriculum used in the self-contained classrooms was aligned just 0.1 percent of the time. Over one-third of the instruction involved no curriculum at all.
The research on the benefits of educating disabled children in regular classrooms could not be clearer. No study conducted since the late 1970s has shown an academic advantage for students educated in separate settings, but plenty have shown the reverse. The research on the social benefits of including disabled children is similarly impressive: Studies show that disabled children make more friends and feel more connected to the school community when they are educated alongside nondisabled children. There are benefits for the nondisabled peers too: Studies show they exhibit more positive attitudes about diversity and even experience increased academic engagement themselves.