When I met David, he had spent his school life exclusively in a special education classroom. He was in fifth grade and his school team decided that he should be integrated into a fifth grade classroom starting with math, his best subject. At that time, integration was a relatively new idea and it meant that a student would "belong" in a regular education class rather than being "excluded" for most the day. Everyone was talking about how this was different than mainstreaming and the idea was that students like David should have been integrated all along but due to the school team's past ignorance regarding what was now discussed as a human rights issue, David had to be gently introduced to the culture and demands of a regular education classroom until he could be fully integrated.
I was new to my career as a school Speech and Language Therapist and I had a hard time imagining how David would be happy in a regular education classroom all day no matter how gently he was introduced. I had never met anyone who lived in a more different reality than David. But, I was prudently quiet and uncertain anyway, about my opinions back then. I only commented on his communication and then, only when asked because I was baffled by everything about David including his manner of communication. I could say things that sounded good but I can honestly say that nothing that I contributed to his education program was the least bit relevant or helpful that year although he and I liked spending time together. On the other hand, David contributed hugely to my education.
David had friends but all his friends were numbers. He drew numbers and added faces to each so that each number was a personality. It was hard for David to eat lunch in the cafeteria, because every food was assigned a number and David added up the worth of his plate before eating. Peas might be assigned the number 48 and he had to count all the peas and add them up before eating them. This was hard enough but they rolled around and were hard to count. Numbers were a part of every aspect of David's life at school and at home. Every spot in his house had a number assigned and he made himself a route game everyday and went in order to every place on the route and did some activity, perhaps throwing a ball up in the air and catching it, and then went on to the next spot. David could, with enough encouragement, tell a little about his routine and he explained more and more to me as he discovered my genuine interest and enthusiasm for understanding his world. This was as opposed to screaming at me to go away when I first started "therapy" with him.
When David started going for an hour into the regular education class, he was quite nervous even though the fact that it was a math class was motivating. He would spend the morning in a kind of nervous, self-talk, anxiety-driven rant, saying things like "David, in fifth grade, you have to stay in your seat." "David, you can't get up and walk around the classroom in fifth grade." He paced and repeated the directions for being in fifth grade right up until he went and could only settle down to do other things after he had been to his math class.
David followed the well-rehearsed rules pretty well in fifth grade math. The only problem was, he did not get all the math problems correct in that class. Since David was doing all the fifth grade math accurately in the special education classroom, this was a mystery. David was not able to explain anything about his math errors. I asked but he simply looked at me and moved on to some topic that he understood like how many basket ball hoops were in the Gym--something I had not asked about but can remember to this day because David told me so often.
One day, in David's morning anxiety rant, he paced by and said something like "David, you get 54% in fifth grade." This was a mystery statement but since he talked math all day, it was easy to ignore. The next day, he brought back his paper, corrected, by the fifth grade math teacher and 54% Correct was written clearly at the top of the paper. The math errors were explained. David was planning each day, prior to his math class, a predetermined percent correct for that day's math assignment. He did enjoy a math challenge and this was the best math problem he could devise for himself.
David was my introduction to the question of what educational setting best suits a child with autism. I have met so many children since then and the answer is still not simple and it cannot be answered with a simple philosophy, no matter how noble. David deserved to have a better math education, I think, now in retrospect. Math was such a talent that I wish we could have provided him with more ways to shine and develop that talent. I wish he had had a speech therapist who understood how to help him develop better communication skills and now, years later, I have lots of ideas.
David was unique and being prepared with well-trained staff ready to meet his needs was difficult to accomplish. The unique nature of the student is the challenge in educational planning for children with autism. New special education staff will inevitably struggle to understand autism. Regular education staff may be even less prepared for a student like David and so the mix of best resources for each student needs to be made in part based upon what is available. The concept of integration was never fully realized with David, in my time with him and perhaps it never could have been.
The idea of integration was not entirely wrong headed, though. David never stayed for much of fifth grade beyond the math class as his behavior was so disruptive for less motivating subject matter. But, a year after David went into the regular education classroom for math instruction, David suddenly started to show an interest in other children his own age. He had never appeared to notice his peers before unless someone asked him a math question. But, in sixth grade he seemed to be making friends at his church Sunday School, his mother said. There were a small group of welcoming kids at the church. He knew their names and sat close to a couple of girls each week. They were girls from his math class in fifth grade.