Halfway though the morning lesson, 7-year-old Dan starts screeching, pressing his hands tightly over his ears and rocking violently forward and back in his chair. Some students don't seem to notice, but it's sensory overload for others, who get distracted or simply shut down. They're in a special education classroom for autistic children at Henry B. Milnes School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, but despite their developmental and behavioral challenges, many of them, including Dan, will eventually be "mainstreamed," spending part or even most of the school day in general education classrooms.
It's estimated that one in 150 children in the United States have autism. There's no cure, but with early diagnosis and the hard work of dedicated educators, many autistic kids will grow up to live independently, and even make extraordinary contributions to society. A big factor for their future success, say the experts, is being educated in regular classes, where they can learn to interact with their peers and to control or modify their behaviors.
But transitions are difficult for children with autism, and sometimes inclusion is tough on teachers, too. No matter how great their desire to help, some teachers see a student like Dan and fear they won't be able to handle teaching an autistic child alongside the rest of their students. That "fear factor" is a big roadblock for general education teachers, says Julie Moore, a middle school teacher and member of NEA's IDEA Resource Cadre.
Moore spent much of the last two decades teaching in special ed classrooms. When the inclusion movement took hold, she saw nervous and unprepared general education teachers in need of support. That's when she began leading a six-hour autism workshop for Washington teachers based on The Puzzle of Autism, a resource guide created by NEA and the Autism Society of …