The Autistic Child – inclusion or exclusion?

for blog - inclusion or exclusion

This is possibly my most favourite photograph of Ian, ever. It shows him interacting with two children who were two years younger than he was. Ian was 6, and they were both 4. At that time, and in that place, inclusion was perfect. Ian had undergone three years of intensive one-to-one therapy; now he was just a child, in a sea of children. A small sea, admittedly. Well, as there were only about eight of them, perhaps more of a jolly, chuckling puddle. But Ian slid in without a ripple, and they all got on very well. As I wrote in my book “The other, smaller, children accepted Ian with love and generosity. He was a gentle giant among them, towering over even the tallest child in the class, and when he took their toys from them, they took them right back with frowns and complaints. Ian learned the give and take of normal play.”

These were children who had not yet formed their opinions as to what should or shouldn’t be, and also, as it happens, children who were not exposed to endless hours of mindless television or video-games – but that’s another argument. These were children who were open to Ian’s difference, children who were parented with the almost forgotten art of gentleness. I believe that had Ian stayed within that group, he would have been surrounded by children who would have formed a protective barrier around him as they all grew up together.

What one finds, however, with most attempts at inclusion, is that the child – no matter his disability or mental age – is put in a classroom of children the same age as himself, as if that should work. Oh, they’ll just get on? No, they just won’t. The autistic child has enough battles to face just getting through every single day, without having to endure peer-related aggravation.

What if special needs children were routinely mixed with younger children? What then? Who would it hurt? Ian didn’t know the children in his class were younger than himself. And even if he did know, he didn’t care. Is there such a stigma attached to a child being ‘held back’ that a parent might insist their child was thrown in with their peer group? I doubt it. And if an autistic child of five or six was mixed with three- and four-year-olds – children who are, as I wrote in my book, “not yet fixed in their attitudes as to what behaviour should or shouldn’t be” – what a huge benefit, not only to the autistic child but to the others as well, in learning to accept?

Watching Ian blossom during this time, I realised that mixing an autistic child with typical kids of a younger age represented the very best that could be achieved. Certainly for Ian it had done him the world of good and he had learned to behave appropriately with the group in a way he never would have mixing with other autistic children or at home in an intensive home programme.

There are other advantages to inclusion as well, and these centre around imitation. All children imitate the behaviour they see around them, good or otherwise, and this applies to autistic children just as much. I would rather home-school my child than have him bullied by normal kids because of forced inclusion with his own age-group, and I would rather home-school him than have him imitating the iffy behaviour of other special needs children. But that brings us neatly to the thorn-infested field of socialisation.

It must be the question most often asked of parents who choose to home-school their child: What about socialisation? Well, the most obvious answer is, that depends on your view of what constitutes socialisation. Mingling with people? Getting on in the wider world? Being able to stand up to your peers when they come at you in a group, intent on harm…? Home-schooled children often spend more time in the wider world, and learning from the wider world, than their peers, but have done so from an environment of safety. How can this be wrong?

Of course, inclusion may give the parents a skewed reality. In her excellent article on Facebook (, Phoebe Holmes writes “…inclusion can give this idea that your child, with all their struggles and difficulties, is still somewhat normal. That normal is still within reach. They could learn how to blend. They could be part of that normal group of kids. It’s a false sense of security, even for those of us who are quite aware of our child’s challenges.”

This is a very good point. It is part of human nature, I think, to veer towards the societal acceptance of what is ‘normal’, even when this might include placing a child in an environment beyond their capabilities. Given the intrinsic human need to fit in, there is also a need to have one’s children fit in. Of course, this idea flew out the window when a special needs child arrived, and we (parents of special needs kids) all have to wear the armour of someone who doesn’t care to fit in at all …

What I know is this: My autistic child behaved better when he didn’t mix with other autistic children – in all ways, not just in a less autistic fashion. My eldest child imitated the disturbed behaviour of other disturbed children when briefly attending a special school for the purposes of being psychologically assessed. My mother-in-law was pining and aging beyond her years living in a home for the elderly, showing that even mature adults absorb the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of other people they routinely mix with. I am happy to say that now, having moved closer to her family, she has been gifted a whole new lease of life, surrounded by her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandchildren, and carries a brightness about her that we haven’t seen in years.

Who we mix with matters, sometimes more than we think.



Snippets and photograph from “From the Inside – raising, teaching, loving an autistic child

6 thoughts on “The Autistic Child – inclusion or exclusion?

  1. Reblogged this on The Law is my Oyster and commented:
    I am firmly of the view that the current policy of ‘inclusion’ by the Department of Education has no educational, even altruistic, basis whatsoever. It is purely a cost-cutting exercise designed to crowd as many children as possible into one room with one over-extended teacher, whilst making redundant the special needs teacher, the remedial teacher and a host of SNAs. Why should inclusion be based on the arbitrary concept of chronological age?

    Well done Fiona, another beautifully written and thought-provoking piece.


  2. Dear Fiona, this is such an interesting post and very close to my heart, because of personal experience. I moved to Ireland in 2004 when my autistic daughter Josie was five years old. Josie, her 18 month younger sister and myself started interacting by visiting the local parent and toddler group. Most of the children there were babies, or two to three years old, and Josie blended in well. She loved playing with noisy, battery operated toys and although she did not interact with the other children it was very beneficial to be in that environment for her. In the spring of 2005 she started attending a pre-school group for a about three hours a day, along with her sister to prepare for school. Here all the children were a year and a half to three years younger than Josie. This again suited her very well, as the other children were all to young to see Josie as different. She loved playing at the water table pouring water from different containers into spinning wheels, etc. She did not interact a lot with the others, but again seeing the children and getting used to a busy environment was tremendously important. I along with my then husband, also did a lot of work at home, loosely based on the TEACCH method to get Josie used to concentrating and doing things other than what she had picked herself. You are probably familiar with this concept, where you line the activities and tasks to be performed in a line at the top of the table, working through them from left to right and always having a popular toy or activity at the end of line as a reward. Slowly over months we managed to get Josie from a couple of minutes long sessions to 25 minutes. It was fantastic to see how well this worked. Josie loved the book “Curious George goes to the Ice-cream shop” and we invented a game with empty ice cream cones and scoops of different flavours that could be added and counted. We invented many similar activities. In the autumn Josie was ready to start in a local small primary school with the aid of a full-time SNA and an hour of resource teaching one to one or in a very small group every day. Again Josie was almost two years older than the other children, and this suited her very well. She overcame more and more of her fears and difficulties, with the support of the staff and all the children. It helped a lot that Josie’s SNA was our neighbour and she had known her since we first moved to Ireland. At present Josie is attending a very small secondary school, with only 32 students per year divided into two classes of 16. She still has a SNA and one resource hour a day. In this environment she can thrive, she is now in second year and all the students have gotten used to her. It helps her a lot that her sister and stepsister are in the same class and her step brother is in the year below. Because Josie has always been a couple of years older, it has given her time to learn, adjust and better understand her peers. The size of the school has also been of huge importance. It has been and still is a very satisfying journey.

    Please keep up the wonderful writing. Many thanks,


  3. Thanks, Fiona. When reading through my comment I must just add that noisy toys were a firm favorite for years, but only when Josie was in control of them. Noises outside of her control would cause her great distress and often sent her kicking and screaming under the table, trying to get away. For years, only Josie could turn on the CD player in the class room, if there was to be music or a sound activity. Anything else simply would not work. 😉


    • That’s really interesting. Ian preferred quiet toys (apart from his keyboard) but never had a problem with loud noises. Mind you, he’s really quiet anyway, has some kind of ‘stealth ninja’ thing going on.
      That must be so hard for you and Josie to live with; the world is a noisy place.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely comment from Francisca Bruning (thanks Fran!)
    “I love reading these!
    It’s interesting what she says about age, my son has just turned three and his little friend down the road has just turned seven. That’s a huge age difference but nobody has pointed it out to them nor has anybody critisised the friendship so it doesn’t bother them at all. They ride their bikes around our house and have fun together 🙂
    It’s true that people behave according to their environment and the company that they keep, I’ve seen it with older people in care homes as well.”


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