Inclusionists: faith vs evidence

Inclusionists believe “inclusive education” is the best way, well really the only way, to educate every student, including every student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Inclusionists simply have faith. They ignore evidence that does not support their faith. They usually lack tolerance for anyone who criticises, or even questions, the total supremacy of “inclusive education”. Many students with ASD benefit from, even thrive through, “inclusive education”. Sadly, most students with ASD are currently educated in an “inclusive” mainstream setting but have abysmal outcomes1; outcomes that are typically far worse than students with disability generally. The data (evidence) is clear.

And some students with ASD suffer enormously or do particularly poorly in mainstream education settings. So “inclusive education” is just not the universal salvation of students with ASD that Inclusionists believe. Inclusion is not the silver bullet for students with ASD; it is not the magic “one size fits all” approach that guarantees success in educating all students with ASD. Most families of students with ASD would prefer by far that their child was succeeding in “inclusive education”. Many have already tried mainstream schools with disastrous consequences.

Too often, there is no “inclusive education” option available for their child. Families are usually devastated when education systems deny them the type of education they want for their children with ASD.

Then Inclusionists, adding insult to injury, accuse the families of irresponsible parenting, laziness and/or ignorance. It is cruel and grossly unprofessional to vilify, denigrate or ridicule families when their family member with ASD is for any good reason in other-than-fully-inclusive education. Inclusionist are building a mythology of universal “inclusive education” … and damn the facts and evidence (or lack thereof).

Dr Cologon’s issues paper, Inclusion in education: towards equality for students with disability (October 2013)2, is yet another failure of “experts” in generic disability to recognise and respect the diverse and distinct needs of students with ASD. Definitions given in the issues paper are not helpful. It defines education as “education” … and confuses the time period. The definition of inclusive education “involves” or “requires” several elements. It says inclusive education is “an approach …”, but a definition should describe distinctively “the approach …”.

Inclusive education lacks clear definition. The problem is that people vary in what they mean when they say “inclusive education”.

The Internet doesn’t help much. Typically, people mean “full inclusion” when they say inclusive education. Wikipedia says3:

  • In the "full inclusion" setting, the students with special needs are always educated alongside students without special needs, as the first and desired option while maintaining appropriate supports and services.

A student with severe ASD (typically involving severe intellectual, cognitive and/or communication impairment) usually misses out on some essential education goals (curriculum) in any “pure” education model. Segregated settings usually under-rate students abilities and over-simplify curriculum. And these setting limit opportunities to generalise social skills in community settings. Nor can inclusive education always meet the student’s needs.

For example, a high-school student with severe ASD who has yet to learned to use the toilet cannot be taught to use the toilet “alongside students without special needs”; toilet lessons should be a primary education goal for such a student, but toilet lessons are usually incompatible in practice with “full inclusion”.

“Full inclusion” does not respect the needs of a student with both ASD and high anxiety to withdraw from complex social situations. The issues paper starts out claiming4

  • The right to an inclusive education is articulated in both the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)5 and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability (CRPD)6

This claim is simply not true. CRC Articles 28 and 29 describe the right of a child to education. The CRC7 does not mention “inclusive education” or Inclusion. In relation to children with disability CRC Article 23, section 3, says

  • 3. Recognizing the special needs of a disabled child, assistance extended in accordance with paragraph 2 of the present article shall be provided free of charge, whenever possible, taking into account the financial resources of the parents or others caring for the child, and shall be designed to ensure that the disabled child has effective access to and receives education, training, health care services, rehabilitation services, preparation for employment and recreation opportunities in a manner conducive to the child's achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development, including his or her cultural and spiritual development

Note CRC Article 23 says that the state (which means “The Australian Government”) shall ensure a child with disability “has effective access to and receives education” … which is basic for “preparation for employment”. The CRC says a child with disability will receive education “in a manner conducive to the child's achieving the fullest possible social integration”. Some people believe this means “inclusive education must be used at all times” but the CRC says “the fullest possible social integration” is part of the goal, not necessarily the process, of education. Contrary to the claim and premise of Dr Cologon’s issues paper, the CRC does not say that “inclusive education” is the only legally acceptable means for achieving this part of the goal of education. Perhaps the primary support for inclusive education comes from UNESCO in its Salamanca Statement8 which

  • calls upon all governments and urges them to … adopt as a matter of law or policy the principle of inclusive education, enrolling all children in regular schools, unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise …

and whose Mission9 says:

  • Regular schools with this inclusive orientation … provide an effective education to the majority of children …

Note, UNESCO says “to the majority of children”; UNESCO does not claim “regular schools with this inclusive orientation” work for all children. Clearly, they expect that there may be some children whose education needs will be better met in different settings; there may be students who have a “compelling reason” to be partially or fully educated in another setting.

Possibly, some students with ASD fall in this category. The evidence base for children with ASD shows effective education depends on intensive (often clinical – usually involving a segregated setting at times, depending on a child’s individual needs) ASD-specific individual early intervention10 that prepares the child for education.

Unfortunately, the preparation that a child with ASD gets11 in Australia does not always achieve a sufficient level of functioning for the child with ASD to benefit fully from education in a regular school; few reach a level of functioning sufficient to sustain full inclusion in a mainstream education setting … even when some individual support is provided for the student.

Children in Australia do not have a right to education. While the Australian Government ratified both the CRC and CRPD, it refuses to enact the requirements of these treaties in Australian law12.

In particular, a child with ASD in Australia clearly has no right to education: the High Court of Australia ruled in Purvis vs NSW that any school (or possibly any other organisation) can exclude a child (person?) whose disability means there is a risk that the child (person?) will behave in an unwanted (unacceptable?) manner13. A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is a statement that a child has “severe and pervasive impairment” of their behaviour … in effect the High Court of Australia ruled (in a 4:3 decision) that any school can exclude a student who is diagnosed with autism/ASD whenever it wants.

Dr Cologon’s issues paper says

  • However, while children who experience disability continue to be denied equal access to inclusive education from early childhood through to adulthood, the requirements of these conventions are not being upheld.14

Current practices deny many students with ASD equal access to appropriate and effective education generally; this statement is not restricted to “inclusive education”. Note that while most students with ASD in Australia are educated in mainstream (inclusive) settings, the outcomes for these students, according to education and consequent labour force participation measures, are extremely poor … even compared to the disappointing outcomes that people with a disability generally experience15.

Inclusionists will, of course, argue that mainstream education produces abysmal outcomes for students with ASD because it isn’t truly, sufficiently or fully “inclusive”. But they cannot really explain (they don’t really try) why the mainly “inclusive education” that students with ASD currently receive is so ineffective for them. Their research fails to examine this question16.

So much education research is fundamentally flawed through misconceptions about “inclusive education”; for example, that

  • A child has a right to “inclusive education” (through the CRC);
  • Students with disability are heterogeneous in their response to and need for “inclusive education”;
  • Only through “inclusive education” can every child receive the full benefits of education; and
  • Anything other than “inclusive education” is contrary to the interests of the child.

The fundamental failure to recognise the diverse nature of disability among students and to respect the varied needs of students is just unacceptable. Disability, difference, whatever you want to call it, is far from heterogeneous among students. The diversity means there is no single solution. While Inclusion demands diverse implementation, there are students whose individual needs demonstrate that universal Inclusion is not sufficiently flexible; so Inclusion is not the solution. The rest of the disability sector believes that the best option for people with a disability is to meet individual requirements through individual plans … that are not restricted to Inclusion. The case is not made that education should be different; should not use the same basic principle. The issues paper says:

  • It is now widely recognised that placement within a mainstream setting, while a necessary starting point, is really only a starting point for bringing about inclusive education.17

In relation to children with ASD, the claim that “placement within a mainstream setting” is “a necessary starting point” is simply wrong. The relevant experts advise that the necessary starting point for children with ASD is individualised intensive ASD-specific early intervention181920… and that settings for early intervention depend on the individual child and varies between children and with their individual progress (or lack thereof). But Inclusionists believe that instead of early intervention that usually involves some segregation, all children with disability depend on entirely “inclusive education” — that segregating a child is never appropriate whether the child has ASD or not; irrespective of any evidence and individual circumstance (or even a student’s particular preference).

Even Baroness Warnock, who many regard as the founder or architect of “inclusive education”, admitted “inclusive education” fails some students and has a “disastrous legacy”21. Inclusionists now regard her as a turncoat or traitor rather than as an informed voice. The clinical (or disability) services and education systems in Australia do not provide basic supports that are necessary to (essential in) effective education of students with ASD. Unfortunately, Australia does not meet the initial and basic needs of children with ASD … these students have no chance of receiving an effective education (to “receive education” is their right) while these initial and basic needs are not met.

In fact, the Government and the wider disability sector (and papers like the one under review) do not even recognise these needs … and certainly do not recognise the right of students with ASD to these prerequisites. So directing and restricting attention to aspects of “inclusive education”, is in this review, misses the point completely. The issues paper asks a few non-core questions. The paper’s method does not describe a process for selecting or assessing the references it lists. And it shows. The papers seem to be selected to support a predetermined conclusion. There is no discernible attempt to find scientific assessment involving proper experimental design and sample selection.

The core questions for students with ASD are:

  • What will be done to improve education outcomes for students with ASD? How can the education systems in Australia improve outcomes for students with ASD?
  • What outcomes do students with ASD achieve through “inclusive education”? Is inclusion really the answer for all students with ASD? If so, what needs to be done to prepare students with ASD for Inclusion? How do we tell a student with ASD is ready for inclusion? If not, what else works?

Dr Cologon’s paper does not address the long-standing challenge: see http://a4.org.au/a4/node/458. Schools routinely segregate students into groups based on their date of enrolment; or on their relative educational stages. But Inclusionists deny students with ASD access to the same efficiency in teaching.

It is good to see that thought and effort may be going towards improving outcomes for students with ASD who are ready for “inclusive education”. But diverting all the effort and attention in education research into “inclusive education” away from other options does not benefit students with ASD.

The material on bullying in the issues paper varies substantially from (or contradicts) reports of bullying in mainstream or “inclusive” settings for children with autism. The typos in the autism-related references in Dr Cologon’s issues paper diminish its credibility.

Inclusionists are yet to recognise that placing a student with ASD in “inclusive education” exposes that student directly to enormous risk (between 40% and 100%) of significant damage through bullying. The issues paper skips over the enormous challenge of including students with severe or profound disability due to ASD (possibly exacerbated with comorbid intellectual disability, anxiety and other disorders & conditions) in high school and colleges.

Basically, it is hard to justify full inclusion of a student with ASD who has very little curriculum in common with the rest of the class in which he/she is placed.

My major concern with publications like Dr Cologon’s issues paper is that they encourage/promote Inclusion Evangelism. It is wrong to assume, without real proof, that “inclusive education” is effective for all students with ASD. The available evidence fails to demonstrate that the needs of all students with ASD can be met in fully inclusive settings.

Inclusion Evangelists over-generalise and misrepresent the available evidence. They exaggerate the benefits and ignore all contra-indicators. Inclusion Evangelism is dishonest and unprofessional.

Cruelly, Inclusion Evangelists23 heap ridicule and scorn on families of students with ASD whose needs are not met in any “inclusive education” setting that is accessible for their child. The conduct of these Inclusion Evangelists damages the reputation and perceptions of the better instances of “inclusive education”.

I abhor Inclusion Evangelists who bully families when those families cannot access appropriate “inclusive education” for their child with ASD. The community must support and respect rather than denigrate families who choose practical/workable solutions in instances where inclusive settings do not work.

One has to ask, if Inclusion works so well universally, why have the Paralympics? Why not just have people with disability compete in mainstream competition?

Note: there are no categories for autism in the Paralympics (and Intellectual Disability is “problematic” as well).

I don’t see convincing evidence that “inclusive education” is the uniquely optimal means for “the [child with ASD] achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development, including his or her cultural and spiritual development”. Sometime, we need to venture outside the Inclusion Box. A child has a moral, if not legal, right to “individual development”; needs that may not be entirely about Inclusion or “social integration”. Typically, a child with ASD has needs, in addition to Inclusion, that must also be met. I am not anti-Inclusion. I believe “inclusion in the community” or “social integration” (a child’s moral, if not legal, right) is an appropriate aspiration of education for people with ASD; just as I believe Inclusion rather than Normalisation should be the higher goal/purpose of clinical treatment and rehabilitation for ASD.

I advocate for and fully support appropriate Inclusion for students with ASD. I prefer to see people with ASD placed in “inclusive education” whenever it works for the people involved.

Bob Buckley
12/11/2013

1 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4428.0

2 http://www.cda.org.au/_literature_159458/Issues_Paper_on_Inclusion_-_Word

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inclusive_education

4 as do plenty of others … see section 11.2 in http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/special_education/educat...

5 Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, http://www.unicef.org/crc/

6 Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability, 2006, https://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=150

7 http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx 8 http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0009/000984/098427eo.pdf

9 http://www.unesco.org/education/sne/

10 The Commonwealth Government advises that children with autism need at least 1000 hours of intensive ASD-specific early intervention per year for at least two years.

11 The Commonwealth Government created the Helping Children with Autism package in 2007. When John Howard created this package he said it is “just a start”. Labor’s implementation (using the funding that the Howard Government set up) provided up to 50 hours per year, at most 5% of what the Government advises these children need.

12 The first draft report of the UN’s recent review of Australia’s compliance with the CRPD is especially negative. The UN’s positive review of Australia’s compliance with the CRC appears to be largely based on misinformation and self-aggrandisement from HREOC.

13 The Purvis case was not about ASD, but the decision has a serious impact on the rights of people with ASD (see http://flr.anulaw.anu.edu.au/sites/flr.anulaw.anu.edu.au/files/flr/Campb... and http://www.allens.com.au/pubs/pdf/wr/fowrnov03.pdf). The impact was theoretical until Walker vs Vic where the decision to exclude a student with ASD based on the Purvis vs NSW precedent. In Walker vs Vic, Federal Court justice Richard Tracey referred consistently to Walker’s disability as “misconduct” and had no expectation whatever that the school would make any reasonable adjustments for the student’s disability (see http://rightnow.org.au/news-article/walker-vs-state-of-victoria-and-disa...).

14 The State of the World’s Children 2013, http://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf

15 see http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4428.0main+features62009 and http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4428.0main+features72009

16 any findings adverse to “inclusive education” simply may be difficult to publish.

17 Armstrong & Barton, 2008; Beckett, 2009; Berlach & Chambers, 2011; Cologon, 2010, in press; Curcic, 2009; D’Alessio, 2011; de Boer et al., 2011; Ferguson, 2008; Komesaroff & McLean, 2006; McLesky & Waldron, 2007; Rietveld, 2010

18 Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities, Koegel, Robert L. (Ed); Koegel, Lynn Kern (Ed), Baltimore, MD, US: Paul H Brookes Publishing. (1995)

19 National Research Council (2001) Educating Children with Autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. Catherine Lord and James P.McGee, eds. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

20 Roberts & Prior (2006) A review of the research to identify the most effective models of practice in early intervention for children with autism www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-ch... and the updated version: A review of the research to identify the most effective models of practice in early intervention of children with autism spectrum disorders by Prior, M., Roberts, J. M.A., Rodger, S., Williams, K.& Sutherland, R.(2011) see http://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/09_2012/review_of_th... (links on http://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/disability-and-carers/program...).

21 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1491679/Warnock-U-turn-on-special...

22 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-08-21/bullying-of-autistic-kids-going-un... http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22945284 http://www.news.com.au/national/new-autism-spectrum-australia-report-sho... http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=10499 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S175094671200030X

23 use “Crusader” or “Inquisitor” if you prefer.