Children learn how to develop relationships in daycare, school, after school programs, and in social situations much like adults. For children with special needs, socialization can be a bit more complicated even though “ninety-five percent of school-age students served under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in fall 2020 were enrolled in regular schools.” While major progress has been made in the United States, there is always room for improvement. IDEA was a stepping stone in the right direction as it “makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.” Yet, there are still a significant number of classrooms which are segregated between neurotypical and neurodivergent students. According to Kappan, an educational resource, “it is estimated that around 11% of graduates are considered neurodiverse, though as much as 30% of any student body may fall into any of the [neurodiverse categories].” In addition, 1 in 54 children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.
“In the past, students with special needs were often sequestered in separate classrooms,” said Professor Corinne Hyde, who teaches in USC Rossier’s online MAT program. “Teachers must be prepared to celebrate, challenge and support students with varying needs in an inclusive classroom.”
According to the California Department of Education and their book Inclusion Works!, “quality early learning and care contributes to the emotional, social, and intellectual development of young children, and is an important part of school readiness, and school success.” Showing children at a young age that their peers are of all different abilities and capable of the same goals can push the next generation of students into a world of success.
Neurodivergent disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), sensory disorders, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Down’s Syndrome, Tourette’s, dyslexia, and others do not impact cognitive function. With integrated classrooms, “as many as 85 percent of students with disabilities can master general education content if they receive educational support,” according to Inclusion Works! and notes that the benefits include: fewer absences, better educational outcomes, more instructional time, social benefits to able-bodied students as they learn positive relationship building skills as to better relate to persons of all abilities, and more.
Early inclusion for children with disabilities and their peers can help with self-esteem. It is common knowledge in the modern world that society has tended to treat neurodiverse persons with less acceptance or indifference. This is an unfair and unfortunate result of exclusionary practices for those of different abilities starting from a young age. Understanding neurodiversity and intersectionality in education and mental health is a big piece of how to show children their self-esteem is important to not just themselves, but their peers as well. According to Better Help, “people with certain neurodiverse conditions are more prone to mental health disorders like anxiety, depression,” and “among people with autism, 80% experience mental health disorders, with anxiety being the most common.”
“Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society,” said the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “The desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential.”
Ostracism is engrained in certain parts of society like bullying, conformity, harassment, and fitting in. For children, this is a huge factor in their lives even after or outside of school. Children and teens, “living with autism are 63% more likely to be bullied than their neurotypical peers.” It’s important for children to feel safe, wanted, important, and valued in societal situations by integrating them into neurotypical situations and organizations.
“A lot of those kids with ADHD and kids with learning disabilities are high IQ,” said Dara Shifrer, associate professor of sociology at Portland State University. “But I don’t think kids are told this when they’re diagnosed, and so it really affects their social psyches and affects the way their teachers perceive them, the way their parents perceive them.”
Resources are available for caretakers, care professionals, parents, grandparents, and legal guardians to use for children of all abilities. For example, A Day In Our Shoes advocates for Individualized Education Plans (IEP), which includes tips and lesson plans for children with disabilities. Start Early is an educational resource that advocates for early childhood education for children of all abilities with early screening recommendations, policy & advocacy, consulting, and a professional development portal.
“Inclusion is the least expensive, most effective method of teaching students,” said Hannah Grieco, a teacher and neurodiversity advocate. “It starts from the top, with administrators making this a priority. When administrators model inclusivity and support teachers in its implementation, the entire school (and school system) culture changes.”
Above all else, showing your child the wonderful connections of friendship, sharing, self expression, collaboration, learning, and respect can lead them into a place where no child feels left out or alone amongst peers. The neurodiverse population is a rapidly growing number. Doing our best as advocates for change and inclusivity can start with us.