Please Segregate My Special Needs Child

Inclusion is a wonderful idea, and should always be the goal whenever it is reasonable. But inclusion must not be treated as an inflexible ideology.
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To all the well-meaning people who see inclusion as the only desirable goal for special needs children, I say: thanks, but no thanks.

In an article on entitled "Don't Segregate my Special Needs Child," Lizza Long, best known for her powerful essay, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," laments that so many parents of neurotypical children are intolerant of children like hers and mine, whose differences can be seen as disruptive. When she complains that local school districts and educational officials are more often adversaries than advocates for special needs children, she's absolutely right.

And there is no doubt that the integration of children with different learning styles and neurological profiles can be a good thing for all the students involved. Simply by interacting with developmentally disabled children on a daily basis, typical children can grow to be far more tolerant than their anxious parents.

But when Long dismisses the alternative to inclusion as "segregation" that "condemn[s] our children to prison," she is ironically making the mistake I usually associate with people who are unfamiliar with the developmentally disabled: She lumps all of them into the same group. Yet there's a reason we say "special needs" in the plural rather than the singular. Needs vary widely, as do the means for meeting them.

My 11-year-old son Louis is on the autism spectrum. There used to be a slightly more descriptive term for his condition, but the latest edition of the bible of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-V, dispensed with such niceties as "autistic disorder," or "Asperger's," let alone the one that applied to Louis: "Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified)" -- the diagnostic equivalent of "none of the above." In my more charitable moments, I see this decision not as a desire to see all people with autism as essentially the same, but rather as a recognition that any attempt to develop a reasonable or consistent taxonomy is doomed to failure.

Every year, our school district tries to show that it has a classroom in which Louis could thrive. Every year, we hope this might actually be true; so far, that has not been the case. Louis, along with many of the children who attend his private school for children on the spectrum, cannot tolerate crowds. Noise reduces him to tears, while bright lights leave him disoriented. If he doesn't have regular sensory input (ranging from the use of special equipment to simply moving around at frequent intervals), he not only can't learn -- he can't even begin to function. The disregulation that starts under such circumstances can continue for days.

Inclusion is a wonderful idea, and should always be the goal whenever it is reasonable. But inclusion must not be treated as an inflexible ideology. Long employs the vocabulary that is key to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Children must have an "appropriate" education. Sometimes "appropriate" will also mean "separate."

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