Autism awareness panel discusses spectrum disorders and inclusion

| News Editor

Professor Michelle Augistin speaks during the Autism Awareness Panel in Seigle Hall Tuesday. The panel discussed the issue of inclusion in the field of teaching students with autism.

Halfway through National Autism Awareness Month, Washington University’s The Night Off Program sponsored a panel discussion on Tuesday that focused on inclusion for students on the autism spectrum.

Bringing together people with different levels of experience with the issue, the panelists included Michelle Augustin, a professor who has taught “Education and Psychology of Exceptional Children” for the past 9 years; Jon Taulbee, a parent of two children with autism; Gabrielle Kerlick, coordinator of leisure services at the St. Louis Arc; and senior Corinne Char, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Despite the low turnout of only six students, organizers felt the panelists provided valuable information to those present.

According to the panelists, inclusion is a major dilemma in the field of teaching students with autism. While some experts suggest hours of therapy and self-contained classrooms for students on the autism spectrum, others are strong proponents of making sure that autistic children are included in typical classrooms as well. The panel’s discussion focused on the proper levels of inclusion and helpful practices in schools.

Taulbee noted that finding the right special education programs for his children has been a difficult process in St. Louis County.

“People don’t realize that you have to make these big choices in your life, like where you live,” he said. “One of the hidden costs of autism is that I had to evaluate school districts. I sold my house and rent a house in a district that I know has a good special ed program.”

Char spoke about her own experiences with switching schools for special education as well.

“Pre-K through [first grade], I went to a private school, and I was mainstreamed. We ended up moving to a district that had a special ed program because my school district would not pay for me to go to a school with a special ed program,” Char said. “So we moved to the Lindbergh district and I did three years in a self-contained classroom, and then starting in middle school, I did more integration, with only [a few] classes separate, and then in high school I would only have one hour a day.”

“I needed those years in a self-contained classroom to discover that I could function normally, that I could function as a student, and then as I got older, I transitioned to a more inclusive setting,” she said.

The panelists stressed the importance of inclusion within the classroom for students with autism spectrum disorders but noted that there was no way to integrate them seamlessly.

“I’m never going to have a huge network of friends, and I’m OK with that. And the friends that I do have realize that I’m still going to do things they don’t understand and I’ll see things differently,” Char said.

Additionally, the panelists felt that the discussion about inclusion for children with autism was especially crucial as the national autism rate has increased by 30 percent in the last two years alone.

Senior Lucia Wang, vice president of the Night Off program, said she appreciated the information covered by the panelists.

“I have a little brother who is six years old; he has mild autism. This topic specifically has been a huge thing that my family has been dealing with because my mom really wants him to be integrated into the ‘normal’ classrooms and to not be singled out as the one kid who is different,” Wang said. “I really wanted to hear what they had to say because it’s a subject that my family isn’t too familiar with and we’re still learning.”

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