Least restrictive environment (LRE) is one of those special education catch phrases that special needs parents learn early on. More and more, special needs kids are being put into mainstream classrooms, many with supports, to learn alongside typical kids. My son is among them.
For the most part, I've been a believer in LRE. I always say that my son has to live in a mainstream world, so it's best for him to learn in a mainstream classroom. Yet recently, I've started to wonder. I've started to see the third grade curriculum in his inclusion classroom butting up against his autism-specific deficits and I wonder if it's time to move him to an environment where the teachers are trained to teach kids whose brains work similarly to my son's.
Still, I'm torn. I love the way that being in an inclusion classroom not only teaches my son, but also spreads awareness to teachers and the other kids in the classroom. I have seen the positive effects that can bring. But I also know that I can't sacrifice my son's education and well-being in the name of awareness.
My son's brain makes it difficult for him to master inferential reasoning. His concrete thought patterns make it harder for him to grasp the more abstract math that third grade brings. His social deficits are becoming more and more obvious as the years pass.
Maybe a self-contained classroom can give my son a solid base from which to then enter the mainstream world. Maybe our social lives are inclusive enough that he will be okay without being schooled that inclusively. Maybe we can spread awareness other ways. Maybe my kid would be less likely to be bullied in a classroom full of quirky children who think as he does and who like similar things. Maybe, in a self-contained classroom my son would find his people.
Or am I just giving up? Should I assume that he will rise to the challenge of the inclusion classroom? Can I count on the simple fact that he is smart to get him to where he needs to be? Can we tweak his IEP and classroom expectations enough that he can make it in mainstream school?
Here's another thing: This year, my oldest son moved from our neighborhood school to a highly gifted program at a different school. His new class isn't an inclusion classroom, yet no one batted an eye or brought up the idea of LRE when we were making our decision to send him there. He just got congratulations for testing well and getting good grades. We were encouraged to send him to this new school because he would be around other kids who thought like him, whose brains worked like his does.
How is that different? Is it because gifted is seen as a positive and special education is not? And why do we have these assumptions?
There are so many kinds of self-contained classrooms. I am just starting to explore what our district offers. I'm asking some exploratory questions of our IEP team. As I do, these questions roll around in my head. These decisions are so very difficult. The problem, of course, is that there is no right answer.
Stimey writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.