Monday, November 14, 2011

The LRE Question

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.


  1. I don't think LRE works well for all children. Nothing works for all children, as you know. This is an option that was once not available for children who had needs outside of the mainstream. This change has benefitted many children, but it is not a one size fits all.
    We moved our kids out of the mainstream, into private settings that we felt were better for them. They went to private schools with rigorous entrance screening and high standards. We did not feel the public schools were good enough for them, and yes, they got opportunities and educations in that private setting that our excellent public local school could not have matched. An excellent program that is geared more specifically to the interests, personality, abilities of ones child can be a lot better than the general fodder. It depends on the directed program.

  2. Inclusion does not work a majority of the time because the child does not have the proper intervention beforehand to give them enough prerequisite skills and public schools, no matter how hard they try, are not geared to fully understand the appropriate intervention kids on the spectrum need in this setting. Inclusion fails the majority of the time, right around third grade, when social skills get more complex, kids aren't so cute anymore, typical kids aren't as forgiving when it comes to tolerating the disabled peer, really bad aides and so called educators who claim to have experience in good intervention when they do not and so on.
    Most kids need to be outplaced at this age and it is sad to see parents who fight this (and there are many) because it is too difficult for THEM to admit little Susie or Johnny is not typical and never will be. This isn't doing the child any favors in the long run.

  3. After K's ASD diagnosis, the psychologist strongly recommended we put K in a gen ed pre-school with an aide. We did but K struggled and his aide strongly recommended an ASD classroom in the public school for kindergarten. We did but that school was not a good fit. We moved schools (and states). K splits his time between the ASD classroom and the gen ed classroom.
    Not to make your decision even more difficult, but in K's ASD classroom you can see the spectrum. And some of the behaviors of the other kids bother K. I see the ASD classroom as sort of a safe haven for K (even with the annoying behaviors of the other kids) because the teacher and aides know autism and get autism. It sounds kind of obvious because hey, it's an ASD classroom and they'd better know. But they can tell when K needs a break (sensory or otherwise). They get how to keep him on task. And, of course, let a lot of the perseverating behaviors slide. But as far as the other kids in K's ASD class? I don't see many friendships happening. The kids basically get along but because of the spectrum of kids I think it's hard for them to make connections.
    So while a self contained classroom may be good for Jack because the expectations of how he behaves in that classroom will be different, more willing to make allowances for the autism, unless Jack ends up in a classroom with kids with the same flavor of AS as his, I don't know if he would "find his people" in that he would find a buddy. Jack's interactions with his AS peers is not going to be like Sam's experiences/interactions with the kids' at his school.
    You make a great point about the gifted classrooms, clubs and schools. I don't think putting Jack in an ASD classroom (or school) would be a step back. I know a lot of people would see it that way but he would still be working on the same curriculum. But in the ASD class, he would have more time to master the concepts/tasks he struggles with.
    The upshot of this is to say I think you're right to explore other options. You may ultimately decide to keep Jack where he is. But you won't know what's available if you don't ask the questions. And the other thing to remember is that Jack doesn't have to stay in a self contained classroom for the rest of his school career, either.

  4. Above all, you have to do what's best for Jack, of course. And I know you will. : )

  5. so...just a question that may not have an answer yet...can you ask Jack? Would he know yet?
    I ask this because of a post that a mom wrote on the SPD Blogger Network the other day. She's mainstreamed her son since the beginning, but over dinner one night he asked if he could go to a school that was for kids with autism only. He was beginning to see how the mainstream curriculum (and social life) wasn't working for him. (
    I know that we'll be facing similar things in the future. I just don't know what that future holds.

  6. I have a son, who's 8 like Jack, with Asperger's Syndrome. He was mainstreamed for K, 1 and part of 2nd grade. In 2nd grade, he begun to unravel and his meltdowns due to the stressors in the mainstream inclusion class intensified and the school deemed him unsafe and recommended outplacement. After a difficult 2-3 months of fighting the school and trying to find an acceptable placement, he ended up in private school (paid for by the district) for kids with HFA, AS, ADHD and Tourette's. That school gave me my wonderful, lovable son back. We moved at the end of last summer and I requested that he be placed in the social communications classroom - a closed classroom for kids with similar deficits (and similar interests, gifts and communcation style). It's a smaller teacher to student ratio, more explicit structure and the teacher most definitely has greater experience with working on his IEP goals. I am so happy with our choice to have him in a closed classroom - and trust that as he is able, he will be mainstreamed as much as possible, with the goal of full mainstreaming with support by middle school.
    I was recently at a seminar focusing on person centered planning. The parents in the class had children with disabilities all over the spectrum. I really feel that the choice for fighting for inclusion is easier with other disabilities. At least for my son, the awareness of him being different was adding to his stress and no accommodation in a mainstream classroom could help with that. I agree with one of the above comments that you need to assess what Jack really wants - whether by asking him or using your best judgment.

  7. Holy shit, Stimey! And I mean that in the most gushingly positive way. You NAILED what I've been thinking for the last year or so. In fact, you nailed it so well that I'm printing this out and bringing it with me to N's IEP on Monday.
    I've been single-mindedly dedicated to keeping N mainstreamed all these years (he's in fifth grade now)...despite how much he's struggling with the academics (spending more than an hour a day in RSP classes and still not quite keeping up), and despite not really making any friends. He doesn't get bullied, really, and he says he's happy at school (as happy as any child can be who would rather sit in front of Star Wars the Clone Wars episodes for eight straight hours if given the choice).
    But then I started noticing things: Like how, when he spent six weeks at a special needs/inclusion summer program this summer, he made three really close friends...despite having NEVER made a SINGLE 'real' friend in his mainstream classes. Like how, when he recently graduated from his OT clinic program's social skills-based therapy sessions, he invited another ASD boy to his 'party,' but when we have his birthday parties, he doesn't want to invite a single child from his class of 35.
    What was the point of mainstreaming again? To keep him isolated amongst his peers? i could kick myself.
    All of which is to say that I can't think you enough for this. I don't know that we can undo what we've done, and I'm not even sure that I can make a course change at this point (for a number of reasons, most of them involving money and convenience, but some of them involving lack of good options at this level of school), but I'm definitely looking at it differently as we move forward.

  8. This has been on my mind for a week now. We had our IEP meeting last week and my kid is having a lot of trouble keeping himself "together" during class. Thank you for this post!!

  9. Thank you all so much for your comments. You've given me a lot to think about, and I'm glad to have done the same for some of you.

  10. What a thoughtful post.
    I have no expertise in this, so for what it's worth...
    First, does the school district offer sort of a middle ground - say, part of the day or week in LRE 'mainstream' classroom, and part in a 'self-contained' or specialized classroom? Maybe one setting for social skills and subjects A and B, and another setting for subjects C, D, and E?
    Also, I truly hope that none of your children are being bullied. I've heard about that recently, and frankly was appalled that middle school and high school students are even acting as 'bullies' via social media. Argh.
    Anyway, trust your own judgment, and it seems like no decision is permanent?