ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

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Thursday, July 13, 2006: 1:30 PM-2:45 PM
#2290- Navigating the way from self-contained placement towards greater inclusion in high school
Effective schools need to provide programs that reflect a microcosm of the larger society in which they exist, if students are to be prepared for a meaningful life beyond high school. A high school senior with ASD and his mother will outline concrete steps taken, in moving from a primarily self-contained placement towards greater inclusion in the school, as a whole. Suggestions will be offered that are applicable to a variety of students, incorporating self-advocacy and collaborative team efforts.

Presenters:Lisa A. Lieberman, MSW, LCSW, ASD, parent, clinical social worker and speaker - Lisa is a popular national speaker with 29 years experience. Some past conferences include ASA, MAAP, International Parent to Parent, Autism Society of LA, Best in the Northwest and TEACCH. Along with a private counseling practice specializing in living with disability in the family, she wrote a comprehensive book detailing how to hire workers who support people with ASD. Current interests include: helping families navigate the emotional journey, counseling adults with ASD, and promoting community inclusion for people with autism. Married for 27 years to a man with M.S., together they parent Jordan, an 18 year old son with ASD.

Jordan R. Ackerson, High school student with ASD - Jordan Ackerson is an 18 year old high school senior who has ASD. He participates in school track and cross-country teams and in the school choir. Jordan spoke on self-advocacy at the 2005 ASA self-advocates preconference workshop. He enjoys speaking to groups about autism, and even more, about the importance of not underestimating people with challenges. He is a member of a teen Youth Advisory Group sponsored by Oregon Services for Children with Special Health Needs. He has been the subject of feature articles both in his school newspaper and in the local newspaper.

People who attend this session will: 1)gain perspective on the value of inclusive education 2)grasp the importance of student input in the planning process 3)obtain practical ideas for how to work collaboratively toward inclusive practices in high school

The 1997 reauthorization of IDEA emphasizes the requirement that all students with disabilities should have access to the general education curriculum, yet that is not the case in many high schools across the country. Where inclusion is not the norm, the student, parent(s) and professionals trained in inclusive practices must work intentionally and collaboratively toward this goal.

Jordan, a 17 year old senior, along with his parents have pushed hard to convince school professionals that regardless of his learning challenges, he has just as much right to be part of general education classrooms. Describing how Jordan progressed toward more inclusive education allows the opportunity to anchor a discussion about concrete strategies for implementing inclusion practices.

In sixth grade, my husband and I had a conference with Jordan's teacher. I still remember the shocked expression on his face when I told him, unequivocally, that I believed the quality of our son's future depends far more on learning to interact and develop meaningful relationships than it does on getting high grades and qualifying for the best college or university.

He declared, “Lisa, you are the first parent in this district who has ever said that to me.” Though I believe on a deep level he grasped what I was saying, as a teacher he was held to rigid standards, making sure students achieved benchmarks for graduation, as dictated by our state.

During those primary years, Jordan was fully included in his neighborhood school with a full time assistant. School personnel were exceptionally creative in ensuring that Jordan could feel part of his school community. Examples include the following: The school welcomed a letter from me describing Jordan's interests and facts about his family, and included a copy in the Friday packet for every first grader to take home. He was given the job of collecting daily attendance records from every classroom, to be recognized in a positive light throughout the building. He sang a solo in the school talent show each year. In his last year, every sixth grader in the show enthusiastically acted as “back-up singers” to his rousing rendition of “Wild Thing.”

He happily went to junior high with neighborhood peers. However, we heeded advice that Jordan would be best served in a core classroom for all academics, while electives were taken in general education classrooms. Jordan was comfortable, but missed out on basic general education curriculum that set him farther behind as he entered high school.

In retrospect, we would have handled junior high differently. Jordan would have been included in more general education academic classes with adequate support. Although he might not have grasped all the academic content presented, he would have had the opportunity to be exposed to what Paula Kluth terms, a rich “theatre” experience in general education.

I do not begrudge the people who believed they were doing the right thing. Neither the district, nor we as his parents had the right training in how to implement effective inclusive practices.

When it was time to plan for high school, few choices were available. We were strongly discouraged from considering his neighborhood high school as an option since they were gradually doing away with those same core academic classes, geared to children with learning disabilities.

With a heavy heart, we agreed to move Jordan to the other high school in our district. Jordan expressed sadness for several months prior to attending high school at the prospect of leaving his neighborhood friends and starting over with mostly new people.

He was placed in an essential life skills classroom with children who had a variety of disabilities; in truth he was with children who had the most complex needs in our district. For 9th grade, he stayed in this room for “academic” classes which were, in actuality, oriented toward vocational and life skills. We feared that if Jordan remained in this placement, he would plateau academically. Also, in this setting he was extremely isolated from general education students, except for those who received credit to “help” the special education students.

When IEP time rolled around in the spring of 9th grade, we were ready. We pushed for a learning specialist to be involved in his case management. During sophomore year, he took two general education academic classes with one-on-one support. Although it took awhile to get the right supports in place, he learned far more in 10th grade, than he had learned in the three previous years.

With school funding cutbacks looming at the end of 10th grade, we had reason to fear the team would recommend putting Jordan back in the essential life skills classroom. With a heavy heart, and after thirteen years of collaborative relationships with our school district, we engaged the services of a special education lawyer to serve as an advocate during IEP meetings in planning his 11th grade year.

At this same IEP meeting, Jordan wrote his concerns up and presented them in writing.


“The thing that makes me feel more a part of school is getting to spend more time with typical students and to have more conversations with them. I also like it when I get to goof around with them, and have a very good laugh with them even to the point sometimes that my eyes water. The thing I've enjoyed the most is when I feel like I'm fitting in with the other students.

When I don't know what to say and who to talk to, I might feel quieter. At times, it feels kind of hard to have a conversation with some of the other students, because they're busy doing their thing and are too talkative with each other.

Although I'm already involved with some school activities, it might be nice to be involved in more. I could be more involved if I could go around and find out more info about all the activities. I would really appreciate it if another student would invite me to some more of the school activities. It would feel very helpful to me if one of the students could explain more about what is happening.


Reading comprehension is one of the most important things to me because it increases my ability to take more academic classes. Another reason why reading is important is because it will help me improve my vocabulary. Having the ability to read will help me participate in life skills like driving a car, voting, reading a newspaper or magazine, or looking at classified ads.

In math I need some extra help in catching up to high school level. I would be better off taking that subject in a special education class. I'd like to learn long division, percentages and decimals. I am definitely capable of learning a lot more in math.

It would be cool if I could be in more of the general ed classes as long as I have an educational aide in there to support me to gain as much as I possibly can from the class. It helps me a lot when an aide breaks things down more so that I fully understand what I need to learn. Another thing that helps me is for an aide to make sure that I understand what my homework assignment is.

Things that feel difficult

One of the things that feels especially difficult is when I'm trying to do the very best that I can, and I'm not doing something exactly right, even though I feel like I am and I don't totally understand what I'm not doing exactly right and an adult is rushing me and sounding like they're feeling kind of impatient.

It sometimes doesn't feel so great when I'm just about to finish my sentence or question, and I feel like someone's talking a little bit too much and too fast. As a result, it feels like someone is interrupting when they get ready to jump right in…That's why I try to hurry sometimes especially with people who jump in too soon.

Most of the time it feels trickier to learn things just auditorily or verbally. It feels hard when someone expects that I remember it right away and acts impatient if I don't. It would feel more helpful to me if someone would tell me something and also write it down at the same time, or have me write it down.

Sometimes lunchtime feels uncomfortable when I have trouble getting in conversations with the other students. Every now and then I sit with kids that I don't know. I'm just sort of quiet and wishing I could either get more involved or find a certain group of kids that I would like to sit with where I would be more likely to talk.”

During that 10th grade IEP process, we successfully created a program that truly represented his individualized needs. In those meetings, we aggressively pursued solutions for his lack of social inclusion in the high school. The vice principal put her creative thinking cap on and came up with some “out of the box” suggestions for how Jordan could be more socially included in the school.

11th grade has gone more smoothly. Jordan is learning and maturing as a student. For the third year, Jordan participated on the cross country team. He sings in the school choir and performed in two musical theatre productions. Informal social relationships remain a challenge, in spite of his efforts. Following is a talk Jordan prepared and gave to his cross country team, asking for them to include him in more social activities outside of school.

“I really like being on the cross-country team because it's very cool to run and to hang out with other members of the team. There are really a lot of friendly and caring people that I've met and hope to continue to get to know better after Cross Country season is over.

I'm talking to you today because I'd like to be more included in fun social get-togethers when I'm not in school.

When I'm hanging out at home I like to check the weather in the newspaper, the computer, or on TV. I also listen to my radio, fix my hair or read, if I feel in the mood. A lot of weekends, I don't really have activities that are scheduled. I would really love it if some of you would call me up to plan something we could do together or I could call you.

Here are some things I really would enjoy doing with other kids: Bowling Roller skating at Oaks Park Going for a run, a hike or a bike ride Doing a group service project Going out to eat Hanging out at someone's house Going to a dance Going to a game Going to a movie or a play Singing together/karaoke Coming over and using our hot tub Making up funny videos Instant messaging (jordanra515) Going to an art gallery Going to Borders when they have live music

I very much look forward to doing some things together soon. Give me a call or write me an email anytime!”

We have learned much along the way about what works and doesn't work in the effort to establish more inclusive practices in the high school setting. As parents in this process, we have had to fine-tune ways to effectively approach school personnel in the spirit of collaboration. Jordan has learned to push himself to take risks and speak up for what he needs. We ultimately hope others who follow will benefit from our hard work.

See more of The ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)