Guest post: Segregated Education is not ‘the Answer’ for Autistic Students

By Dr Robert Jackson

It is a fact that many Autistic students and their families have experienced major difficulties with “mainstreaming” in regular classrooms – inadequate management of bullying, inadequate teacher training, inadequate adjustments for communication and in relation to sensory processing are commonly reported – many have felt forced into segregated “specialist” education – but it is a dangerous backward step to contend segregation is an appropriate “best interests” option.

A recent study from the UK, widely disseminated in education circles, found that Autistic students in segregated education settings demonstrated better “behavioural outcomes” than those in regular classrooms.  While this might seem to be a strong argument for segregating Autistic students, the study missed two critical issues.

First, it does not give any indication of how the students were treated in either the segregated or regular schools.  Many Autistic students experience significant stress and anxiety in the course of social interactions, as they can find it more difficult to interpret facial and bodily cues in the same way as their neurotypical peers.  This can lead to confusion and misunderstanding about what is occurring socially and in some cases a seemingly small issue can trigger an extreme response, such as aggression or defiance against others.  This in turn will often lead to a punitive response from peers and the school, increasing the stress and the stakes exponentially, with inevitable adverse consequences for the student – including in some cases diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What parent could continue to allow their child to be damaged like that?  Who wouldn’t be looking for a more responsive, accommodating and safe educational environment that showed some understanding of their child?

But the answer can’t be quarantining Autistic students in the false comfort of segregation. If we see the answer as segregated education, this is effectively the same as saying we need segregated schools for any student who is not easily accommodated by regular schools.  Children in wheelchairs can’t get up stairs so shouldn’t we have specialist schools for wheelchair users?  We don’t – because we accept that the failure to adapt a regular school environment for wheelchair access is discriminatory.  So why isn’t the failure of regular school to adapt to the needs of Autistic students also seen as discriminatory?  The short answer is that they are equally discriminatory.

Secondly, there is no consideration of the academic and social consequences of segregating students.  We now have over 4 decades of research showing that students with disability who are segregated have poorer academic and social outcomes than those who are fully included.  Even regular short-duration ‘pull-outs’ for specific classes or therapy have been shown to have detrimental impacts – students who are fully included do better academically and socially.  In fact, in numerous reviews of the comparisons of segregation and inclusion, no experimental comparison has come out in favour of segregation.  Students who are segregated lose percentile ranks – they fall further behind the longer they are segregated – they are denied the benefits of learning from peers and the equally important social benefits of developing, having and maintaining peer connection – so essential for them as adults in society.

Accordingly, the unequivocal research evidence says that a student in segregated education will suffer an academic and social cost – despite the “specialist” attention. That cost to the child and ultimately the consequent loss to society is unfortunately the price of the regular schooling system not having the leadership, culture and resources to properly cater for the needs of Autistic students. For Governments to respond with more “specialist centres” for Autistic students one must ask whether the segregating response is driven by the best interests of the student or a change-adverse regular schooling system.  That is a question that Autistic students – as adults – may well seek to revisit.  Many Autistic students sent to “special schools” report feeling “scarred” by their schooling – and a disproportionate number of complaints today relate to the experience of Autistic students in special schools, including “specialist” autistic schools.

Perhaps more important is whether as a society we want to condone a system that effectively amounts to educational apartheid.  Many other countries have taken the decision that they do not.  Italy closed down its segregated education system over 30 years ago.  In the USA and Canada as well as many European and Scandinavian countries, Autistic children are welcomed into the regular mainstream classroom with adaptations made that allow them to thrive academically and socially.  In the Canadian province of New Brunswick, segregating students with disability is actually prohibited under educational policy.

If others can include Autistic students in regular classrooms, surely it is possible for us to achieve this too.  We know the way; what is needed is the will – the will to implement the necessary systemic change.  Governments transferring scarce resources further in favour of segregation is the opposite of what the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently called for in its General Comment No. 4 on Inclusive Education (issued on 2 September 2016):

“The Committee urges State Parties to achieve a transfer of resources from segregated to inclusive [education] environments.” [para 68].

The need for the regular schooling system to better accommodate Autistic students – and other students with disability – is undermined by the existence of an alternate segregated “special” system.  The current experience of families feeling “forced” to transfer to segregated settings due to difficulties of their child coping with regular settings is effectively system-sustaining leakage dressed as an “option” for parents to take.  But as the UN Committee also recognised, education is the right of the child, not of the parent, and the over-arching consideration is the best interests of the child – academically, socially and with a view to long-term outcomes as an adult.

Segregation of people – even in “special” settings – should never be presented as a true “option”. Being disconnected from the community and peers will always come at a significant long-term cost.  The answer is not to fund more segregation – but to develop more inclusive regular learning environments.

*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include.  You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through

[Cover photo © Aidan Meyer]

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