Friday, November 7, 2008

Inclusion means what?

As I have mentioned before, I am working on a project to support people with developmental disabilities at the postsecondary level. This is a small pilot project, and we are just getting started. As part of a discussion on choosing the students who will participate, the topic of online courses came up. If a student requested only classes available online, would this be in line with the intentions of our grant?

Strong arguments were made against this suggestion. The intention of the project is not only to include the students in academic aspects of college and university work, but even more importantly to foster true inclusion in the community. How could this be accomplished while the students worked from their separate homes, never or rarely meeting one another face to face? How would such students be encouraged to join clubs and organization, attend sporting events, take part in campus politics, or just “hang out” with friends? Most of the group agreed that these parts of the college experience are as important as the academic work.

I was slow to speak. We had been discussing a potential student who is on the autism spectrum. I have met this person. I know him as someone who likes other people, though not everyone sees that about him. I also know that sitting quietly in one place for an extended period of time, in a group, is not something that is always possible for him. He might prefer to start with an online class, or a hybrid class that meets just a few times during the semester. I wanted to advocate for a broader view of “inclusion” and “community.”

My understanding of community includes the people I talk with through this blog, discussion groups, email lists, individual emails, and yes, even discussion boards for online classes. Not long ago, a hybrid class in which I’m currently enrolled discussed this very topic as part of our mid-term evaluation. This is part of what I posted:

The quality of discussions has been very good, the online format seems to work well for this group. I process written statements better than spoken ones, so I feel that I have a much better understanding of other students' viewpoints than I would in a face to face class. I am getting a much deeper understanding of who people are and what they believe; this is something I'm really enjoying about the course.

I have been in classes with some of these same students for several years. Until now, I have never known for sure (with one or two exceptions) what they thought of me or my ideas. Nor have I understood much about who they were or the reasons behind the things they said. When we met in person two weeks ago, I enjoyed their company. I felt more visible and real to them than ever before. That is one aspect of inclusion.

I thought about this, and about the similar experiences I’ve had meeting other bloggers and readers of Autism Hub blogs. It was like meeting people I already knew very well, better in some ways than I know the members of my family. Immediate and strong connections seemed to form, but no, not form, they were already there. The face to face time spent with these friends was meaningful because I already really knew them. It takes many years to develop as close a bond to people I haven’t corresponded with in writing. My community is very large, and that is because I write. I won’t accept that this community is less real than the experiences I have with people face to face. Those are a comedy of errors, or perhaps a melodrama of misunderstandings. The real “me” is on this page.

On the way home from the meeting, I thought about the other side of the equation. How can non-autistic people learn to accept our differences and alternate ways of communication if we don’t spend time with them? Doesn’t that need to be at least half of our long term goal? The students in my online class do recognize me as a different kind of thinker, but they don’t have to see me struggle to put a sentence together, or notice that I am wearing a black shirt yet again, or drawing squares constantly in my notebook. They never endure the occasional squawk or chirp or accidental interruption. If they take me more seriously when protected from those differences, does that add up to the sort of acceptance I want for autistic people? Not at all. And that is one reason I have no desire to withdraw all together from society. People need to see diversity up close, in their familiar and comfortable environments. This is how fears are extinguished.
Yet I think that the best accommodation for any given person is likely to be the one he or she has actually requested. If I should say that I need an online class, I hope no one would try to offer me instead a communication device and a bus ticket. Because they’d only be making their best guess as to why I needed to work from home. I would have tried to tell them of course, but people don’t always understand.


  1. Did you describe a situation where a person's accommodation includes having a voice without the constraint of a social dance? I can understand the quandary. Wonderful that you are having the discussion. Thanks for your inclusion puzzle.

  2. When yo put it like that, it does seem like a very difficult balance to achieve. Perhaps it could start on line and then have 'meeting's scheduled in on an increasing basis as people become more familiar with one another and maybe more comfortable?
    Best wishes

  3. 'The real “me” is on this page.'

    I am tired of people telling me I ned to get out more and form "real" friendships for this reason. The flesh-and-blood me is pretend. She has little to do withwhat I like, love, dislike, hate, believe, hope, think, feel. Her virtues are not my virtues. Her vices are not my vices. The written me is real.

    I have two autistic friends who live in the same flat, but they spend alot of time communicating via blogs and msn, even when they're in the same room.

    I wish I could "talk" to my family like that. My family don't know me. They know a series of bits of body-language which is misinterpreted, words that don't say what I meant becaus eI haven't had time to stick them together properly. They ask me what's wrong when nothing is. They don't notice when something is wrong. After 20 years they can't accept the way I walk, sit and communicate.

    In fairness, I'm no better than they are. I don't get them and I prbably haven't tried as hard as they do to "get" me. I don't want to try. I want to be around people where trying isn't necessary. That usually happens online.

    And I'm not even on the spectrum. Just close to it.

  4. I like the hybrid class idea.

    My son barely got by in Algebra last year. I was concerned that his poor grade (D+) indicated a lack of understanding in Algebra and it could negativeley affect his future math classes. So I enrolled him in an online summer course of algebra. They had six weeks to complete the course and had to participate twenty hours a week. My son completed the course in a week and a half with a grade of A so apparently he was learning in school but something was affecting his ability to convey that in the school environment.

    I have seriously considered taking him out of school and letting him complete his high school studies online. He seems quite competent both adademically and socially online whereas at his school he struggles in both areas.

    The downside of homeschooling is the lack of social learning in real time situations.

    It is a conundrum.


  5. I take courses online, and from my perspective, it is WAY better.

    The learning material is presented on a web page, so I can read it at my own leisure, take some stim breaks, play my music, do all those things that are socially unacceptable in a classroom. I don't know about other online schools, but mine has 'cafeteria' chats where the kids can socialize. I don't attend, but that's just me. There's also a school newspaper, a peer mentoring group, and lots more. I wouldn't worry about lacking social interaction.

    Of course, it's not perfect, there are some teachers that just don't get it, but on the whole, it's much better than a 'bricks and mortar' school. I recently found one of my classmates using the R word, I sent an e-mail to my principal, and she was very helpful and understanding. She suggested that I write an informational article in the school newspaper about that word's usage.

    I strongly recommend online learning for autistic and non-autistic students.

  6. "I thought about this, and about the similar experiences I’ve had meeting other bloggers and readers of Autism Hub blogs. It was like meeting people I already knew very well, better in some ways than I know the members of my family. Immediate and strong connections seemed to form, but no, not form, they were already there. The face to face time spent with these friends was meaningful because I already really knew them. It takes many years to develop as close a bond to people I haven’t corresponded with in writing."

    This is the truest thing. It has been my experience too :-) It is above-and-beyond anything like even the most advanced 'RDI' could even attempt to hope for. Oh, if there is any way to convey this.... The benefit to the soul is immeasurable. It is profound. Thank-you Bev for speaking about it.

  7. I teach online courses, and there is a definite community element in it. We also encourage study groups and attending on-campus events, and some of my students have been known to meet for study groups at more casual settings. With Community Colleges, getting "community" takes a little more effort, anyway.

  8. The last time I was enrolled in university I took all online courses because leaving the house was almost impossible with M's health issues. Building community that was felt almost stronger than the classes I have had in person. Possibly it was because the professor required so much communication type homework between us via e mail or discussion boards.

    I prefer being in a classroom though and seeing the people.

    There are many times M does not want to or is unable to leave the house. Many people do not understand that and seem to hint that I am not a strict enough parent, letting her get away with something. They do not understand at all. It can be very frustrating.

  9. Thanks Bev. I hope that inclusion can mean different things for different people. Putting my boys in regular ed classrooms full-time would not be the best placement for them. I sometimes feel like I am wrong for not demanding more so-called-inclusion, even though I know they need the one-on-one they get in the self-contained class. The progress they make there helps the rest of life be more includable.

  10. Please excuse me for not reading all the comments and immediately stating my opinion - yes, it might be a repeat of some other opinion already stated.

    I want to emphasize that people shouldn't be forced to 'practice' (perform, experience etc.) inclusion This One True Way. For some people, face-to-face communication is that bad. It is important to not exert any pressure on them in such a way.

    Understanding the online lifestyle is part of understanding the many autistic lifestyles in general.

  11. Hello,

    I'm an Aspie and I teach online, and my views seem to dovetail with many of yours.

    I think online education is a g*dsend to many people, including Aspies and autists. We can carefully consider our responses before we give them, and focus on the words without the additional dimensions of tone of voice or body language.

    I would like to add something, specifically for ASpieboy but it's also important for the rest of us to keep in mind. As we all understand, we need to accommodate NTs at least as much as they need to accommodate us.

    We may be upset when someone uses the R word, and it may be a good idea to talk to that individual about it and/or to advocate in general against its use. But complaining to a higher authority just because someone used a word that happened to upset you is calling for censorship. In our society, we have a right to say a wide variety of things, not just words that no one objects to.

    (I might add that to whatever extent people have a "right" to call the authorities about things people say or do that offend them, we Aspies probably disproportionately wind up with the dirty end of that stick. Check out these two examples of what some people have actually seen fit to call the police about.)


    Jeff Deutsch

  12. I teach wholly online, but have participated quite a bit in hybrid classes, too. I think the increase in the hybrid class format currently taking place across universities is going to be one of those things that helps to knock down barriers. Once a typical student, unfamiliar with autism, recognizes that the 'odd' person s/he has seen in the f2f class meetings is the same person whose thoughts and views have been so interesting and influential in the online discussion forum, that student is not going to view autism or other differences the same way again.

  13. I took more than 20% of my courses via correspondence, CLEP, DANTES, portfolio or online. These are the ones I did best in and from which I still retain most understanding. Regular college is too much campus politics and distraction from academic learning. To me, that is.


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