Autism Education Center continues work focusing on inclusion, best classroom experiences

The Autism Education Center's work on promoting the placement of students with autism into the general classroom setting to the greatest extent possible has dovetailed with a renewed Michigan Department of Education focus on the same concept.

That work is just one of the efforts to highlight for the center during this Autism Acceptance Month, according to center staff members. They are also enhancing their efforts to emphasize the importance of inclusion for autistic students and their families, and have made inclusion the focus of their May 1 annual conference in East Lansing.

The Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education is focused on what is known as the Least Restrictive Environment. This concept emphasizes the practice of placing students in the general education setting and to receive supports and services determined by the team overseeing the child's education, said Kellie Fitzgerald, strategic communications, design and development specialist.

The center has historically worked with its statewide network to instill the importance of that practice to ensure placements are based on the needs of the child, said Stephanie Pulido, program evaluation and resource development specialist.

Different wings of a building is shown with a brick pathway and some snow.
The Autism Education Center, headquartered in the DeVos Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus, has been connecting educators and providing resources for more than 20 years.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

While these placements are important for a sense of belonging for students with autism, research shows their inclusion in general education classrooms sets them up for better post-school outcomes in employment and independent living, Pulido said.

In addition, Pulido said, students without disabilities experience positive social benefits such as acceptance and understanding as well as enriching friendships.

"My hope is that when young people learn that people with disabilities are capable, have strengths to contribute, and can make for great friends, that they carry this mindset into adulthood and advocate alongside their peers with disabilities for a more inclusive society," Pulido said.

Pulido said the most recent data shows that the number of students receiving special education services for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Michigan is 25,147. This constitutes 11.98% of students receiving special education services in Michigan.

Those demographics underscore the importance of promoting inclusion for this population, Fitzgerald and Pulido said.

Center team members have created a campaign named ASD 365 "to authentically move beyond awareness to that acceptance, respect and appreciation of all autistic individuals year-round," Fitzgerald said. The campaign includes critical questions to assure best practices are carried out with equity and the perspectives of the autistic community prioritized.

In addition, a recently launched website provides one-stop resources for school professionals, family members, community members and more on promoting inclusion, complete with expert guidance, they said.

"The goal is to make society more inclusive for everyone. That is what meaningful inclusion is,"  Fitzgerald said. "When we think of belonging, it is that feeling of being connected to your community."

Fitzgerald said team members are also working to enhance accessibility to training materials by providing a number of avenues from in-person training to virtual training to online resources. 


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