The Integration Ballet

Haven’t we progressed beyond the dark ages? I just read a first hand account of a mother who desperately wanted her child to attend a dance class at the local dance studio. I can’t believe that in the year 2011, I’m still reading stories about children with autism who are unable to participate in activities with their typically developing peers! The concept that children with autism must be in a special, segregated class is, quite frankly, offensive. Children with autism do not have a communicable disease, and there is NO reason why these kids cannot be mainstreamed! The sooner one starts, the better. It is easier introducing a child to an activity with younger children because their skills have not progressed as far. That said, there is successful mainstreaming and unsuccessful mainstreaming. Let’s make sure mainstreaming efforts are successful and thereby take away any excuse from the luddites who may be in positions of authority.

Here is a recipe for successful mainstreaming:
  • First, choose a highly structured activity and be prepared to pre-teach the routine. A structured dance or gymnastics class is a good place to start. Get ready to positively reinforce your child for learning these routines by creating a reinforcement schedule.
  • Second, get permission to go by yourself and learn the routine. If you can get permission to video-record the session, that’s a bonus.
  • Third, teach the child with autism the routine at home until the child understands all the steps and/or circuit.
  • Fourth, go with the child prior to class and lead the child through the lesson before it starts. If you can get the instructor to do this with you, that’s even better. If the child is older, then give him or her a few private lessons prior to introducing them to the class lesson.
  • Fifth, on the day of the lesson, have someone who looks like an instructor pretend to help all the kids (but actually be there for your child). Ask to borrow a t-shirt from the facility so that the aide or therapist blends in. If you are not allowed to have someone else be there, then put the t-shirt on and help your child.
Eventually, your child will need progressively less help. The idea is for you or the helper to eventually fade out.

How do you get permission to do this? Well... you must refuse to take no for an answer. You need to meet with the head of the program and show the person in charge all the various steps you plan on taking in order to make this a
wonderful experience for everyone. You must be very positive and sell the idea to them. Once you come with such a well thought out strategy, it will be unlikely that they will get in your way; however, in the case where you do encounter a closed-minded person, here is a sample of possible objections you may encounter and how to deal with them:

Objection: “We’d love to have this happen; however, we just don’t have the resources.”
Answer: Oh, I completely understand. That’s not a problem because I will be supplying the helper completely at my expense. She will be volunteering.

Objection: “We have a wonderful program for all the special needs children that we think is much more appropriate for your child.”
Answer: We actually would like our child in the class with the typically developing children because we are looking for typically developing peers for my child to model.

Objection: “
Our insurance doesn’t cover people who are not on staff.”
I completely understand. Let’s use the same insurance that you use for volunteers applied to my child’s helper.

If you get nowhere, at some point you may want to introduce them to your lawyer and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Canada’s Charter of Rights or comparable legal protections in your jurisdiction. Once the studio or community center has a successful mainstreaming experience, they will be more open-minded the next time and the next parent that follows you will have an easier time of it as well.

Good luck and remember... failure is not an option!