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  • Amy Langerman

Inclusion: A Case for Universal Design for Learning (Part one in Amy's five part series)

This week, I want to talk about inclusion but often, before educators will consider inclusive settings, they set arbitrary standards or norms that they claim must be demonstrated before “Billy” can be included. From sitting still to number sense, these roadblocks serve to limit inclusive opportunities and condemn diversity. So, once again, I ask: Why must Billy look you in the eye?

Some of you might be wondering what eye contact has to do with inclusion. Unfortunately, it isn’t just a metaphor for mandating conformity. Indeed, this year, I received evaluation reports from an educational team that had conducted a triennial evaluation of a student with Autism and mild intellectual disability who I had successfully removed from a restrictive self-contained classroom setting one year earlier and fully included in general education, adapting the general curriculum to her instructional level, and providing her with supplementary aides and supports. The student was doing very well. As part of the evaluation process, the evaluators not only observed the student but sought “input” from two general education teachers. Their “input” documented their “concerns”: Student’s eye contact and her reading level (many years below grade level).

And reading those comments just made me sad.

This student is one of my most social students with ASD. She has a “book of friends” with pictures of her friends that she would look at all day long if allowed. She sits with general education peers at lunch, they engage her in conversation, she asks them questions about their life. I personally observed her during the 2020-2021 school year (virtually) as she was actively listening, without eye contact, and picking up many, many of the details relating to the discussion about the presidential election that she was independently documenting by direct questioning (e.g. “are the red states ones that voted for Trump or Biden?; is Biden a Republican or Democrat?). Instead of regaling the evaluators with how much this student was actively participating and learning, the teachers focused on concerns that were due to conditions over which the student had little control due to her disability. They had no idea this is what they were doing. They would never express concern that a child in a wheelchair could not walk, or a deaf child could not hear but they had concern that this child with Autism could not look them in the eye and that due to her intellectual disability, her reading level was well below that of her non-disabled peers.

Sure, these teachers had no idea what they said or why it would make someone like me sad. They had never been trained in ASD nor why students with ASD have challenges with eye conduct. Neither teacher is a newbie and both had taught students with ASD, including students with ASD that I support on my caseload. So now, with a student who was socially successful and demonstrating real ability to acquire general education standard content in a general education environment, their “concern” was about the fact that the student had a disability! Unbeknownst to them, the lack of eye contact was not a sign of lack of interpersonal interest, it was a protective mechanism to reduce pain.

This is a matter of science. Doctors have studied brain imaging of people with ASD and seen evidence of significant hyperactivity with subjects with ASD were looking into the eyes of dynamic faces expressing different emotions results. The researchers posited that what was perceived by society as a lack of interpersonal interest is actually the body’s response to decrease one’s arousal levels – e.g. to protect the person with ASD from discomfort. See e.g. Hadjikhani, Nouchine, et al. “Look Me in the Eyes: Constraining Gaze in the Eye-Regions Provokes Abnormally High Subcortical Activation in Autism.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 9 June 2017, While what is referred to as the hyperarousal/gaze aversion model is only one explanation for the lack of eye contact in those with ASD, it is one that is prevalent and supported by brain imaging studies.

So, in this time of COVID when science is so prevalent in our lives and educators and school districts are following the science as to how to safely educate children in a pandemic, when I saw this inadvertently discriminatory comment in this student’s evaluation reports, I first raised it at the IEP team meeting to provide some education to the teachers. It is important that educators understand the science and medicine here. It is important that they understand the perspective of someone with ASD – as research has now included reports about how self-advocates with ASD explain their pain and inability to focus when they are “expected” to look someone in the eye. See e.g. Trevisan, Dominic A. et al. "How to Adults and Teesn with Self-declared Autism Spectrum Disorder Experience Eye Contact? A Qualitative Analysis of First-hand Accounts." So, yes, it was time for Amy to go into teacher mode and teach the teachers, many of whom have never met an adult with ASD with whom they could have an intellectual discussion about why eye contact physically hurts and how eye contact is not necessary for them to attend any better - in fact, it often causes a worsening in attention and listening comprehension because of the pain that they are feeling.

But why do teachers have the expectation that all students must look them in the eye? What is the point? Teachers have been educated to get students’ attention before they make a demand and that looking at the teacher equates with attention. Again, research dispels that position. Some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners and some learn kinesthetically. Some are multimodal learners. A student could put his head down and still be listening and attending. The teacher would be very unhappy with that student – thinking it as a sign of disrespect. Who taught the teachers to perceive such actions as disrespectful? Why should a student be required to look in the eyes of a teacher or anyone if that is NOT their mode of learning?

By requiring any student and particularly students with autism to “look at teacher”, educators are inadvertently perpetuating a culture that fails to promote diversity and inclusion. Instead, educators should celebrate diversity and create a culture where different learning modes and responses are encouraged. By perpetuating the “look at me” mandate, teachers implicitly send the message that someone who does NOT look at them is bad, or is not listening, or is disrespectful even if the reason the student is not looking at the teacher is because the student can not. That inadvertently sets-up a student with a disability for ridicule and exclusion. Who wants to hang out with the “bad” student or the student who is “different”?

If teachers stopped mandating ONE mode of learning and allowed students the flexibility to learn the way that they learn best, and encouraged that, and encouraged students to search within themselves to discover their best learning mode, perhaps students would feel better about their education, learn more, and be happier. And, perhaps those same students would be more accepting of those that are perceived by their teachers as different.

You know, students with ASD, even those with sensory or behavioral challenges are no longer automatically excluded from general education environments. While there are some school districts that continue to segregate students with ASD, Down syndrome and intellectual disability, others are opening the doors to general education classrooms – maybe reluctantly, or after being directed by an administrative law judge – and diverse learners are becoming more common in what the law calls “regular” classrooms (I hate that term just as much as I hate the term “special” to refer to those classrooms where only students with disabilities are educated). Teachers are going to have a wide variety of behavioral responses to everyday stimuli. If a student has a behavioral response, often a BCBA will explain that the reactive strategy is to ignore the behavior (if it was attention seeking). If the behavioral outburst was a response to the student’s sensory seeking needs, this may be out of their control and demonstrate a need for sensory input. Treating it as “behavioral” instead of sensory is inadvertently cruel. Instead of a teacher calling a student out for a behavioral outburst that may be an uncontrolled demonstration of sensory overstimulation, which inadvertently makes it seem like the outburst was bad, what if the teacher asked, “hey, do you need to visit our sensory box and choose a strategy?” What if the teacher gave ALL student’s a 60 second Go-Noodle break to get some movement? And, if any child is demonstrating a challenge, why is the sensory box not offered to them? All children are prone to having a bad day, with or without disabilities. All children can benefit from a visit to the sensory box or a whole group opportunity to obtain input to the sensory systems. So, why is it that we have one set of expectations and responses for non-disabled students and a separate set for those with disabilities?

Yes, those of you who are educated in inclusion know that I am talking about is universal design for learning. UDL is a set of principles for designing curriculum that provides all individuals with equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for designing goals, methods, materials, and assessments to reach all students including those with diverse needs. UDL is really the fundamental underpinning of “special” education – meeting the needs of students with disabilities with an individual plan. But, UDL is more than just “allowing” all students the opportunity to type rather than write, or dictate a response using speech to text that is now widely available to everyone for free; this is about creating a culture where all students are valued, regardless of how they learn, react, act out, or how “good” their eye contact is.

If teachers create a culture from the outset that classrooms are “safe zones” where students can achieve and succeed in a manner that is best for them, that differences are encouraged, that diversity is celebrated, and where supports that might help one student are available to all, the message is that everyone should be valued. If a student has a melt down, the others don’t think “there he goes again”. Rather, its just another day in class and someone is having a challenge and we should embrace him and show kindness, not disdain. So much of what I do to promote social inclusion is create artificial social opportunities to show non-disabled children that a child with a disability is worthy of their consideration. I have had to do this because historically children with disabilities were excluded, and if they were in a general education classroom, they were visitors for a short period who sat in the back with an aide doing something different than everyone else.

The students that I support in inclusive settings are learning from the same curriculum. We may have reduced the readability level, added more visuals, highlighted the vocabulary. They may demonstrate their understanding at a level that is lower than the grade level standard – but they are learning about the same content that the State deemed important for nondisabled students to learn – even plate techtonics and other content that is not the most scintillating. They are participating in group projects, making PowerPoint presentations, and learning.

So, to celebrate my series on inclusion, I felt it important to introduce the concept of Universal Design for Learning and once again ask those who still believe that separate education is “special” - who made it a requirement that every student MUST demonstrate “good” eye contact – to consider inclusive practices not because it is legally required (see part two of this series) but because every child should feel valued and special.

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