Social integration and education
There is a broad consensus that further emancipation of autism should lead to the fullest possible social participation of people on the spectrum. This consensus can be observed in what we have called the ‘core literature’.
Social integration has a number of sub-themes. Labor is one, housing (the subject of this site) another. It seems clear that education is an extremely central one. So clear, in fact, that countries which have accepted the Rights of the Child, took on the obligation to make education a vehicle for social integration.
Among the core-literature authors, Khare & Mullick are very outspoken about this. Many of the 18 principles they propose can be considered as a contribution to social integration. Two stand out:
“Create possibilities for participation in the community (shopping, use of public transport etc.) and the development of the necessary skills”
“Segregation of children with special needs is morally unjustifiable; it promotes isolation, alienation and social exclusion. Children with autism should be given opportunities in the educational environment to interact with able bodied peers.”
The location of a school is a very important condition for the realization of the first principle. (See recommendation 4.) Explicitly, the ambition to enhance social integration is an important consideration in all the recommendations made in the theme ‘location’. (See The recommendations.) Khare & Mullick’s observation of the moral unjustifiability of segregation is also at the root of a preference in most North-American and European countries to enroll children on the spectrum within mainstream schools. Integration is the norm for roughly 60% of schools, a percentage which seems on the rise.
There is an apparent tendency toward developments favoring social integration in and through the school system under the heading ‘inclusion‘.
Nevertheless, if one defines the success of integration by virtue of the extent to which students on the spectrum are socially accepted by their peers, great concern remains, given the research about bullying and exclusion.
It is well-known that children with handicaps associate more with one another than with physiotypical or able-bodied peers which lends credence to the intuition that such children are better off within special education than within a mainstream school. Successful integration may be much easier in schools where upwards of 60% of the students are somewhere on the spectrum rather than the case of the sole autistic student in a large classroom; the difficult situation common in most mainstream schools.
Somewhat older British research shows that students on the spectrum risk being excluded by a factor of twenty as compared to their neurotypical peers within mainstream schools which is the place where, ideally, social integration should begin. From a child’s perspective, integration – and the lack of it – is not something which happens ‘somewhere’ in society, but right there in school, during their formative years. Like all of us, young people mirror themselves in their own reference groups, their equals, and the people whose equals they want to be. Therefore, it ought to be self-evident that children experience integration in their daily lives through their acceptance by other children – and the all-important peer group – with deep acuity.
Briefly then, education is one of the important means at our disposal to improve the opportunities for social integration of people on the spectrum. Relative to the built-environment – and acknowledging that it is no panacea for all – we recommend that education strive for inclusiveness, diminish the social exclusion which many students on the spectrum experience in regular education and take the special learning needs of these students into account in order to increase their achievement of qualifications befitting their personal capacities. An alarmingly high drop-out rate characterizes the current state of affairs for people on the spectrum in many developed countries, among which the Netherlands. The consequence of the cycle of exclusionary education and poor social integration is a large number of people on the spectrum dependent on social welfare benefits; an evident sign the working lives of many on the spectrum are far from ideal. (The unemployment rate in the US among those on the spectrum is around 80%, involving 2,5 million people.)
All this illustrates the gigantic but crucial task for education with regard to its autistic students. It forms the backdrop of the architectural recommendations around schools in these pages, knowing they are a modest contribution to the problems at large.