By Lydia Wayman

If you have a moment, do a search for “inclusion in education.”  When I did the same search, I quickly discovered that the definitions fell into two categories: those that focused on the inclusion of disabled students (see why I use identify-first language here) among their non-disabled peers and those that took the broader perspective of educating all students in the same environment in meaningful ways.  The difference might not seem important.  After all, if a student has no diagnosis or learning issues, why would he or she even have a need for inclusion?

I was very strong in academics.  I could read by age three, and I finished the 4th grade math curriculum in the second week of kindergarten.  I was the youngest student in my district’s history to enter the gifted program, where IQ tests showed my verbal IQ to be near the test ceiling. In high school, I combined my junior and senior years and went to college at 17.  But… that’s only one side of the story.

As early as second grade, I had issues with teachers.  In third grade, I was bored and asked to be taught from advanced curriculum, but the IEP team determined that I was “lazy” and “not completing work” as it was and thus would not be permitted to do advanced work.  In the report, my state scores (99th and 98th percentiles) and IQ score are on the same page as the comment from one teacher that “Lydia is an average learner,” which shows the bias and the fact that I butted heads with that teacher. In ninth grade, when I broke down in the orchestra room, my teacher said that it was no wonder other kids were mean to me, and that if I would just be “a little less maniacal,” that they wouldn’t be so cruel.  At an elite, private school as an undergrad, several my professors said I was rude and disrespectful.  I asked my parents how I could possibly disrespectful… didn’t my complete panic and shame over the fact that I even made the professors feel that way show that I respected them very much?

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 21, in my final semester of college.  Things got significantly worse for several years following my diagnosis, including a failure to succeed under the social and sensory demands of student teaching.  I left my placement after three weeks, but I was offered an alternative assignment and still graduated, though without a teaching license.

I am now one term from completing my M.F.A. in English and creative writing.  My graduate experience has been altogether different than my lifelong struggle as an academically-capable but often very unaccepted student.   I finally realized that my graduate program sees me as an individual… they value my strengths, but they don’t discount my weaknesses.  I am registered with Disability Services for medical issues in order to substantiate any need for absences, which I have never needed to use, but I am not registered under any needs related to autism.  As each term begins, I introduce myself, and since we all discuss our backgrounds and current work, it is easy to drop the hint, since I say that I’m an “autistic advocate.”  My professors have been completely positive about this and I have yet to experience a negative interaction with any of them.

I did a mentoring course where I assisted with an undergraduate composition class last term, and when I told my mentor that I am autistic, his response was that he was excited to have a different perspective in his classroom.  I excelled in the course, which left me feeling a bit redeemed from my undergraduate experience in student teaching.  My success came from three things: five years of growing up, an academic environment that plays to my strengths in writing (since it is online), and a school that values every student and strikes the balance between maintaining high standards while understanding individual needs.

I am extremely grateful to have found the school and program.  I believe in the school’s mission and support of all students to the point that my aspiration is to go on to teach in the school’s online undergraduate program.  But I am left wondering… why did it take until graduate school to find this environment?

A definition of inclusion that only focuses on disabled students is problematic because the reality is that every single student, no matter how bright, has weaknesses.  Those weaknesses may have nothing to do with academics, but no person alive is a uniform set of strengths.  When I was young, I was frequently (oh, how frequently) accused of being “smart enough to know better” or “too intelligent to make this (often social) mistake.”  Teachers in elementary, middle, high school, and even college classrooms were so focused on my academic abilities that they were completely blind to the fact that my very real disabilities were affecting me in important ways—socially, emotionally, and even physically.

There are certainly different ways to attack this problem.  We can educate teachers about autism and ADHD and learning disabilities and every other possible disability that an unidentified child might have.  We can also make teachers in gifted programs aware of disabilities to counteract the “not our kids!” attitude.  We can spread the word on college campuses and encourage awareness campaigns so that young adults are aware that some people get to college-age and beyond without being identified.  But, whenever possible, I like to approach problems from a broad enough perspective so as to help as many people as possible… so, I think the simplest solution (or one part of a solution) is to change the way we talk about inclusion.

It’s about students in special programs, and students who work with the aid of a paraprofessional, and those who are quiet but work hard, and students who act out, and students who seem to be academically brilliant but socially clueless, and those who excel in every way and seem to have no weaknesses at all….

In fact, that last student does not exist.  None of us are uniformly strong, and when teachers see a student as “perfectly capable” but then blame an 8-year-old for her own struggles, it helps no one… least of all the child.

Inclusion isn’t about “those” kids or “these” kids… it’s about understanding that intelligence takes many forms and finding ways to accept every one of them in the classroom.  It’s about reaching, teaching, and including all kids.

Photo Credit: NASA/Flickr

Lydia WaymanLydia Wayman is an autistic young adult and advocate. She has her B.S. in Elementary Education and will finish her MFA in English and Creative Writing in November of 2014. Lydia combines professional knowledge with personal experience to reach parents and professionals through her blog, books, articles, and speaking engagements. She also works part-time at a nonprofit autism resource center and enjoys mentoring girls on the spectrum. Her message is that people are awesome not despite their differences but precisely because of them.