Seemingly once a month, the media publicizes yet another autism center breaking ground or opening thanks to a generous grant from somewhere. All this incredible generosity is designed to help children with autism.
At first glance, the concept of an autism center sounds ideal and supportive of children with autism, but we need to ask whether segregated treatment or educational centers are really the best way to go for this population of children. If an autism center is a place to train professionals or have weekly team meetings, I understand the role of the center; however, if an autism center is a place where children are segregated from the population at large at the earliest age, I think we, as a community, are making a huge mistake.
Integration and inclusion are easiest when children with autism are young. My fear is that if we segregate kids when they are young, we may be sealing their fate as segregated middle schoolers, high schoolers and adults. It becomes increasingly difficult to integrate children with autism as they get older, so if we do not start young, we may never begin. Children with autism need to learn typical school patterns when they are in preschool and kindergarten so that by the time they reach fourth grade, they only have to be challenged with the curriculum rather than the potpourri of social and instructional skills that they’ve learned from preschool. If we keep postponing integration, we will inadvertently rob kids with autism of a typical childhood.
Although every child is different, many children can begin integration as preschoolers after six months to a year of intensive treatment. Some children will need a trained aide to accompany them; however, it very often is still the right time to integrate these young children.
If new autism centers are places to guarantee integration, that’s a great use of the generosity of good people; however, if they are gold-plated segregated sites, I fear we are sliding into the bad ole days of systemic segregation.