Home > Got Questions?, Science > My child has joined a ‘mainstream’ classroom but is struggling. What can help?

My child has joined a ‘mainstream’ classroom but is struggling. What can help?

Today’s “Got Questions?” response again comes from Simon Wallace, PhD, Autism Speaks director of scientific development for Europe

The U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to include children with disabilities in the least restrictive classroom settings that are possible. At the same time, studies show that different levels of so-called “mainstreaming” present different benefits and challenges.1 And parental preference often varies.2 So the first question to ask yourself is “what type of school placement is the best for my child?”

For instance, you have the option of full inclusion, with all classes taught in a mainstream environment, or partial mainstream, with some proportion of classes taught in a more supportive setting. I also encourage parents to keep in mind the potential advantages of a specialist autism school. Making these decisions should always involve a consultation between parents, teachers and the pupil with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Beyond teaching support, we know that bullying and social exclusion affects the mainstream-school experience of many children with ASD. A recent survey estimated that 44% of children with ASD have been bullied.3 Bullying, in turn, can lead to an increased social isolation and mental health difficulties. Another study suggested that the support of classmates is very important to making the mainstream experience a success for the student with autism.4

One method for encouraging peer relationships is a technique called Circle of Friends, where the child with ASD is at the center of a peer group. This group periodically works on specific goals. Another method, which avoids such a strong focus on the child, is to work on social skills in private or with a group of other children with ASD.

Of course, teacher training remains pivotal to supporting the success of children with ASD in a mainstream classroom. Federal law requires that teachers make reasonable adjustments to their teaching strategies and classroom environment to accommodate the needs of pupils with disabilities. In particular, teachers should be encouraged to adjust the content and delivery of the curriculum, to consider the sensory needs of the pupil, and to welcome the input of both parents and special-needs students when planning their educational programs.

Here are some useful resources, along with references to the studies I mentioned:


1. The Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit
2. The Asperger Syndrome/HFA and the Classroom chapter of the Autism Speaks Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Tool Kit
3. Bullying and ASD: A Guide for School Staff (UK)
4. IEPs, iPads and Bullies: 10 Tips from a Dad Who’s Been There, a recent Family Services blog from dad James Vaughan

1. Full inclusion and students with autism. Mesibov GB, Shea V. J Autism Dev Disord. 1996 Jun;26(3):337-46.
2. Parental perspectives on inclusion: effects of autism and Down syndrome. Kasari C, Freeman SF, Bauminger N, Alkin MC. J Autism Dev Disord. 1999 Aug;29(4):297-305.
3. Bullying among children with autism and the influence of comorbidity with ADHD: a population-based study. Montes G, Halterman JS. Ambul Pediatr. 2007 May-Jun;7(3):253-7.
4. Inclusion as social practice: views of children with autism.  Ochs E, Kremer T, Solomon O, Sirota K. Social Development. 2001;10(3):399–419.

Got more questions? Please email us at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org. Thanks.

  1. August 26, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Look into getting him/her a classroom aide, someone who can help keep them focused and better explain what is expected. They can also be the facilitator of the social programs Dr. Wallace suggests, as well as being there to watch out for bullying.
    The school will likely fight this, claiming costs, no one available, etc. But the least intrusive is your child’s right and the law is on your side.

    JulieKay Dudley, MSW

  2. Lora
    August 26, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I am not the only parent struggling with the decision for school districts to “mainstream” or also known as “all inclusive” type classrooms with a special needs child. When you read about budget cuts in public schools know that these are the first children who are affected by them. Special Education budgets are quite often the first thing that is touched. It is not fair. Infact, it is discrimination.

  3. August 26, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Lora. My son is fully mainstreamed with assistants in High School and luckily since Medicaid is not being cut currently I do not have to worry about his situation. You should have the same privileges! My son is much better off in the main stream emotionally and is learning enough skills how I am confident he will be able to dismiss the assistants soon. He is even interning at a job and does many house hold chores, critical to his independent functioning. Without the option to main stream I believe he would not have come this far, please don’t give up!

    I do know many schools are against the mainstreaming, but they better wake up because in about 5 years the classrooms will be probably 60 to 70% ESE kids…………that is how it is going.

    Good luck to you and your family, from ours.

  4. MTurner
    August 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    I would suggest that you review this article and web site: http://millep.edublogs.org/

    This article talks about a very successful program now underway at the Grand Ledge Public Schools in Michigan. Our daughter repeatedly participated in the LINK program as a general education non-ASD LINK. She became friends with many of ASD students, even taking a female ASD student to prom. The ASD students frequently form bonds with their LINK and their larger circle of friends at the school. The LINK program has impacted the culture of the school in acceptance of the ASD student population, and by improvement of the mainstreamed ASD student’s success in school. It is truly an amazing program!

  5. Noreen
    August 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    If a child has potential to mainstream, by all means get supports in place and TRY (with some flexibility). You will know within a month or so whether this is a good idea. It has to be a slow transition (small steps) and so MOST schools have no idea how to do it successfully. Some want to your child to FAIL so they can segregate them (we experienced this). YOU are the only one that truly knows what your child needs. Remember AUTISM is a HIGHLY SOCIAL disorder so you want to work on SOCIAL until things get really school work intensive 2nd or 3rd grade. Most of our children need facilitators and for the teacher to make sure to call on them and make them feel included. Generalization of skills is a hard challenge for them so therapies (SPEECH) should be in different locations with different children. They should be taught the correct manner as to start a conversation (greeting, intro, questions and answers). We’ve been working on this for 3 years so far. It’s not Generalized out and we need to encourage “initiation/engagement” of others. His pragmatics are so far behind, he has a lot of ground to make up but he is TRYING and practice makes perfect :) Good Luck to all and get your child in the mix if at all possible! They are VISUAL learners and their peers teach them THE MOST!

  6. August 26, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    My child is in mainstream only for 1/2 of his day. The other 1/2 he is in an Autistic Support class. He has problems with both halves of his day. He is trying to fit into mainstream but is perceived as different. He is 11 and the children his age are not as forgiving as they were in the younger grades. The sudden outbursts from the other autistic students in the Autistic support class bother him to the extent that he has resorted to hitting to make the other autistic students stop yelling and their outbursts. I found that his 1:1 TSS worker (Therapeutic Support worker or “shadow”) helps immensely. His TSS worker acts as his “voice in his head” telling him what is and what is not appropriate. As far as the school setting, I believe that there is no setting that is ideal without a TSS/shadow worker.

  7. Kathy
    August 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    You should try to get an aide in the classroom, however, if that is not available, make sure that you keep in contact with the teacher constantly. Set up a notebook and have the teacher at the end of the day put a brief summary of what went on in the class that day and if you can do anything at home…ie a lesson, homework, with your child. I have a child that was mainstreamed from 1st grade to graduation. Fortunately, our school system was wonderful and he had many aides and resources available to him. Even though we did have all that, I had to stay on top of everything! He is now in college and not receiving any extra help.

  8. Dan B. Walden
    August 26, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    These are all good comments. Parents who help other parents are incredible resources for providing insight and reducing the stress of the challenges faced. I am familiar with a food substance not native to the US that has helped the autistic children of friends of mine. 70-80% improvement in symptoms in a 6-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of children, ages 2 – 10. I’d like to share some details with you. Dan 925-639-1159.

  9. MichaelMom
    August 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    My 1st grader is mainstreamed – he has a 1:1 classroom aide to assist him and is pulled out for Speech, OT, and RSP – we have been very lucky that our school district is super supportive of our decision to mainstream. He went to a special ed preschool but mainstreamed over in kindergarden. It is work – I feel like I have to be in constant contact with his School Team and on top of everything. As stated above I have them fill out a summary sheet daily of what he is working on his behaviors etc so that I can get a daily progress note. The aides are great with facilitating social play with the other kids at recess and I have done various autism awareness projects at the school including having them read to every class “My friend with autism” a great book for youngsters. So far – pretty good all though I am worried about the future when the academics get harder and his expressive language is severely delayed. But will keep the path – and see where it leads!

  10. Kay Rice
    September 2, 2011 at 9:41 am

    My son is in a wonderful school system who makes sure children with ASD have an active case manager to help them with everything from meltdowns to making sure they don’t get lost between class-rooms. I’m very fortunuate. The last school system we were in my son was failing and the teachers just wanted to right him off, this school system, and a better environment over all he is at the top of his class and learning self confidence and making friends.

  11. Miss Courtney S. Odette
    September 3, 2011 at 12:56 am

    I agree with you. My son has experienced terrible episodes of bullying in the classroom. He was also denied adequate I.E.P. services. Often parents are blamed when these types of situations occur. I personally feel mainstreaming with backup out of classroom services and sensory breaks can be helpful. However, the lack of necessary social skills can make it difficult to make friends. Children can be cruel. I find role-plays of social situations can be helpful at home. It is truly unfortunate that autism services are often the most pricey and difficult to find. I am extremely greatfull to have found Autism Speaks!

  12. Amber Tejada
    September 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    The teacher makes all the difference. My son has come leaps and bounds since he was diagnosed at three. He has gone from being in special ed most of the day to this year in second grade, being in the regular room all day. He does get his speech and ot a few times a week but overall he has excellent grades right now. However, when he works you can see it takes him longer to come up with answers and sometimes he has to get to the answer differently than other students. He has also been on risperidone for two years which works like a miracle drug! Also we restrict his dairy…only cheese on pizza once or twice a week and occasional dessert. If he gets too much he turns into a monster and cant focus….He has been on and off and since he was about 4 but it has become more evident over the years…His peers are very supportive and it has helped him become very social with them

  13. Miss Courtney Odette
    September 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    I think it is great that your son has such agood experience with his teacher. I do not know what count you are in, but I go through a terrible time, every time I request an I.E.P. It has been going on forever. I also agree that healthy eating can improve the symptoms. I have never requested medicine for my son. I find a lot of reluctance to autism help, more ideas of remedialization instead. I recently ordered a sensory awarness kit for autism from a documentary on P.B.S. He actually has Aspbergrs. I am definately reading the I.E.P. navigation guide, because some people do not take into account that it is a serious issue.

  14. Jennifer
    November 21, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    I have a higher-functioning child with Autism. He isn’t up to par for a mainstream curriculum, yet he is too high functioning for an autistic support class. He is very verbal and has no behaviors, but is struggling with academics. Even though he has a 1:1 aid with him for half of the day and his curriculum is modified, the pace of the classroom is too fast. For example: for one month, the kids in his class have been learning how to count coins and have now mastered simple coin counting. They have been tested and now will move on. However, my son, is still stuck on counting by 5’s and still has no understanding about the value of money and will be moving on with the class. He is in second grade and I feel that because of the regular classroom curriculum pace, he is just getting passed through….falling through the cracks…..and not learning anything. The district said that there is no other classroom for him. What do I do now?

  1. September 21, 2011 at 10:51 am

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