PoP: How might we authentically include students with severe disabilities so they are academically engaged in their classes and socially engaged in the school community through my role in Speech?

ESA strives to be a community inclusive of all people, and in many ways we are successful. However, over the past few years, with the shift toward academic inclusion in community schools, we are receiving an increasing population of students with severe disabilities, particularly Autism and ID. Navigating this new dynamic in an effort to authentically include our most disabled students has been challenging for both staff and students. As a staff we constantly question whether these students are learning, in the classroom as well as through social interactions with peers. Perhaps more importantly, we question whether we are doing enough to prepare these students for life after ESA, the “real world.” Our students with Autism and ID struggle with the content, workload, and pace in their classrooms. Due to processing deficits, these students often drift off into their own minds, seemingly “checking out” during class readings and activities. In addition to missing out on content material, they also fall behind in their at-home assignments because of knowledge gaps as well as executive functioning deficits. Our profoundly disabled students also come to us with massive vocabulary deficits, automatically putting them on a lower playing field than their peers. Additionally, they struggle with expressive language such as how to initiate appropriate social conversations and how to ask for help in meaningful ways in the classroom. Our students with Autism present as more socially isolated than their peers with ID, as one of the hallmarks of their disability is difficulty interpreting both verbal language and nonverbal communication cues. Interestingly, two of our students with Autism tend to overstep their boundaries during social interactions, interjecting comments at inappropriate moments, while our other student with Autism presents as completely uninterested in social interaction (though this is not the case), neither initiating conversation nor commenting during social exchanges. Although our students with disabilities have varying levels of social impairment, all struggle to find their place in the fabric of teenage socialization.