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Least Restrictive Environment

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that a child with a disability has the right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) (Link) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).1 The guidelines for the least restrictive environment dictate that a child with a disability “must be educated in the school he or she would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate, and supported with the aids and services required to make this possible.”2 Children with disabilities have the right to participate in classrooms with their non-disabled peers, unless a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) requires a different arrangement. According to Wrightslaw, IDEA mandates that the least restrictive environment is “the regular classroom in the school the student would attend if not disabled is the first placement option considered for each disabled student before a more restrictive placement is considered.”3 This article will discuss the concept of a least restrictive environment for children on the autism spectrum.

Inclusion or mainstreaming is the act of placing a child with a disability alongside his/her typically developing peers in a classroom setting and is often mistakenly used interchangeably with least restrictive environment. The difference is that “least restrictive environment refers to the IDEA’s mandate that children with disabilities be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with nondisabled peers. Inclusion contemplates the placement of student with disabilities in the regular classroom with nondisabled students as a right and implies that the right is absolute.”4 Inclusion for children on the autism spectrum can be mutually beneficial for both children with and without disabilities. Research conducted on the subject of inclusion for individuals on the autism spectrum has demonstrated “that exposure to typical peers enhances social development; allows for opportunities to model positive role models in the classroom, the playground and in the community; elevates self-esteem; and educates typically developing children about their disabled classmates.”5

For inclusion to work, the school must embody an inclusive philosophy that expresses optimism for the use of inclusion, have administrative support, teacher training, collaboration between regular and special education teachers, classroom supports, an IEP-driven program that tracks the students’ progress, and collaboration between the home and school.5 Children on the autism spectrum may need certain supports in order to excel in the regular classroom environment. These supports could consist of “a specially trained classroom or one-on-one paraprofessional, altering testing environments or expectations, adapting curriculum, providing visual supports or adaptive equipment, etc.”2 These supports will help minimize sensory, attention, and behavior difficulties that can occur in the classroom. Supports inside and outside of the classroom are to be provided for the child at no expense to the family.

The extent to which an individual can participate in regular educational programs and the kinds of supports he/she may need is assessed while constructing the child’s IEP.3 An assessment of the child’s strengths and challenges not only helps determine what services should be rendered, but also which educational placement is appropriate. Once placement is determined for a child it cannot be changed unless the child’s IEP is revised and the placement team believes those revisions warrant a different type of placement.3 Some children may not be placed in the general education curriculum because they may have anxiety or sensory issues or their parents may not feel like it is the most suited environment for their child’s education.2 Although uncommon, a parent may wish that their child is not mainstreamed into general education classrooms due to a fear that their child may receive less attention in large classroom settings, may not receive the supports necessary to excel in the general education curriculum, and/or may be teased or bullied more often by the child’s neurotypical peers. If a parent disagrees with the placement team’s decision regarding which educational program their child is to enter, and the two parties are unable to resolve the matter in a timely fashion, the parent may initiate a due process hearing.6 If a parent does decide to exercise their right to due process, the child will remain in his/ her current education program until the issues are resolved, unless both parties agree on interim placement for the child.6 Due process is best reserved for extreme cases when the IEP team and the parents cannot come to a timely resolution.