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Inclusive Education for Students with Autism and Intellectual Disabilities

BYU’s David O. McKay School recently hosted guest lecturer Erik Carter, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University, who spoke on the rising promise of peer-mediated interventions, an approach where peers of target students are trained to provide necessary tutoring to enhance the social life and learning of students with autism and intellectual disabilities.

What Carter learned through his research is that all children, with or without disabilities, benefit from peer-mediated interventions. The question has been how to help kids with significant disabilities be part of all the rich experiences and social opportunities that exist. Carter raised some concerns about existing inclusion methods.

“Some of the ways we support those children with disabilities in schools actually might stand in the way of their relationships and learning,” said Carter. “I’m not challenging inclusive practices; I’m challenging the idea of inclusion and the primary ways in which we try to support kids to be part of the life of the school. It turns out part of that problem is us. Our heavy reliance on the ways we support kids at school who rely heavily on us—the staff, the professionals, the paraprofessionals—actually accidentally stands in the way of some of the options.”

The dominant model is the use of paraprofessionals. Teachers request them because it is helpful to have another staff member in the room.

There are reasons to be cautious about the one-to-one paraprofessional. Through research, Carter found that students tend to be the most engaged in small group instruction with their peers, compared to being engaged only 33 percent of the time when they were working one-on-one with a paraprofessional.

A peer-mediated intervention is a method that can be used as an alternative to the individually assigned paraprofessionals. The goal is to ensure that students with disabilities are developing skills that are relevant to their lives.

Four key points were discussed:

1. We need good practices that continue to work as kids get older.

The peer-mediated interventions Carter discussed build peers’ confidence when working with children with disabilities and help teachers rethink how kids are supported in those classrooms. Interactions and friendships increase when peer-related opportunities are created.

2. Disability is not the primary barrier to building new relationships; it’s the opportunity and support we provide. Sometimes the presence of an adult paraprofessional can inadvertently hinder the building of relationships among peers, along with certain policies and practices the school has.

3. These practices must work for teachers and staff.

“There’s a way to blend good, high-impact interventions and customize the way [they] work with certain students and in the classroom,” Carter said.

4. There needs to be discussion about how such practices benefit children without disabilities who work alongside their peers with disabilities.

“These are practices [that are a part of good peer-mediated interventions]—[they] not only benefit kids with disabilities but also peers without disabilities,” said Carter. “They do better in classes as a result of working with their classmates. In fact, kids who are C, D, and F students may go up a letter grade and a half, to a B or B-, as a result of working closely with students with disabilities in a high school academic setting.”

So, how can we use school services to create opportunities for developing friendships?

One alternative is peer support. This model identifies one or more students without severe disabilities from the same classroom. These students provide ongoing academic and social support to children with disabilities. The paraprofessional still makes sure that the kids are keeping up but they gradually shift back to a classroom-based role.

For peer-network strategies, three to six peers without disabilities form a cohesive social group outside of class and include peers with disabilities. This peer group prioritizes characterizing kids based on similar interests and meets regularly, such as during lunch or a shared activity.

There is a lot of promise for peer-meditated interventions; the different ways of supporting kids can change the outcome of their lives.

Carter’s research focuses on promoting inclusion, belonging, and valued roles in school, work, community, and congregational settings. His work specializes in children and adults with intellectual disability, autism, and multiple disabilities. To watch the full video, please email for the link.