The “disruptive” behaviors of autistic students, commonly adduced in arguments against inclusive education, actually fall into several different categories. There are the “noisy” behaviors, the “movement” behaviors, and then—much more problematic and harder to defend—the “injurious” behaviors. I would like to address each in turn. First: the “noisy” behaviors.
I have what’s called “cough-variant” asthma—instead of wheezing when I have an asthma attack, I cough. I’ve had this all my life, but when I was a child it went un-diagnosed and untreated, and I lived with two chain-smoking parents. As a result, I did a LOT of coughing. Sometimes it was just intermittent mild barking, but when I got sick—as I did at least three or four times a year–it became an almost constant, deep-chested, disgustingly gooey, hacking that usually went on for several weeks. At these times, I coughed all day at school, seldom stopping except to gasp for breath. Once, in middle school, Suzie H. indignantly informed me that my coughing had made her fail a test. And in retrospect, I suspect that my coughing distracted and annoyed other students on a regular basis. But no one ever complained to the teacher or the school administration about it, no teacher ever even mentioned it to me, and I never got in trouble for all the noise I was making. Presumably, if they thought about it at all, they assumed, correctly, that it was beyond my control.
Students with autism who make noise in the classroom seldom enjoy the same tolerance. A significant proportion of autistic children engage in regular vocalizations—making random sounds, or repeating words or phrases to themselves—often without even thinking about it. It’s just something they do. Others “stim” by tapping on their desks with pencils or their fingers—again, without even thinking about it. These activities are usually beyond their control, just as my coughing was. Yet unlike my coughing, this autistic noise-making tends to be seen as extremely problematic, as “disruptive” to the classroom. Other students, teachers, and administrators get angry, assuming that the autistic kids are doing it “on purpose,” and could “stop if they wanted to.” In reality, however, the kids don’t usually realize that they are making noise. If confronted, they either stop for a while and then unconsciously start up again, or they become agitated and do whatever they have been told to stop doing even more. And then the presumption becomes that they are “defiant.”
The fact is, however, that classrooms are almost never quiet, peaceful places in which everyone listens attentively to the teacher. Classes are constantly being disrupted by noises outside the school (construction, garbage trucks, sirens, kids laughing and yelling on the playground, etc.), within the school (squeaky shoes in the hallway, announcements on the public address system, fire alarms, etc.), and within the classroom itself (class pets squeaking and rustling, kids dropping books, coughing, sneezing, and whispering to each other). If the noises made by autistic students could be accepted as just one among a number of similar distractions, if the noise could be explained to the other students in those terms, and then compensated for by strategic seating, the use of padded cubicles, and the substitution of other forms of self-soothing for autistic students whenever possible, then one of the main obstacles to inclusion could be overcome. But this would require both teachers and students to look at these behaviors in a different and more tolerant way.