Back to School: Inclusion and Universal Design

The air is getting crisp, and September is approaching…

If you have very young children, maybe they’re getting set to enjoy nursery school or kindergarten. Their classrooms are child-centered – lots of opportunities to play with a variety of toys, to explore and learn at centres, to interact in small groups with adult support at the developmental level that they need.

Now, if you are a parent of a child with autism, you may wonder how your child will fare as they move up the grades into more abstract and structured learning.

Let’s look at the big picture for a moment. What is it we hope for our children as they grow into adulthood?  Independence, development of gifts and talents that are valued and useful, friendships that are meaningful and mutually valued, a place in their community.  Now let’s work backwards.  If these are our goals, what opportunities would a good school provide? And how can it provide them to students with a wide range of abilities and interests?

This month I had the opportunity to attend a summer institute at the University of Manitoba on exactly this topic.

Inclusion and UDL

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for planning inclusive classrooms. Inclusive education has several goals:

  • Deep, creative, critical thinkers
  • Self-motivated, self-disciplined learners
  • Self-aware, confident students
  • Compassionate, cooperative leaders and
  • Community members with the skills and understandings to work with and relate to diverse others (Dr. Jennifer Katz, 2012)

UDL proposes to accomplish these goals by creating welcoming, emotionally safe classrooms.   All children can recognize that everyone has unique ways of being smart, and that living in community means using our talents to support one another. UDL makes schools academically inclusive by helping teachers plan instruction so that all learners can participate at their own level, whether that is introductory or challenging. In practice, this means classrooms from grade K-12 will involve learning in many ways – through movement, art, music, literature, and nature – and students have the opportunity to show what they know in ways that fit their strengths.

Imagine a grade 5 class learning about how traveling to Canada in the 1700’s affected the health of early explorers.  To connect social studies and science, they find out about the diet of early French settlers and prepare a meal to share with others in a classroom celebration.  They present information they have learned about early Canada through dramatizations, artwork, music, creative writing, and debates, which they have created both as individuals and in groups.  There is room in this kind of scenario to develop very deep understandings of a topic and to develop a variety of expressive skills.  The richness of information and experience also allows children with limitations to learn basic skills such as food preparation, as well as inviting them to participate in a rich social environment of idea sharing and creativity.

The idea of Universal Design comes from architecture. Rather than adding ramps and elevators to a completed building, it’s better to plan the building in the first place so that everyone, regardless of their physical abilities, can enter the building and use it comfortably. It’s easier to plan ahead than to correct difficulties later. In the same way, if we plan learning for students of a broad range of abilities and experiences ahead of time, we will need to give less extra assistance to some children than we otherwise would – and everyone will benefit from different ways to get at the learning experiences. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s about working smarter, not harder.

What I didn’t know before I took this course is that UDL is a concept that is becoming more and more appreciated in educational circles. It isn’t really new – it’s about putting together all the educational practices we know from research to be effective.  In fact, Manitoba Education is encouraging schools to move toward Universal Design, and is beginning to plan curriculum according to these ideas. (

So what does this have to do with educating children with autism?

Universal Design for Learning is a natural fit with  DIR/Floortime.  Floortime therapy (and RDI as well) begin and end with the fostering of safe, enjoyable relationships as the context for learning.  In both therapies, learning also depends on content and activities that are important to the child – what the child is interested in, as well as meaningful family activities.  Teaching is about guiding and facilitating.  Learning is about making connections and solving problems.  We continually present our children with new experiences and challenges, supporting them so that they can succeed.

As parents, we chose developmental, relationship-based, individualized therapy because we believe children learn when they feel safe and happy, when tasks are challenging and interesting but achievable, and when they can develop their strengths as well as their weaknesses.  In encouraging children with autism and other “differences” to learn as part of a community, we help them to prepare for what we hope they will be as adults- valued members of their families and communities.

UDL extends these ideas into the classroom, all the way from K to 12.   Children with disabilities, including autism, may still need one-on-one support for safety or educational reasons. But in such a classroom, they have a greater opportunity to be a valued part of school life – both socially and academically – in a similar way as any other child, and while still celebrating their unique personalities and learning styles.

Not every teacher is familiar with Universal Design for Learning – although many believe in and work with the principles expressed by UDL.  This fall, as you get to know your child’s teacher, ask them what inclusion means in your school.  It might be the beginning of a beneficial discussion, for everyone.


For more information on Universal Design for Learning, click here and check out Dr. Jennifer Katz’s description and other resources on her website.

* This blog post is based on information presented at the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Education Summer Institute 2012: UDL -Teaching Diverse Learners in the Inclusive Classroom, presented by Dr. Jennifer Katz and Don Shackel.


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