As part of the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the least restrictive environment is identified as one of the six principles that govern the education of students with disabilities.
"Least restrictive environment" means that a student who has a disability should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent possible. They should have access to the general education curriculum, extracurricular activities, or any other program that non-disabled peers would be able to access.
The student should be provided with supplementary aids and services necessary to achieve educational goals if placed in a setting with non-disabled peers. Should the nature or severity of his or her disability prevent the student from achieving these goals in a regular education setting, then the student would be placed in a more restrictive environment. The less opportunity a student has to interact and learn with non-disabled peers, the more that the setting is considered to be restricted.
By law, teachers are required to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment for students who have disabilities.
To determine what an appropriate setting is for a student, a team will review the student’s needs and interests. The types of educational settings for students with disabilities will vary. With the differences in needs and interests among students with disabilities, there is no clear definition of what an LRE will be for all students.
Least restrictive environment and the courts
Due to the fact that the law does not clearly state to what degree the least restrictive environment is, courts have had to interpret the LRE principle. In a landmark case, Daniel R. v. State Board of Education (1989), it was determined that students with disabilities have a right to be included in both academic and extracurricular programs of general education.
In Board of Education, Sacramento City Unified School District v. Holland (1994), four factors were identified as things needed to be taken into consideration when determining if the student’s LRE is appropriate. They are the educational benefits of integrated settings versus segregated settings, nonacademic benefits (social interaction with non-disabled peers), the effect the student with a disability can have on the teacher and his or her peers, and the cost of supplementary services that will be required for that student to stay in the integrated setting.
Simply stated, the student should receive an appropriate education and social benefits. The education of the student’s non-disabled peers should not be adversely affected. The final factor, cost of supplementary services, provides a safeguard for schools so that they do not exceed spending on one particular student.
Ability to make autistic friends
It may be useful for an autistic child to join a support or play group for autistic children, especially if they are in an environment with predominently nondisabled children. Some autistic writers have suggested that autistic friends can be beneficial to a child's self-esteem. Autistic students can benefit from disability-related clubs, or internet social networks if they are at least 13 years old. Autistic friends can teach coping strategies and provide moral support in a way that neurotypical people cannot.
Children also benefit from seeing autistic adults, who demonstrate by example that it is possible to live a happy and successful life while being autistic.
Leal, Dorothy; Smith, Sean; Shank, Marilyn; Turnbull, Ann; & Turnbull, Rud (2002). Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today’s Schools (3rd ed.) Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc.