Adele Brodkin: Your question is very important. Hopefully by now the diagnostic testing and multi-discipline consideration of this child’s developmental disabilities is completed. (Ideally, he will have been seen by a child clinical or school psychologist, a child psychiatrist, speech and occupational therapists, as well as a pediatric neurologist.) Once the team has met and prepared recommendations for an individual educational plan as well as outside intervention, I would expect a recommendation for an in class aide to work with him at all times. Whether his diagnosis is autism, anything on the autistic spectrum, developmental delay from some other disorder, he does require individual attention in order to be included in a regular classroom program. Both his parents and you are entitled to bring that fact to the attention of the administration and special services team. What is more, the aide should be someone who is trained/experienced in working with special needs children within a regular classroom. You, she, and the special services representative would collectively work out curriculum adaptations that would meet the child where he is and enable him to progress, while also allowing the others to pursue the standard curriculum. There will be times and some activities which all the children may share; but the expectations for focus and performance will be adjusted for the child with special needs. This often works out very well in the early grades and some such children will ultimately be able to perform in a regular class placement without an aid; while others may need some combination of special and regular class placement. Each case should be evaluated and reevaluated often to be sure everyone is well served. Oh, and don't worry about what to say to the other children. At some level, they probably already understand that he has special needs. Ask the aide how s/he would like to be introduced. Most likely, s/he will suggest calling him/her a "special teacher" or "special helper." And, in fact, the aide may be a special teacher or asset to the whole classroom.
For more advice by Adele, check out the Between Teacher and Parent column.