I have seen the following graphic around at times, and it's a perfect representation of what these various words mean.
Exclusion is when access is not granted.
Separation is when access is granted to something else.
Integration is when access is granted to be present in the room, but not to participate as part of the group as a whole.
Inclusion is when all students are granted access to the same opportunities, regardless of abilities, in the same environment.
With proper inclusion in a classroom setting, each person should feel that they belong in the group, they are not being segregated, and they should be provided with equitable access to whatever is needed in order for them to learn.
So in an obvious example, if a student needs their wheelchair and various technological tools in order to learn, those would be readily available. It's a no-brainer, right?
A new graphic is needed to describe what very often happens to students with autism. Here's one I prepared earlier:
In the case of these students, the meaning of inclusion has become distorted. Teachers call it inclusion, but really, the focus is making these students as indistinguishable from their peers as possible. The more indistinguishable, the higher "functioning". The purpose is, in theory, to prepare those students for the "real world".
However, as you can see represented in this graphic, those students will never really be completely indistinguishable from their peers, because they are simply wearing a mask and hiding who they really are.
The equivalent for the person in the wheelchair is having that
wheelchair taken away and being told, "No, but you must work on being
like the rest of the students. You must walk, at the expense of all
other activities and learning." You can imagine the amount of wasted energy and angst experienced by this student.
And the amount of energy and anguish that goes into maintaining the "indistinguishable" mask is extreme. This means that very little (if any) academic learning occurs. In fact, the primary lesson these students are living with, day in and day out, is that they are not adequate, and they must be more like other people in order to be deemed adequate - and that this is the most important thing on which to focus.
So not only are these students not benefiting from academic opportunity, they are also taking a battering at the physical and spiritual level. There is no equity in this. It is harmful. It is wasteful. It is self-defeating for all concerned.
The job of teachers is to teach individuals, each with their own learning requirements. It is not to force the students to conform, to any arbitrary ideal of "normal", nor to a generic one-size-fits-all model of education. Teachers often say there is no time to do more, but I would have them realise that while they are wasting immeasurable energy on making their autistic students pretend to be indistinguishable from their peers, they could be putting (much less) energy into adapting their teaching style to accommodate those same students, without trying to change who they are.
Autistic students are different, not defective, and certainly not less.
If those students are allowed to be who they are, they will be much happier, they will be much easier to manage, they will be learning more - and perhaps will even be reaching their true potential. And a little bonus is that happier autistic students are actually more likely to naturally develop social skills.
What kind of teacher would you rather be?