- Autism in the Classroom: Overcoming Challenges
- EDUCATION & AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS
- Visual aids
- Structure and routine
- Working in pairs
- Teacher's aide to help autistic students
- Reducing anxiety in the classroom
- Choosing the appropriate school
- Key elements to successful education
- What School Could Be If It Were Designed for Kids With Autism
- Good Reasons Why Your Autistic Child Has a Tough Time With School
- Supporting students with autism in the classroom: what teachers need to know
- Impact of autism on a student’s life
- Misinformation around inclusion
- Ideas for teachers
- How to better support students
- The Pros and Cons of Sending an Autistic Child to Public School
Autism in the Classroom: Overcoming Challenges
While every child with autism presents with unique needs and behaviors, it’s important for teachers to understand the general types of concerns they are ly to encounter.
1) Cognitive Processing Delays
- Processing delays should never be confused with intelligence. Processing delays have little do to with the capacity to incorporate and evaluate observations and ideas. Delays in the ability to process verbal or written language have a neurological basis. For those individuals who suffer delays, facts, ideas, and questions are often delayed or even lost in translation from language to thought and vice-versa.
- Processing issues are similar — at least in result — to the way we might function when being spoken to in a foreign language with which we have only a rudimentary understanding. While the native speaker chatters on, we are having to translate the words into ones we understand and occupied as such, will miss much of what is said.
- In a classroom, where children are expected to shoot up their hands in response to questions, processing delays can present a seemingly impossible barrier with both learning and social consequences. When the child with ASD is called on, the untrained teacher, rather than waiting will elevate the child’s stress by repeating the question or expressing impatience, and when the pressure becomes too much, the child will simply check out or respond with an inappropriate behavior. If the child checks out one too many times, it will be a great challenge to reengage him or her.Strategies to use:
- Give the student the time needed to process a fact or a question, before expecting a response. Some students can be taught various methods to buy needed time, including restating of the question, asking for a few seconds, or simply putting up a finger to signify they are thinking.
- For oral lectures, students can be permitted to use a recording device or given summary notes afterward.
2) Sensory Perception Issues
- Any of the senses can be involved. A child might be especially sensitive to certain sounds, have a poor sense of balance and lack depth perception, and / or be unable to tolerate certain tastes and textures of foods. Even the scratching of a pencil across a piece of piece might set that child’s nerves on end in the same way that many of us are reduced to quivering when a piece of chalk squeaks on a board.What to do:
- The teacher needs to speak with the student and encourage him or her to tell the teacher without shame about any environmental distractions. By doing this, the teacher and administrators may learn to appreciate and alleviate many problems that can interfere with the student’s ability to learn.
3) Social Skill Deficits
- Social skill deficits can make a student with autism, the odd child out. Without training and sufficient mindfulness, even well-meaning teachers might slip into intimidating and sometimes even bullying behavior with the child who is always lagging behind and just odd.
- The schoolroom is the perfect setting to acquire and practice social skills. The conscientious teacher can do much to help promote this and encourage the tolerance and involvement of other students to help the child become socially fluid both in terms of emoting his or her own feeling and state of being as well with interpreting the meaning and feeling implied in the expressions, words, and actions of others.
4) Expression Challenges
- For those children who possess the intellectual capacity to function in the general class, speech and language skills can still present a number of obstacles.
- They may have problems expressing their own emotions and feelings as well perceiving and knowing how to respond to those of others. This can be as extreme as lacking the ability to recognize faces and differentiate between different people, or as subtle as lacking the ability to appreciate and make use of nuance and tone of voice when communicating.
- Overtime with the right and consistent encouragement, they can be taught to moderate their speech and speak in ways that don’t make them stick out from their peers. Rather than abandon certain pedantic speech, they can be placed in situations where it may prove an asset such as in those field of learning science, math, and engineering where precision of language is critical.
5) Motor Skill Challenges
- Motor skill challenges can present as an inability to master handwriting. Forcing a child to do endless handwriting practice is never a good solution, yet this is the most common approach for children with poor handwriting. What typically occurs with forced solo practice is that the child’s bad habits are reinforced. With some children, handwriting issues are best addressed by a trained occupational or behavioral therapist.
- Students with ASD may also need more encouragement to participate in physical activities where motor coordination is required (PE or recess). In this situation, it is important to reinforce any and all attempts by the child to participate.
Through ABA training, tutors and teachers can learn many of the basic techniques to motivate children and overcome various barriers.
Visit our Channel for examples of several of behavioral strategies in action. While these strategies are demonstrated with younger children, they can be readily adapted to work with learners of all ages.
Butterfly Effects behavior consultants and occupational therapists can be called in to help schools set up their classrooms to better accommodate children with various challenges.
With the recent influx of children diagnosed with ASD, it would save schools a lot of time to proactively make the accommodations that will allow all children to learn in environments that are free of unnecessary challenges.
Teachers will encounter enough significant challenges that they could not anticipate; it would be smart of us to take care of those that can be anticipated.
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EDUCATION & AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS
Autism Spectrum Disorders such as autism and Asperger's syndrome cause issues in crucial areas of development:
• Verbal and nonverbal communication
• Social interaction
• Imaginative or creative play
• Sensory processing.
Children on the autism spectrum may have trouble understanding or communicating their needs to teachers and fellow students. They can have difficulty understanding some classroom directions and instruction, along with subtle vocal and facial cues of teachers.
Inappropriate social interaction can lead to challenging behaviors, bullying, and ostracizing. Difficulties with imaginative or creative play hamper interactions with other children and mean that many teaching strategies will not be effective.
Sensory issues mean a student may not cope with noisy environments, being touched by others, or maintaining eye contact.
This inability to fully decipher the world around them often makes education stressful for the child, and teachers often report that they find it difficult to meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum.
Teachers need to be aware of a student’s disorder, and ideally should have specific training in autism education, so that they are able to help the student get the best his or her classroom experiences.
Some students learn more effectively with visual aids as they are better able to understand material presented visually. Because of this, many teachers create “visual schedules” for their autistic students.
This allows students to concretely see what is going on throughout the day, so they know what to prepare for and what activity they will be doing next.
Some autistic children have trouble going from one activity to the next, so this visual schedule can help to reduce stress.
Structure and routine
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders usually do not cope with chaotic unpredictable environments. Teachers can provide support by providing the child with timetables and the steps for activities.
Working in pairs
Research has shown that working in pairs may be beneficial in teaching autistic children. These students have problems not only with language and communication, but with socialization as well.
By facilitating peer interaction, teachers can help these students make friends, which in turn can help them cope with problems.
This can help them to become more integrated into the mainstream environment of the classroom.
Teacher's aide to help autistic students
A teacher’s aide can also be useful to the student.
The aide is able to give more elaborate directions that the teacher may not have time to explain to the autistic child and can help the child to stay at a equivalent level to the rest of the class through the special one-on-one instruction. However, some argue that students with one-on-one aides may become overly dependent on the help, thus leading to difficulty with independence later on.
There are many different techniques that teachers can use to assist their students. A teacher needs to become familiar with the child’s disorder to know what will work best with that particular child. Every child is going to be different and teachers have to be able to adjust with every one of them.
Reducing anxiety in the classroom
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders sometimes have high levels of anxiety and stress, particularly in social environments school. If a student exhibits aggressive or explosive behavior, it is important for educational teams to recognize the impact of stress and anxiety.
Preparing students for new situations, such as through writing social stories, can lower anxiety.
Teaching social and emotional concepts using systematic teaching approaches such as The Incredible 5-Point Scale or other cognitive behavioral strategies can increase a student’s ability to control excessive behavioral reactions.
Choosing the appropriate school
As with many disabilities, in the past students on the autism spectrum were kept separate fromn 'normal' children as much as possible. However, the past few decades have seen a trend to integrate these students into the regular system as much as possible.
Debate exists on whether this is the best option given the specific needs of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Shaddock 2003).
Some teachers in both the specialized and regular education systems believe that integration into regular schooling is often let down by inadequate training, support and resources (Danne, Beirne-Smith & Latham 2000).
The choices of education systems available may be limited. Parents may live in a country or rural area where nothing exists other than the regular school system.
Parents may opt for home-based schooling if they have the time, commitment and willingness to learn all the strategies they will need to teach effectively.
Costs can also be a major factor if specialized schools or support need to be paid for.
In some cases, a child on the autism spectrum can be taught partly in both a special education program and the regular classroom. This is an example of an integration model where the student has specialized or home-based education but is increasingly included in regular schools as the child can cope.
These integration models are a growing trend to provide a 'continuum of care' model, where individualized support tapers off as a child learns the skills needed to study in regular schools. Ideally, there is a range of specific schools for autistic students, then special classes in the regular system, then support in the regular system i.e. teacher's aide, tutoring.
Key elements to successful education
Research into Autism Spectrum Disorders in an educational context indicates that there are a number of criteria for appropriate education of children on the autism spectrum (Rose, Dunlap, Huber & Kincaid 2003):
• Specialized curriculum content
• Classroom support
• Specialized teaching methods
• Coordinated team approach
• Modifiying the environment • Supports and services for students and families
• Structured learning environments
• Collaboration with home-schooling where required • Functional approach to problem behaviour • Involvement of the parents • Social support and positive attitude by all involved
• Recurrent evaluation of inclusion procedures.
Click here for the full range of autism and Asperger's fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation.
What School Could Be If It Were Designed for Kids With Autism
Tracy Murray / The Atlantic
Editor's Note: In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of more novice educators.
In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just three years leading a classroom. The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project is crisscrossing the country to talk to veteran educators.
This story is the tenth in our series.
A charming, bright 5-year-old stands out in his classroom at Maurice Wollin elementary school, on Staten Island, as an extremely social, kind, and curious child. He remembers more about his peers—names, significant events, s and diss—than almost any other kindergartner at his school does.
But despite his genuine interest in his classmates and their well-being, he often struggles with interpreting their feelings and intentions—he has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (This 5-year-old and the other students mentioned in this article have been granted anonymity to protect their privacy.
) One morning last month, in the middle of a math lesson, a soft-spoken classmate accidentally bumped into his shoulder, and quickly apologized with a big, friendly smile.
But the sociable child concluded that his classmate was being mean, and punched him in the shoulder, then dropped to the floor, crying, his arms flailing and his voice growing louder.
In many classrooms, a teacher’s aide might have pulled him aside, attempted to help him calm down, and encouraged him to be quiet.
If he didn’t comply, and continued to disrupt other students’ learning, he might have been sent to a counselor’s office or the principal’s office, or have been sent home for the day.
(Across the nation, students with disabilities are suspended at twice the rate of students without them.)
Instead, within seconds of his dropping to the floor, his teacher, Tracy Murray, raised a laminated sign with an image of her classroom’s “clubhouse,” a special stress-relief area where kids who feel emotionally overwhelmed can take a break and use relaxation techniques that their teachers and therapists have recommended for them personally. There, he sank into a black beanbag chair and started slowly squeezing a pink ball in order to soothe himself.
Once he looked more relaxed, Murray, a 26-year veteran of special education, sat down next to him while her co-teacher, Elizabeth Garber, continued with the lesson.
Because many children with autism learn better with visual aids, Murray drew a simple comic strip—with stick figures and dialogue balloons—to represent what had happened with the student and his classmate.
Once he saw that the encounter was an accident and that he could make “smart guesses” about his peers’ intentions in the future by observing their facial expressions and listening to what they say, he calmed down and returned to the math lesson.
The scene in Murray’s classroom unfolded as it did because the kindergartner is part of a program called ASD Nest, which places students him alongside neurotypical students in classrooms led by specially trained teachers.
ASD Nest, which is named after its goal of giving kids with ASD a nurturing place to learn and grow, is a collaboration between the New York City Department of Education and NYU.
It launched in 2003 with four teachers and has since expanded to 54 elementary, middle, and high schools in New York City.
Read: How to keep teachers from leaving the profession
Nationwide, more than half of students with autism ages 6 to 21 spend more than 40 percent of their school day in a majority-neurotypical classroom, with about two-thirds of this group spending 80 percent of their day in one. In general, the rest spend most of their school day in a special-education class or at a school where all students have one or more disabilities.
When a student on the spectrum is present, majority-neurotypical classrooms typically have one certified teacher—many without special-education training—and one or more teacher’s aides, who help students with special needs follow teachers’ directions and complete academic tasks.
ASD Nest, meanwhile, places two certified and specially trained teachers in each participating classroom, which allows one of them to provide one-on-one social, emotional, or academic support whenever the need arises, without disrupting the lesson or pulling a student the classroom.
On top of that, each classroom’s two co-teachers meet weekly with occupational, speech, and physical therapists to discuss each student’s progress and share observations about what’s working and what isn’t.
Murray, who was one of the inaugural Nest teachers, thinks that the program is effective because of its focus on collaboration among the ASD Nest teachers, school therapists, and university researchers, which results in frequent adjustments in the classroom activities and strategies tailored to every student.
“We don’t expect students to learn the way we teach—we teach them the way they learn,” Murray told me at her school, sitting next to bookshelves covered by curtains in order to minimize visual stimulation, which can overwhelm some of her students on the spectrum, much clutter, bright lights, and loud noises can.
Throughout the day, Murray and other teachers in the Nest program provide explicit guidance about emotional cues and social norms—information that can be elusive and invisible to children with autism.
By the age of 5, many children can deduce that a smiling, friendly classmate is not looking to start a physical fight.
Children with autism can struggle to reach that conclusion, but many special-education teachers, including Murray, believe that the ability to pick up on social cues can be taught in a classroom setting. ASD Nest is one of the few academic programs in the country that implements this approach in the classroom.
Last year, before the student Murray sat with in the clubhouse was enrolled in the program, he frequently struggled to make sense of social interactions and often stormed his preschool classroom in a panic, unable to return to class and missing out on learning. Two months into kindergarten, he hadn’t excused himself from his classroom once.
“We have a permission to prioritize social goals over academic lessons if we see an opportunity,” Murray said.
That contrasts with the traditional approach to integrating students on the spectrum into majority-neurotypical classes, which prioritizes academic development, often without addressing the social and emotional challenges that can make classroom engagement difficult.
The Nest approach, in the long run, can help give kids on the spectrum skills that they need in order to live with some degree of independence as adults.
Each Nest kindergarten class typically includes four students with autism and eight neurotypical students, and Murray maintains that the Nest approach benefits all students, not just those with developmental disorders. “Learning how to perceive the intentions and feelings of others and manage your own emotions is good for all students, not just autistic children,” she said.
Stephen Shore, a special-education professor at Adelphi University who has autism, thinks that Nest is effective because it focuses on addressing students’ strengths rather than their weaknesses.
Too often, he says, programs for students on the spectrum dwell on their deficits, such as their inability to pay attention for long periods of time.
Nest teachers, meanwhile, get to know the strengths and interests of each student, and then extend them to the academic domain.
For instance, one pink-cheeked, shy student at Maurice Wollin excels in reading but recently failed a math test. Teachers noticed that many of the books he read were about dinosaurs, so they changed some of the math questions to include dinosaurs. His engagement and confidence soared.
ASD Nest represents a big philosophical shift for Murray, who grew up in the 1970s attending schools that made few accommodations for students with diverse needs. She remembers when, in fifth grade at her Catholic school, a teacher reacted harshly to a friend of hers who she now guesses was on the spectrum.
After the student asked for help multiple times, Murray recalled, the teacher slapped his textbook his hands and yelled, “How dare you keep interrupting while others are thinking!” The student returned to his desk in tears and, overwhelmed, threw his chair against the wall.
(Murray long ago lost touch with him, and never learned his backstory.)
When, as a child, Murray would ask her mother what she could do to help her struggling friend at school, her mother would tell her that she could become a teacher. Eventually, she did.
After graduating from college in the early ’90s with a degree in general and special education (and after a brief stint at a Catholic kindergarten that she disd because she found it too similar to her own schooling experiences), Murray began working for the Guild for Exceptional Children, a nonprofit school and day-care center for children and adults with developmental disabilities based in Brooklyn. Seven years later, she enrolled in a special-education master’s program and then accepted an invitation from a mentor to teach for ASD Nest.
Murray said that in the 16 years since she joined the program, she has come to focus less on exclusively academic goals and more on her students’ needs and desires, including their wishes to form relationships and be recognized for their individual strengths and contributions. “I’m not trying to change my students, eradicate their intense interests, or teach them compliance,” she said. “I’m helping them become the most successful they can be in ways that are meaningful to them.”
The shift in her thinking mirrors a larger, society-wide one. The animal-behavior professor and author Temple Grandin’s 1995 memoir, Thinking in Pictures, has been credited as the first narrative of autism by a person on the spectrum.
It helped establish the idea that autism, as Steve Silberman put it in NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, is “both a disability and a gift.
” The contributions of Grandin and other public figures on the spectrum—including the actor and writer Dan Aykroyd and the climate activist Greta Thunberg—have promoted the notion that autism isn’t something to be “cured” or eradicated, and that it is the result of natural variations in human genes.
ASD Nest was formed in the early days of this neurodiversity movement, and since the beginning, it has focused on helping students become more independent. One recent morning, a counselor brought a student back to Murray’s kindergarten class from a speech-therapy session.
He scores well on tests, but panics when faced with anything unexpected, such as a slightly different daily schedule or a stranger entering a classroom. His therapist has been working with him on detecting visual markers in the classroom so that he can make inferences about what’s going on.
Today, instead of having a meltdown upon returning to class in the middle of a lesson, he scans the room and quietly walks to his seat, pulling out his school supplies.
Every day, Nest students with autism also attend “social clubs,” which are intended to help demystify unstated norms, such as whispering in libraries and not talking to strangers in bathroom stalls.
In social clubs, students read fiction, look at photographs, watch movie clips, and play games, trying to glean what the characters in the films and books, as well as their peers in the group, are feeling and thinking their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
This all has been working well for the student who was practicing making inferences what he saw in the classroom. Last year, when he went to preschool each day, his mother had to fight with him to get him on the school bus. “This year has been such a change,” she told me.
“Every day, he is talking about teachers, his friends, what he is learning.” He even teaches his family members about the appropriate voice levels in different settings and about notions of private space—information he learned in his social club this year. He has two friends he can name—a major milestone for him.
It’s one of many that ASD Nest has helped him and other students reach.
This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.
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Good Reasons Why Your Autistic Child Has a Tough Time With School
Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images
School is rarely a good environment for children with autism. And that's a problem for two reasons.
First, autistic kids spend a huge amount of time learning how to cope with an environment that is sync with their abilities and challenges.
Then, having struggled for years to build those skills, they then must LEAVE that environment for a completely different situation when they age out or graduate.
For many autistic kids, school is far tougher than any work environment — for many excellent reasons.
It's, unfortunately, the case that ordinary public school in the 21st century seems to have been designed with the intent of making life difficult and uncomfortable for anyone who has even the mildest of these challenges, all of which go along with autism:
- Sensory Dysfunction: Even kids who have a mild over-reaction to loud noise, bright lights, and other sensory input are almost certain to become anxious and overwhelmed as a result of loud buzzers, fluorescent lights, yelling children, echoing gyms, and many of the other days to day experiences that are “baked into” public school. Children with autism are, by definition, facing sensory challenges.
- The Difficulty with Reading or Speech Comprehension: Standardized testing and “rigor” mean that even very young children are expected to comprehend and act on or respond to spoken and written language — at top speed. As kids get older (meaning older than age 7), any nod in the direction of hands-on or visual learning disappears — and verbal expectations increase. Children with autism are almost certain to be at a serious disadvantage, as verbal expression and understanding are a major challenge.
- Executive Functioning Challenges: Executive functioning is the ability to plan and execute multi-step projects, bearing in mind things project parameters, timeline, and other factors. In other words, it is the ability to manage homework, school projects, studying for tests, and planning ahead for events, summer opportunities, and more. Executive functioning is a major challenge for almost all autistic people.
- Fine and Gross Motor Challenges: Fine motor skills are critically important for writing, drawing, cutting, pasting, and manipulating small objects such as glass microscope slides and tweezers. Gross motor skills are used for jumping, kicking, throwing, running, and skipping. Mild to moderate problems in these areas — which are shared by most people with autism — can create severe challenges in the classroom, playground, gym, and playing field (among other school-related venues). Motor planning (how hard should I kick? Can I safely jump off this swing?) is another important, related challenge.
- Social Communication Difficulties: Autistic children, teens, and adults all share difficulty with social communication. Sometimes the difficulties are very obvious and severe — but even for an autistic child with good language skills, social thinking can be incredibly challenging. In school, social challenges are everywhere, all the time — and they are constantly in flux. What's appropriate in the classroom is entirely inappropriate in the halls, the gym, or the playground. It can be very tough for autistic kids to tell playful teasing from bullying, or to recognize sarcasm or humor. Even if a child is able to master appropriate social skills in grade 1, the rules will change in the summer — and they'll change again in the fall.
- Difficulty With Changes in Routines and Schedules: Kids with autism thrive on routines. But even during the course of the school year, it can be tough to ensure consistency in routines and schedules in the school setting. From extended vacations to teacher training days and snow days to assemblies, standardized testing days, special events, and substitutes, school schedules are a constantly moving target. Children with special needs have the added burden of needing to leave classes — often in the middle — to attend therapy sessions, social skills groups, and other programs intended to help them handle the very experiences they're missing!
- Difficulties Surrounding Changing Rules and Expectations: Each fall, as students return to school, they find some things are the same — but may have changed. Teacher X has no problem with students standing up and stretching; teacher Y has no tolerance for such behavior. Teacher X wants all students to show their work, while Teacher Y just wants to see that you got the right answer. Even more challenging than changes in teacher expectations are changes in peer behaviors, interactions, expectations, norms, clothing styles, cultural preferences, and even word choices. Last year, it was fine to say that you loved “Sponge Bob” — and saying “that's neat!” was fine. This year, “Sponge Bob” is utterly uncool, and you're suddenly supposed to say “awesome” instead of “neat.” Kids with autism have tremendous difficulties in picking up on and implementing unspoken changes of this type.
- Lack of Tolerance for Autistic Behaviors and Passions: You would think that, in today's world, teachers would understand and act on the reality that kids behave and learn in different ways. But, in many cases, you would think wrong. Sometimes that's because a particular teacher finds it upsetting or distracting to have a student who rocks, flicks, or otherwise moves in unexpected ways, talks too much about a special interest, or has trouble collaborating with peers. Just as often, the teacher is handicapped by the expectation that her class will progress at a certain rate and be able to respond to standardized test questions in a predetermined format at a pre-determined speed.
Bottom line, 21st-century schools are not designed to be universally accessible. Instead, they are designed for a particular group of students — those who are able to manage all the challenges listed above. For students with differences of any type, there are “special” accommodations — often consisting of “separate but equal” classrooms, activities, and even curricula.
For students with autism, the school can be more challenging and difficult than almost any other setting. This, in itself, represents a problem. “Johnny can't even handle third grade,” many parents, teachers, and administrators think — “so how in the world can he handle a musical instrument, swim team, chess club, Boy Scouts, or any other outside activity?”
The reality is that, for many autistic kids, it's only outside of school that their real talents, interests, and abilities can be seen.
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Brede J, Remington A, Kenny L, et al. Excluded from school: Autistic students’ experiences of school exclusion and subsequent re-integration into school. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments. 2017;(2). doi:10.1177/2396941517737511
Sanz-cervera P, Pastor-cerezuela G, González-sala F, Tárraga-mínguez R, Fernández-andrés MI. Corrigendum: Sensory Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in the Home and Classroom Contexts. Front Psychol. 2019;10:443. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01772
Autism Spectrum Disorder: Communication Problems in Children. National Institutes of Health. March 2018.
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Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children. University of Rochester Medical Center.
Supporting students with autism in the classroom: what teachers need to know
In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.
Students with autism often present unique challenges to schools, and teachers can often find it difficult to meet their needs effectively.
Internationally, around 1 in 68 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social communication and behavioural challenges.
A recent study found that among the 934 parents who were surveyed, approximately 77% had children on the spectrum attending mainstream schools.
It also found that, in general, teachers only felt slightly confident in their ability to support students with autism, while parents were even less certain of teachers’ confidence to teach their children with autism.
Teachers, then, need to have a better understanding of autism and how it may affect learning. They also need help putting appropriate strategies in place.
Impact of autism on a student’s life
Every person on the autism spectrum is unique and their needs will be reflected differently.
Challenges experienced interacting socially and communicating with others are common among students on the spectrum, and will have an impact on every aspect of their lives.
These challenges can lead to levels of stress, anxiety and depression that are much higher than for other students. Up to 72% of students on the autism spectrum have additional mental health needs.
Classrooms are social environments that rely heavily on being able to interact, socialise and communicate with others effectively. This can intensify the stress, anxiety and depression students on the spectrum may experience.
This can present unique challenges for schools and teachers, with students on the spectrum being four times more ly than their peers to require additional learning and social support services.
Research shows the importance of understanding the link between academic learning and social and emotional competence.
A lack of social-emotional competence can lead to not only a decrease in a student’s connection with school, but also academic performance.
This reinforces the notion that social-emotional learning has a critical role to play in learning, as well as in school attendance, classroom behaviour, and academic engagement for all students.
The heavy focus on academic aspects of the curriculum and the demand for data-driven accountability that schools are required to address often result in the focus on social and emotional learning and mental health being overshadowed or pushed to one side.
Misinformation around inclusion
Inclusion is about being proactive in identifying the barriers learners encounter in attempting to access opportunities for quality education, and then removing those barriers.
It is about meeting the needs of all children to ensure they get a quality education and have the opportunity to reach their potential.
Often assumptions are made that “inclusion” means students need to be in mainstream classrooms at all times. When inclusion is interpreted in this way, students may be unable to access adjustments that adequately address and meet their needs.
The implementation of any adjustments need to be tailored to the students’ individual needs.
Schools also need to be careful not to run the risk of overgeneralising, as students with autism can be as different from each other as any other students.
Students on the spectrum often need time away from other students and the demands of the mainstream classroom. The frequency with which this needs to happen will be the individual needs of the students involved, and where they go in these situations would be dependent on the school setting.
Doing this would help them to not only manage the social and sensory challenges of the school environment, but also the stress and anxiety they can experience.
Ideas for teachers
During the survey, students with autism made some suggestions as to how teachers could better support their needs.
They suggested that it would be useful if teachers could help them cope with change and transition by simply reminding them when a change was looming.
They also asked to use a tablet or laptop to help with school work, instead of handwriting. This can help students on the spectrum overcome many of the motor skill difficulties that make handwriting difficult.
Giving students a copy of instructions or information that their teacher writes on the board may also help.
Students with autism can find tasks requiring a lot of planning and organisation such as managing assignments, participating in assessments, navigating learning tasks, and completing homework extremely difficult.
This can have a negative impact on their cognitive, social and academic ability.
Schools could allow older students to take photos of these instructions using their mobile phone or tablet.
Having a quiet space to complete their assessments and getting assistance with organising themselves and the social aspects of school were also raised as important strategies.
How to better support students
There are a number of barriers to providing better and appropriate support to meet the educational needs of students with autism.
These include: funding, lack of knowledge and training, lack of specialist support staff and time, lack of appropriate resourcing and class sizes.
Funding can impact on the amount of resourcing, support and specialist staff available to teachers to help individualise their approach. Funding and resources vary from state to state and school to school.
Teacher training and experience in autism will vary.
In the Australian Autism Educational Needs Analysis, the majority of teachers (89%) and specialists (97.5%) who participated had received professional learning or specific training related to students on the autism spectrum.
Teachers and specialists working in the field need to feel adequately supported to meet the needs of these students, and this support must be ongoing.
The use of flexible and individually tailored educational approaches is crucial. This requires that teachers have an array of adjustments and resource options which can be implemented both in and outside of the classroom environment.
Input from a multidisciplinary team that includes educational specialists and allied health professionals should also be available.
It is not enough to give teachers professional development on autism. They need additional help from appropriate specialist staff to put adjustments in place that fit within the context of their classroom and school.
• Read more articles in the series
The Pros and Cons of Sending an Autistic Child to Public School
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Public schools are required to provide free education to all American children, and most children with autism do attend public school. In some cases, a public school can provide appropriate educational and social settings for your autistic child. In many cases, your local public school will struggle to find an appropriate setting and provide a meaningful educational program.
Is public school ly to be a good match for your child? It all depends on your child, your school district, your expectations, and your budget.
Depending on your child's needs and abilities, your child will probably wind up in one or another of these settings:
- Typical public school classroom without special support (mainstreaming)
- Typical public school classroom with support (1:1 and/or adaptations)
- Part-time typical classroom, part-time special needs classroom setting
- General special needs class
- Specialized public autism class with some inclusion or mainstreaming
- Specialized public autism class without inclusion or mainstreaming
- Charter School
- Cyber charter school
Most children with autism will receive some kind of therapies (usually speech, occupational, and/or physical therapy) in addition to their academic programs.
If a child is academically capable, they will be taught the same curriculum as his typical peers. If the child has moderate intellectual, learning, or attention challenges, they may be taught in “slower” classes or in a resource room. If there are more severe symptoms, the program may consist almost entirely of behavioral (rather than academic) education.
There are great advantages to a public education for a child on the autism spectrum. Right off the bat, public school is free. Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), there's much more to a public school education than academics.
According to the IDEA, a child with autism must receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). That means that your child must receive the right supports to be at least moderately successful in a typical educational setting.
Each autistic child in public school must have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). In it, you and your child's district-level “team” will layout a plan and benchmarks your child's goals and special needs. If your child isn't progressing as expected, you or your team members can call a meeting to decide what to do next.
If your child does thrive in a general education setting, public school is a great way to connect more fully will new friends, other parents, and the school community as a whole.
The principle of the public school model may sound ideal for some parents. But of course, nothing is as good as ever as good as it sounds.
Parents will often hear school administrators citing budgetary and administrative constraints that limit their ability to enact certain plans or achieve certain goals.
In practice, this means that a child with autism is most ly to get an adequate education someone else's definition of “moderately successful.”
There are different ways this can play out:
- In some cases, what looks at first an adequate educational program really isn't. A child with huge sensory and behavioral issues is never going to do well in a mainstream setting. A child with high functioning autism is not going to thrive in a classroom filled with profoundly challenged kids. In those fairly extreme cases, it's often possible to make a case for change on your own or through an advocate or mediator. Frequently, districts will see the problem and make changes your child's individual needs.
- You may not the autism support program offered by your district. Some districts have set up an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) program for their autistic students at great expense only to be sued by parents who are uncomfortable with ABA and prefer developmental therapies. Some districts have created autism classrooms complete with sensory integration facilities, only to have many parents object because they would prefer to have their child mainstreamed into a typical classroom.
- Autistic children are often targets for bullying. They behave, move, and sound different from their peers and often lack the verbal and social skills to stand up for themselves. This is surprisingly more prevalent for children with high functioning autism, as they are more ly to be included in typical classes and sensitive to bullying behaviors.
- Autistic children may find the sensory challenges of typical school to be overwhelming and upsetting. It can be exhausting to spend the day in a setting that is very loud, bright, and crowded. Standing in line, coping with gym class, and reacting to loud buzzers can be too much much for some children.
There are many different ways to accommodate autistic children, and autistic children are radically different from one another. That means that there is really only one way to find out if your child will do well in a public school, and that's to give it a try. Your child might also thrive in a public setting for a period of time and then run into problems (or vice versa).
The key to success is to stay closely connected to your child's experience by communicating with his teacher(s), aides, therapists, and guidance counselors on a regular basis.
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