Autism, Part 5: Autistic kids at school

Final Exam by dcJohnWhen I was in grade school, I didn’t know anything about autism. Autistic kids in my area at that time were generally educated either at home or in special schools. Today, the emphasis on the inclusion of children with special learning needs in mainstream classrooms means that kids are more likely to attend school with an autistic child. On top of that, there is an increasing number of diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders, meaning that teachers need to know how to meet the needs of kids with autism so they can help them to develop their skills.

Although teachers have an increasing number of students with special learning learning needs in their classes, they don’t necessarily have training in effective strategies to address the needs of autistic students. This situation is changing in some school boards, with funding being provided for professional development opportunities. Here’s the problem, though – there aren’t many studies demonstrating the effectiveness of particular interventions in a classroom setting. In an article published in the Journal of School Psychology in 2005, Williams, Johnson, and Sukhodolsky summarized some strategies that could be helpful for the teachers of autistic kids; their suggestions resemble the Ziggurat Model that I wrote about yesterday.

The move toward inclusion begs the question: Are autistic kids better off in segregated or inclusive classrooms? There are arguments to be made for both placements. In segregated classrooms, the environment is tailored to the needs of the students, and resources, equipment, and expertise may be available that isn’t present in a general education class. On the other hand, students who are integrated into a mainstream class receive socially appropriate role modeling from their peers and opportunities for friendships with classmates who don’t have the diagnosis. Teachers may have higher expectations as well. As far back as 1996, these questions were being raised; an article in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders questioned the research evidence for the benefits of inclusion, suggesting that some students may continue to need the intensive intervention available in smaller, segregated classes. Nonetheless, many school boards and parents continue to believe that the benefits of an inclusive setting outweigh the possible costs – and I subscribe to this notion as well, provided appropriate supports and programs are available in the general classrooms.

The best advice for parents, in my opinion, comes from Alan Harchick, the Director of Educational Services of the U.S. National Autism Center. He advised parents to consider a number of factors, whether they were thinking about an inclusive or a segregated educational setting for their kids:

Parents should find out whether the program they are considering – be it an inclusion or special setting model – includes these components:

  • a language-based curriculum;
  • a curriculum that progresses in an orderly manner throughout the day and addresses multiple skill development;
  • effective instructional techniques based upon research, including a strong focus on positive reinforcement, shaping, prompting, and fading of prompts;
  • frequent opportunities for the child to respond to instruction;
  • little time when the child is not engaged in instruction;
  • daily recording of academic work and behavior problems; and
  • frequent review of progress and timely changes in procedures if progress is not occurring.

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