For children who do not have a mental health related diagnosis, school years tend to be challenging due to peer pressure, learning difficulties, family relationships, biological changes and environmental problems. The students who must face those years with a disability suffer the same challenges plus the ones added by their condition; this makes it even more difficult to perform and adapt to the school environment, especially for children in mainstream schools who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
In order to understand the challenges students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may face, it is imperative to know that ASD is not one single disorder but a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms (Baio et al., 2014). Within the ASD umbrella, The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), includes three conditions that used to be diagnosed separately. These are: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger’s syndrome (2013). Although these conditions share similar symptoms, the severity and impact on each person’s life is different. To be diagnosed with ASD, an individual must show persistent deficits in social communication, restrictions in social interactions and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that about 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. Although it can be diagnosed as early as the age of two, most diagnosis are made around the age of four, right before school age. There is not one single cause of autism and research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic, nongenetic and/or environmental influences (Hsiao, Tseng, Huang, & Gau, 2013).
For children diagnosed with ASD, the school years bring issues and challenges which are often related to the way their environment is designed and not to the ability of the child to adapt to it. A major issue the ASD diagnosed population faces is the unwillingness of certain educators to work with them and adapt to their needs. Teachers across the nation have openly expressed concerns about having students with autism in the general education setting due to the children’s lack of social skills, behavioral outbursts, modifications made to the curriculum, and lack of training and supports. Cassady (2011) explains that recent studies demonstrate that teacher’s reluctance to work with special needs’ students in general settings can negatively impact the student’s success, as well as the effectiveness of the instruction.
The increase of children with an ASD diagnosis makes it more likely for students to have to function in a general classroom setting at some point during their school years; it also makes it more likely for untrained teachers to have the opportunity to instruct a child with autism. Evidence-based studies demonstrate that for an ASD diagnosed student, an effective educational program must include the following strategies: teaching a task by taking simple steps, regular reinforcement of behavior, concentration on the student’s individualized need and a set of routines with a predictable schedule (Reichow, 2011). Since public schools’ classrooms tend to be larger, it may be challenging for teachers to provide the individualized attention and intervention a child with ASD needs, hence the hesitance some teachers show.
Smith, Segal and Hutman (2016) argue that restrictions in the ability to play can also be considered as a big challenge for children with ASD in the general education setting since they usually do not engage in “make believe” play, imitate behavior, participate in group play or utilize toys in creative ways. Not being able to have social interactions with play groups and peers, makes it more difficult for children to integrate into the school environment. the core deficits of ASD make children especially vulnerable to involvement with bullying, as victims and/or perpetrators (Hwang, Koh, & Leventhal, 2018). Not being able to communicate certain thoughts and feelings may cause a classmate to be offended and be the ignition of bullying towards that student. On the other hand, socially inappropriate language and behavior displayed by ASD students may be interpreted by others as the individual being a bully or potentially dangerous, violent and/or aggressive.
Each child with autism has unique needs and may react differently to various stimuli. While some students may show auditory challenges such as noisemaking, loud vocalizations, and covering ears, others may have tactile tendencies including, but not limited to, biting themselves or others, pinching and rubbing objects. Other common behaviors in ASD diagnosed students are grinding their teeth, bouncing and rocking back and forth. These behaviors make it difficult for the child to be engaged in the instruction, causes distractions for others and add to the challenges a teacher with a general instruction classroom face.
Another prevalent issue with students with autism is the fact that ASD students are at increased risk of school exclusion. These exclusions can be voluntary or not, short or long term and may be the consequence of decline on academic interest, behavioral problems, tensions in the relationship with the staff and peers and children’s general difficulties in adjusting to school. A research study conducted by the Center for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), concluded that 27% of autistic children had been excluded at least once, with 23% having experienced recurrent exclusion, compared to a 4% exclusion rate across all non-autistic children (Crane, 2017). Parents of children with ASD reported that the education process was more difficult when their child entered high school. High school years tend to be more difficult for ASD students because while elementary school consisted of one teacher and few children, high school involves switching between numerous teachers throughout the day, more students per classroom and well as “bewildering environments” (Ryan, 2014). These drastic changes become so hard to manage that eventually, students and their families decide to voluntarily exclude themselves from school. Ryan (2014) explains that the decision to withdraw from school is not an easy one since it usually comes after the student life has become so challenging that they contemplate committing suicide.
As previously exposed, there are several factors that may affect students with ASD within the school setting. Throughout the years, there have been policies and practices put in place to help mitigate the challenges these students face in the educational center. One example is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 which was initially passed in 1975 as the Education of Handicapped Children Act. This law makes available free, appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities plus special education and related services to those eligible students between the ages of 3 and 21 (APA, 2014). The implementation of IDEA has been instrumental for children with ASD because it states that when a school professional believes a child may have a disability, this child has the right to a free evaluation in all areas of the suspected disability. If found eligible for services, the child also has the right to the creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him/her. The purpose of the IEP is to lay out a series of specific actions and steps through which educational providers, parents and the student themselves may reach the child's stated goals.
In addition to policies, some strategies have shown to be effective when working with children with ASD in schools. According to Eveslage (2012), the incorporation of social workers has been shown to be a successful way to help students with ASD reduce the anxiety school may cause since they can often teach social skills, provide group and individual counseling as well as helping parents, classmates and teachers understand the disability. Inside the classroom, the assistance of a paraprofessional can help promote the student’s success. A paraprofessional may assist students with the instruction, help them interact with their peers and collaborate with others towards meeting the student’s goals as stated in their IEPs. Assisted by a designated paraprofessional, a teacher may be more successful in keeping the instruction distraction free and the students focused.
Other intervention strategies for children on the spectrum that have shown to be effective include the utilization of pictures and appealing visual material. For example, attaching a schedule with pictures to the student’s desk, the use of stories with drawings and pictures that can help with motivation and comprehension and adding pictures when transitioning from one activity to the next, help students with autism to be more self-sufficient. Moreover, a visual representation of an activity may help the student with ASD copy what they see and engage further (Lindsay, Proulx, Thomson, & Scott, 2013). Additionally, applied behavior analysis, better known as ABA (developed out of the work of psychologist B. F. Skinner), uses reinforcements in structured environments to encourage learning. This method is applied in schools by hiring ABA certified instructors who help the students by guiding them into accomplishing small, measurable tasks which are rewarded if completed and couched if not (Smith, 2008).
The Autism Science Foundation (ASF) website invites educators and caregivers to “be aware of non-evidence-based treatments for autism” (2019). The organization explains that understandably, parents of autistic children fall victims of those falsely offering a cure or permanent solution to their children’s diagnosis. Smith (2008) exposes that some schools use the ineffective approach of letting ASD children interact with others and participate in class without additional guidance under the misconception that they will eventually adapt on their own.
After reading evidence-based studies, journals and websites which primary goal is to educate about ASD and its implications, I would improve the delivery of services to this population by promoting more trainings directed to school staff, peers and classmates. All things considered, I believe that talking to others about the challenges an ASD diagnosed child may face and the way they function in society can make a difference in their interactions and can help decrease bullying and discrimination. Literature in plain, simple language for everyone to understand can also be useful when trying to explain and educate about autism. Although inclusive curriculums are designed to incorporate all students, I believe that throughout the school day, students with ASD should be able participate in more activities with special instructors rather than spending the full day in one classroom. Also, there should be more family-oriented activities from the school such as workshops about homework support or information on how to prepare a child with special needs for what their academic life may look like after elementary school. The combination of these strategies may help improve the services students with ASD receive in their school.
To summarize, the number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased drastically throughout the years and so have the challenges they face in a school environment which does not cater to their condition. Much has been written about which approaches should be taken to integrate these children into mainstream classrooms, however, some still opt for methods that have not been scientifically explored. With the proper knowledge about the topic and with additional support from social workers and paraprofessionals, much can be achieved in the effort of making the school less overwhelming for the ASD community.
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