Autism is a developmental disorder of the neural system which can be indentified in young children before the age of three. The portions of the brain affected control talking and communication skills as well as social skills. Ann X. Huang and John J. Wheeler (2006, p. 165) from the Tennessee Technological University described autism as “a complex, behavior-defined developmental disorder.” The most studied categories of autism are for children are in the moderate to severe autism range. The authors pointed out that although the a child may be given a diagnosis of high functioning autism (HFA) since each child is unique the individual characteristics of the child need to be identified and understood before the optimum intervention choice is made. Addressing the needs of an HFA child with educational strategies finally started to become a topic of research starting in the mid 2000s; this began a positive trend for better understanding all children with autism and focusing on successful interventions for autism including in HFA children.
Huang and Wheeler (2006) reviewed the strategies and interventions that have been successfully used in the United States. Not all strategies work for all children because each child has their own needs and their own strengths. The interventions most easily used in the Special Education setting are (a) a structured teaching style, (b) consistent schedules and routine, (c) adapting instructional strategies to the personal needs of the child, (d) optimum layout of classroom and (e) peer-to-peer interfacing known as Peer Mediated Intervention (PMI). Huang and Wheeler (2006) recommended using the structured individualized strategies designed by the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children (TEACCH) researchers. The strategies include how to best modify the environment and also offer helpful repetitive programs and work plans. Reasoned and carefully structured teaching approaches work well, according to the authors so the teaching methods and the classroom environment will suit the special needs of the autistic child.
The adoption of easily repeatable routines and lessons has demonstrated good results. Autistic children need to know what to expect and rely on predictable activities and surroundings. Those are two of the reasons placing them in regular classrooms (mainstreaming) has proved difficult
Importantly “the use of individualized schedules can help students with HFA stay on track, understand, accept and follow the sequence of daily events and adapt more flexibly and smoothly to the inevitably changes in the daily routine as well as decrease transitional difficulty.” (Huang and Wheeler, 2006, p. 166)
Adopting instructional processes to fit a child’s individual characteristics and needs has been a successful part of designing the routines and lessons used by special education teachers. The three general areas where adaption has proved successful are verbal, written and focusing on the special interests of the student. For example HFA students especially need short, simply structured sentences which are spoken slowly in order to understand their meaning. Visual teaching aids like maps, images, checklists and written cues are especially helpful with HFA students because they are most adept at visual understanding. The objects, themes and subjects that appeal to the HFA student should be used to keep them interested in learning and help guide them into a career path.
Technology is becoming more adaptive to meet the needs of autistic children and aid in their education. One exciting project has designed dolls developed with moving parts (robots) in order to engage the student with autism in the lesson. The Robota Project was undertaken by Aude Billard from the LASA Laboratory at the EPFL School of Engineering in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ben Robins and Kerstin Dautenhahn from the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the University of Hertsfordshire, UK, Jacqueline Nadel at the Hospital de la Salpetriere in Paris. The dolls are humanoid robots with eyes and limbs that are capable of moving with several degrees of freedom.
The main use of the doll-like robots has been to aid low-functioning children with autism. The robots were found to engage children by having the robot move and then encouraging the child to imitate the same movement with their own body; an imitation game. Figure 1 shows a series of four images demonstrating the engagement of a student to interact with the robot. At first the child seems to be uninterested and not paying any attention to the demonstration. The attitude of the student is a withdrawal behavior typical in autism. (See fig. 1, top left) But then the student sits up taller paying closer attention and watches as the teacher imitates the movement of the robot. (See fig. 1, top right) The third image (See fig. 1, bottom left) was taken 14 seconds from the beginning of the demonstration. (Billard et al., 2007, p. 43) The student has become engaged and interested in the process demonstrated by his leaning into study the robot after noticing the teacher’s arm movement up and then down in imitation of the robots movement. The fourth image (See fig. 1, bottom right) shows the student has placed his blue-colored doll on the table which demonstrates “his understanding of the similarity across the two objects (the robot and the doll)” (Billard et al., 2007, p. 35) The child is wholly engaged in playing the imitation game with the robot. The robot’s arm is up and his arm is up; he is sitting straight at the front of his chair close to the robot.
Figure 1 Austistic child becomes interested in the doll and starts reacting.
(Billard, Robins, Nadel, and Dautenhahn, 2007, p. 43)
Generally in developing robots for educational aids for autistic children the design of the facial features is usually with no facial features but with a human-like body. Autistic children’s interaction with Robota was evaluated with reference to imitation, eye gaze and touch. The results showed that interaction increased over time and that “Robota can elicit imitative behavior in children with autism” (Ballard et al., 2007, p. 34). The purpose of using the robot is to give the child some context to use for basing their interaction. The child responds both to the teacher’s requests to imitate the robot and to the motion of the robot. The robot offers a full body experience which helps orient the child to their own body which is not possible with two dimensional computer simulations. (Ballard et al., 2007, p. 34)
Erin Rotheram-Fuller, Connie Kasiari, Brandt Chamberlain, and Jill Locke published their research on the social environment in elementary school classrooms between autistic students and those in the general education mainstream. The research was funded by the National Institute of Health and the Center for Autism and Research Training at UCLA. The reason the research was undertaken was because of a trend to integrate ASD student in general education classes with the purpose of improving their social involvement. Seventy nine children with ASD and the same number (79) randomly selected peers participated in the research. The children were paired with the same gender (girls with girls and boys with boys) although the number of males was 88.6 percent. (Rotheram-Fuller, Kasari and Chamberlain, 2010, p. 1230) Thirty schools took part in the study and answered social network surveys which were used to evaluate peer rejection, acceptance, reciprocal friendships and the degree of social involvement.
Children with ASD were observed to be more likely to develop social interaction with other autistic children although in the general education classrooms 48.1% of children with ASD were involved in (the) social networks of their classrooms” (Rotheram-Fuller et al., 2011, p. 1227). On the other hand autistic children were more likely to be isolated or sidelined in social relationships in all the classrooms than were their non-autistic peers. The later elementary grades showed an increased and a more distinct isolation or peripheral involvement of autistic children than in the earlier grades. The researchers concluded that in the lower elementary grades the autistic children were involved comparatively the same as their peers, but as the children grew older this trend did not remain the same. ASD students showed that forming relationships in all of the elementary grades that were the mainstream general education classrooms was challenging. The researchers concluded that “common activities and skills building may be necessary to fully involve children with ASD in the social groupings of their peers, beyond current inclusion practices” (Rotheram-Fuller et al., 2011, p. 1230).
Iren Rama and Elina Kontu researched how teachers adapt their educational strategies to better address the needs of autistic students. The researchers observed a class in a Finnish school with only the teacher and six students present; in this way they could better discern the teacher’s interaction with the students without interference from teachers’ helpers. Six video tapes were filmed in a special education classroom. The study was an ethnomethodogical research and showed that “it is possible to apply a general theory of interaction when exploring people with autism” (Rama and Kontu, 2012, p. 2) An ethnomethodological study examines a situation as it is occurring and then makes sense of how the practices used (in this case by the teacher) impact the society (in this case the classroom). The results also added to the knowledge of teacher’s practices in special education class for autistic children that can be used for training other teachers.
Billard A, Robins B, Nadel J, Dautenhahn K. Building Robota, (2007).a mini-humanoid robot for the rehabilitation of children with autism, Assist Technol. 19(1):37-49.
Huang, A.X. and Wheeler, J.J. (2006). Effective interventions for individuals with high-functional autism, International Journal of Special Education, 21(3): 165-175.
Rama, I. and Kontu, E. (2012). Searching for pedagogical adaptations by exploring teacher’s tacit knowledge and interactional co-regulation in the education of pupils with autism, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 27(4): 417-431.
Rotheram-Fuller, E, Kasiari, C., Chamberlain, B. and Locke, J. (2010). Social involvement of children with autism spectrum disorders in elementary school classrooms, Journal of Child Psychological Psychiatry, 51(11): 1227-1234.
Pinborought-Zimmerman, A., Bakian, A.V., Fombonne, E., Bilder, D., Taylor, J. and McMahon, W.M. (2011). Changes in the administrative prevalence of autism spectrum disorders: Contribution of special education and health from 2002 – 2008, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(4): 521-530.