The purpose of this paper is to explore the realm of teaching children who are on the Autistic Spectrum. Autistic children pose a number of practical problems within the classroom but equally, their natural talents can be put to excellent use under the correct circumstances and so, the autistic child presents a wide array of challenges and joys for the teacher. Within the course of this paper, I hope to explore the answers to the following areas of interest: the advantages and disadvantages of teaching autistic children; the effect of the classroom environment on the autistic child and whether it affects the effectiveness of the teaching; whether lessons concerning communication and socializing or academic subjects are of more value to the autistic child.
Autism is often a massively misunderstood condition. Many assume that autistic people are mentally disabled; however, it is more closely described as a learning disability which actually sees a wide range of varying levels of severity of the condition. Autism is characterized largely by an impaired understanding of social situations and has a number of symptoms which, invariably, must be present in the child’s development before the age of three, as stated by Eric Zander: “reciprocal social interaction and communication as well as behaviour, and imagination.” (Zander, 2009, p 1). There are two types of autistic child: early onset or regressed. Early onset is where the child is likely to have developed autism whilst in the womb and parents often claim that their baby seemed different from birth whereas the regressed form sees the child developing normally before massively regressing usually around 12-24 months old (Adams et al, 2004, p 2). Autistic children are, invariably, very factually-based people who deal with literal interpretations of information, rather than being able to visualise a metaphorical image, for example. Often, autistic children will have other conditions such as epilepsy or visual and hearing impairments, and many have learning difficulties which result in them having below average intelligence whilst others are of average intelligence. Autism, more commonly, affects boys than girls and on average, roughly one or two children person one thousand will have autism on some level of the Autistic Spectrum (Zander, 2009, p 1). These figures are generally the same internationally.
The causes of Autism are hotly debated and the general conclusion is that it is caused by a number of biological brain dysfunctions which result in certain areas of the brain being over or under developed, and it is classed as a “neurodevelopmental disorder” (Zander, 2009, p 1). It is defined by the individual’s behaviour, as discussed in the previous paragraph, and is usually diagnosed once each of the behavioural symptoms has been displayed regularly before the child’s third birthday. These behaviours are usually the product of the brain’s inability to process, perceive and interpret information in the ‘usual’ way: in other words, because the autistic child’s brain handles information differently, it affects their response and causes them to behave in a way which leads to the symptoms of autism (Zander, 2009, p 1).
Autism tends to become most prevalent through the child’s social interactions. The autistic child is missing the ‘theory of mind’ which we all have and develop as we grow, which allows us to interpret other people’s feelings and thoughts and act emphatically as a consequence.
However, the autistic child will struggle in their development of this which leads to a decreased ability to use and understand eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and intonation whilst interacting with other people (Zander, 2009, p 1). Autistic children are often perceived as being quite cold people as they do not naturally seek out comfort or to share their pleasure about something – even with their parents, and as a result, they often struggle to form and maintain relationships. Equally, their communication skills are often lacking as they do not develop linguistic skills at the normal rate and rarely try to compensate this through other means of communication. Zander states “around half of the children with autism never develop speech” and that there is a “great variation among the children who do.” (Zander, 2009, p 2). This also limits their ability to socially interact and particularly on a deeper level – every autistic child struggles to understanding the meaning of language, but they particularly struggle to ‘read between the lines’ which is also where their inability to understand the non-verbal forms of communication becomes most prevalent. An autistic child, for example, would not be able to comprehend that someone was upset purely by the person giving short responses to questions. Often, autistic children develop quite repetitive behaviour patterns which see them taking quite an intense interest in a limited number of things. Their behaviour is never spontaneous and their routine is of the upmost importance and, when altered, it can cause them to become quite upset as they are unable to process the change. It is also common for autistic children to develop repetitive physical behaviours such as continuously waving their hands, rocking back and forth, and walking on tip toes (Zander, 2009, p 2). Autistic children also, quite often, have an increased or decreased sensitivity to certain sounds, smells and physical feelings.
Equally, autistic children have an increased chance of hyperactive behaviour, problems with sleep and eating disorders. That said there are a wide range of significantly varying degrees of severity with autism; a child can experience all of the above or only some of it; their speech can be a significant problem or it can allow them to interact more fully than others. It depends on the child which means that they require quite tailored support in an educational setting.
Autism is universally accepted as being widely varying in severity and nature. Whilst some children are capable of an almost normal life, given the correct support, others are fundamentally unable to live independently and without issues in society. Because of this, it is widely accepted that the support offered to the autistic child (and their family) must be personal and tailored to their needs. Peter Bearman et al. carried out a study in 2010 which discussed the social influence on autism and the support networks which are formed as a result. Bearman et al. state that “It follows that parental awareness of autism and knowledge about strategies to secure resources for their children is likely to depend strongly on social interactions within the local social networks in which families are embedded.” (Bearman et al, 2010, p 1388). This suggests that parents only ever become aware of the child’s problems as a result of witnessing their interaction within family social circles; this correlates with Eric Zander’s claim that autistic symptoms must be demonstrable present before the age of three – an age which usually limits the child’s social interaction to family and family friends only. However, the real issues arise once the autistic child is diagnosed and is ready to enter into the education system.
In their paper entitled Advice for Parents of Young Autistic Children, James Adams et al. discuss the fact that “Contrary to what you may hear from outmoded professionals or read in outmoded books, autism is treatable.” (Adams et al, 2004, p 1). The implication of this is that whilst autism is not curable, it is manageable when given the correct time and the proper resources. The key message to their study is the following: “Their progress through life will likely be slower than others, but they can still live happy and productive lives.” (Adams et al, 2004, p 1). This is important information for autistic children as well as their parents and their teachers, because it means that given the right resources and understanding, autistic children can have fulfilling lives that feature a strong education, regardless of their academic ability. They also place impetus on the importance of recognising the symptoms as early as possible so that the child’s development can be assisted as quickly as possible. Another study which highlights to importance of recognising the symptoms of and diagnosing autism early on is that carried out by James N. Bouder et al. in 2009 which addresses the comparison between children on the autistic spectrum with children who are of typical development. Bouder et al. clearly state “There is a critical need to identify children with autism at a very young age so that they can access evidence-based interventions that can significantly their outcomes” (Bouder et al, 2009, p 1). Two government bodies – the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are in agreement with this view and have significant increased their spending on autism in recent years, largely in response to the Children’s Health Act of 2000: “CDC’s total funding of autism activities increased from about $2.1 million in fiscal year 2000 to about $16.7 million in fiscal year 2005” (Frist, 2006, p 3). This clear remonstration shows the need for funding and dedication to sourcing the best resources and support for autistic children which will enable them to live a full, active life.
The implication of this concerning the education of autistic children is significant because it means that autistic children, given the right set of resources, can experience the same education and opportunities that their non-autistic peers do. In their 2001 report entitled Education provisions and Support for persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders: the Report of the Task Force on Autism, Drudy et al present a compelling argument for the implication of personalised education for autistic children. Chapter 5 of their report opens with a quote from the renowned developmental psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen: “If children with autism are not given individual attention, they may revert to their own repetitive activities or solitary existence.” (Drudy et al, 2001, 5.1). This clearly means that autistic children must receive a tailored education which best meets their individual needs and utilises tools such as Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to do this. However, the study also goes on to add that whilst autistic children are all different, they do all share some significant common factors which underpin their condition. The inference to be made here is that the core importance for a teacher of autistic children is to understand the individual students as well as having a strong ‘overview’ of the condition as a whole. This can be a big disadvantage to teachers as it requires significantly more work, even if there is only one autistic child in their class; that one child will invariably require more understanding and awareness than the rest of the class combined.
Drudy et al. also address the issue of the classroom as well as the added impact of extra adults within the classroom. They argue for “the absolute necessity of including and supporting parents each step along the way” (Drudy et al, 2001, 3.2.2) and recommend that a specific liaison professional is provided by the school for such a purpose. This individual would provide an advantage for the school on the whole, as well as the teacher who would be able to gain significant insight into the child’s individual condition. The classroom environment is also addressed as requiring behavioural strategies in place: “It is essential that, where needed, behavioural support be readily available in classrooms” and goes on to add that the “cost : benefit ratio with regard to vastly improving the student’s ability to benefit from the educational environment, is great.” (Drudy et al, 2001, 220.127.116.11). The study, therefore, argues the need for behavioural support to be implemented at every level of education so as to best incorporate the autistic child into lessons without upsetting them or their routine and by involving the child’s parents as well. This suggests that the classroom environment is massively important with regard to how effective a lesson can be for an autistic child; if there is not the correct support in place, their behaviour can cause the lesson to be disrupted and for both theirs and their peers’ education to suffer.
The overall opinion of whether academic studies or specified social skills education are more or less important than the other, seems varied and arguably, it depends on the individual child once again. A study conducted by Mike Doyle and Chris Smith, concerning the coalition of autism research and education, presents the idea that “The most commonly documented early developmental concern was for language skills, followed by social concerns.” (Doyle & Smith, 2010, p 30). The obvious meaning of this is that without language or social skills, the autistic child is fundamentally incapable of accessing the traditional curriculum that non-autistic children do. Therefore, it is important that the teacher recognises what is the child’s more immediate need. In the more extreme cases where the child has not developed linguistic or social skills, they may be better suited to a more specialised environment which can best meet their needs. However, if the autistic child is developed enough to be in mainstream schooling, the suggestion is that they should therefore be able to follow the curriculum alongside their peers.
The study will be focusing on measuring the sensory features of autistic children within schools. The term ‘sensory’ refers to their experience of school and will address the children’s experiences of how the classroom affects their learning as well as the advantages and challenges which they provide to their teachers. Equally, the study will also query the parental opinions concerning whether they feel that a traditional academic education is more or less important to their child than linguistic and social skills development.
The study will be carried out using fifty parents of autistic children who come from a wide range of social backgrounds, educational levels and ages. It was determined that fifty would be a high enough number to allow for diversity in the sample. These parents will be recruited through the means of local day care centres, local schools who provide for autistic children, and word of mouth. The parents will be categorised depending on their own level of education, their age and the mental age of their children, according to the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (Mullen, 1995).
Data will be collected through the quantitative process of interviewing the parents of autistic children with regard to the sensory experiences of their child. Because of the nature of the data that will be collected, the interviews will be conducted through a series of open-ended questions (McBurney & White, 2009) which will enable the parents to convey their thoughts without constraints and also allows them to address issues that the set interview questions may not cover (McNeil & Chapman, 2005). The interviews will be conducted at the interviewee’s convenience – either face to face or on the phone, and will address two sides of the same coin: their child’s positive experiences of school and then their negative ones. The interviews will be recorded through audio equipment and analysed at a later date with regard to data pertaining to the specific agenda of the study. The transcripts will be read and re-read to confidently draw conclusions based on common codes that are revealed across the interviews.
Based on my research, I would expect to find quite a mixed response to my interview questions due to the personalised experience of each, individual, autistic child. As seen from my literature review, it is clear that the autistic child requires a certain level of personalised learning as well as a broad understanding of their condition from their teacher. This is bound to vary as it implements the human factor which means that their teacher could be wonderfully committed to the autistic child’s cause and be devoted to providing for their every need or, it could mean that the teacher is struggling to meet the needs of all members of their class which means that the requirements of the autistic child are slightly less prioritised. On this basis, I would expect to notice this difference significantly between institutions which are specifically designed to meet the sensory needs of autistic children when compared to institutions which deal with education on a mainstream basis, meaning that the special educational needs of their students are (although important) less significantly managed. Equally, I would expect to see a differing of opinion depending on which parent is speaking. For example, the more highly educated parents may have higher expectations of their child’s school which may be more difficult to meet, whereas younger parents may be more naïve as to what they can expect from their child’s school and therefore, have lower expectations. Conversely, younger parents may also have a different priority for the type of education their child receives; if their child is younger, they may be more keen for them to receive linguistic and social skills education. There are a number of factors, along the lines of these stated here, that I would expect to directly affect the results of my study. As a result of this, as a recommendation, I may suggest that studies be carried out with the parents of children of a specific age as this would narrow the number of factors down significantly.
Adams, J., Edelson, S., Grandin, T. &Rimland, B. (2004). Advice for Parents of Young Autistic Children. Retrieved on May 22, 2011 from http://www.autism.com/pdf/families/Advice%20for%20Parents%20of%20Young%20Autistic%20Children.pdf
Doyle, M. & Smith, C. (December 2010). Report to Congress on Activities Related to Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Developmental Disabilities Under the Combating Autism Act of 2006 (FY 2006-FY 2009). Retrieved on, May 22, 2011 from http://doyle.house.gov/legislation/2011 01 06 HHS report on RTC on Activities Related to ASD.pdf
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