An inclusive educational environment is essential for every autistic person to socially succeed in the classroom. However, many autistic children who learn in integrated classrooms — classes with both autistic and non-autistic students — face barriers to fitting in with others. Here are some of the educational barriers that prevent autistic people from flourishing with their peers, as well as solutions to break those barriers.
Teacher approaches toward autism
In Craig Goodall’s 2018 study about autism inclusion in mainstream schools, he found that all 12 autistic students he interviewed had endured negative social experiences in education. Most of the participants shared a sense of dread about going to school, of loneliness and isolation, and experiences of being bullied.
These students believed their experiences would have been better if their integrated class teachers approached their needs more sensitively. One participant described their ideal teacher as one who would listen, who understands the unique genuine sensory and social challenges that autistic people face.
As for tangible actions that teachers should implement, participants had a bevy of great suggestions, such as:
- "Providing social activities to try to help the person with ASD to be an accepted member of the class/year group."
- "Providing a quiet area in class for those with ASD who need some time out [from social overload]."
- Providing extra time for autistic students to socialize.
Lack of teacher training and resources
One of the biggest barriers towards student social success is the lack of disability-related training that teachers receive. After all, teachers cannot help autistic students if they don’t have the basic information they need to do so. A 2013 study showed a 30% increase in students with disabilities who are enrolled in integrated classrooms from 1989 to 2013. Integrated classrooms, if executed appropriately, can be a great opportunity for autistic students to have the same social experiences as their non-autistic peers.
However, general education teachers, also known as teachers who teach classes designed for non-autistic students, might not have been given training for this change. Mader noted that "many teacher-education programs offer just one class about students with disabilities to their general-education teachers." It is imperative that districts give teachers free, easy-to-access training to help autistic students be integrated in the classroom. If possible, districts should also change their teacher qualifications to include multiple disability-related courses.
Kaitlyn P. Wilson and Rebecca J. Landa concluded in their 2019 study, Barriers to Educator Implementation of a Classroom-Based Intervention for Preschoolers With Autism Spectrum Disorder, that additional barriers besides teacher preparedness stand in teachers’ way. Teachers can face challenges in effectively training, managing, and working together with support staff. They have to deal with insufficient administrative support, understanding, and training. Finally, few teachers have enough of the helping hands, time, or material resources they need to properly implement special instruction.
Luckily, Wilson and Landa laid out solutions for some of the above issues. For example, educators can simplify their special education strategies so that their limited time is used wisely. They can improve staff coordination by building team planning time into training workshops and by creating a resource-sharing website. They can invite administrators to these workshops as well as give them documents that align special education strategies with Common Core standards. If educators can make these simple fixes, they will be more prepared to give autistic students the social supports they need.
Student attitudes toward autism
A 2017 study written by Noah J. Sasson, et. al. found that non-autistic students make snap judgements about autistic students and proceed to seek out interactions with autistic students less often. These judgements are made within seconds, and once non-autistics have made their opinions about autistic people, they are inflexible about changing their opinions.
A solution to this could be educating students about autism so that it is not so unusual or foreign to them. They may be more open to interacting with autistic students if they understand them better.
Here are some resources for teaching children about autism:
- Kit for Kids (Organization for Autism Research)
- Teaching Kids About Autism (FamilyEducation)
- Reading Rockets – Kids and Autism Awareness (PBS Kids)
- Teaching Autism Acceptance (Anabaptist Disabilities Network)
- Autism Acceptance Month Resources (Arlington Public Schools)
If teachers can use simple strategies to support autistic students, improve staff cohesion, and enhance student understanding of autism, autistic students can truly feel included in their school communities.