EDUCATING CHILDREN WITH AUTISM WITHIN THE REGULAR EDUCATION CLASSROOM
The increase in the number of children with autism and the range of abilities they harbor has brought with it a host of questions and concerns on how to provide them with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 and 2004, the emphasis on educating students with ASD in the general education setting has increased dramatically (Yell, 2003). When a child is placed in a special education program, there is a presumption that it is a temporary situation. Being placed in a special education classroom is not badge of distinction for the child or parent. As a matter of fact, if parents suspected that, once identified as having special needs, their child would be permanently tracked into special education, it is very unlikely that they would be so eager to sign them up to receive special education services.
When students with disabilities such as autism are kept out of the mainstream of normal school life, it underscores the differences between them and their typically developing peers. Inclusion receives considerable support because it has been found to result in gains in social development (Shreibman, 2005). Learning to function with various types of people in more complex group settings offers important benefits to students with autism. As a matter of fact, researchers have found that, when compared with those enrolled in self-contained programs, students who participated in inclusive programs improved as much or more in the area of social competence (Fisher & Meyer, 2002). Support for inclusion is also based on reports of positive academic outcomes.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion is a movement designed to bring special education services into the general classroom. This is a significant change from the traditional practice of having students receive special services in resource rooms or self-contained special education classrooms and then return to the general education classrooms without special education support. Inclusion has become increasingly popular, because the law calls for all "children to be taught alongside with their peers to the extent that it is appropriate".
However, inclusion has different meanings to different people and it is often used interchangeably with the terms "mainstreaming". Mainstreaming refers to the "reentry of children with mild disabilities into regular education settings" (Bricker, 1995, p. 181). Children may be mainstreamed for part or all day, and they may or may not received any special education supports or services in the mainstreamed environment. Inclusion, on the other hand, indicates that children with special needs are in the regular education classroom all day. In inclusion, all children learning together in environments that provide special services, supports and supplements for all children as needed and are guided by well-trained professionals from the fields of education.
Many parents and teachers believe that the best placement for their children is in a general education classroom. Many believe that all children have the right to be included in general education classrooms. A substantial body of research supports the effectiveness of inclusive practices for children with disabilities and children who are developing typically. However, there are countless examples of students with special needs included in the general education classroom without success.
Arguably just because inclusion should be made available to all students, it does not mean that it is appropriate for all students. This is a decision that must be made case by case. However, inclusion is not an end in iself. The goal of inclusion is that children with disabilities be able to participate fully in general education. Educators must support the child's full participation in the environment and his or her social integration with typically developing peers. Careful planning precedes the implementation of successful inclusion programs. Inclusion will not work if teachers are coerced to comply of if special and general education teachers are not given the time they need to consult one another. Children with autism or other disabilities do not learn from osmosis. They should not just be expected to "follow the curriculum" but to "learn the curriculum". Their inclusion must be carefully orchestrated.
In order for it to work, and to increase the developmental progress and social competence of the students for whom it is said to be appropriate, several ingredients must be in place:
What is the difference between accommodations and modifications in the classroom?
Accommodations are adjustments made in how a student with a disability is taught or tested. Accommodations do not change what the student is taught or what he is expected to know. Common examples of accommodations are: highlighted textbooks, extensions of time for a student who writes slowly, or seating close to the teacher.
Modifications change the level of instruction provided or tested. Modifications create a different standard for the student receiving them. The most common modifications are those made to the general education curriculum for a student with a cognitive disability. When used, curriculum modifications should be written specifically in the studentís IEP and not left to interpretation by different individuals.
In order, for inclusion to be effective, the teacher must first understand the students' needs.
Learning Characteristics of Autism
It is important to remember that autism, particularly in the area of cognition, is characterized by uneven rather than simply delayed development. This means that it is common for a child with ASD to show "splinter" skills, appearing to be highly capable in some tasks (i.e., math computation) but unable to follow simple routines independently or carry on a conversation. These discrepancies in skill development should be viewed as an opportunity to build on a child's strengths and extra abilities in one area while assisting them in improving or functioning more independently in other areas. Learning characteristics of autism include:
Silver, Strong and Perini (1997) theorized four basic learning styles: the understanding styles, the self-expressive styles, the mastery styles and the interpersonal styles. The understanding style learner is comfortable with abstraction. He tests well and learns through reason and questioning. the self-expressive learner relies more on feelings and emotions. Metaphors, aesthetics and discovery appeal to this style of learner. The mastery-style learner is a concrete learner who prefers information presented in a sequential, step by step manner. Practical and hands on applications work well with this type of student. The interpersonal style learner likes social conditions. He is oriented towards others and he also likes concrete, palpable information. The student on the autism spectrum is a mastery-style learner.
AUDITORY ENGAGEMENT Students demonstrate auditory engagement by following verbal instructions and by responding to questions from teachers and students alike. However, students with autism harbor deficits with communication and often find it difficult to comprehend language and/or process auditory input. As a result they miss verbal cues. Unable to keep up with the pace of instruction they often withdraw from the instructional material altogether. Teachers of students with autism all agree that their students have difficulties listening and following instruction, most especially during large group inclusive activities. In that situation, auditory focus cues such as ringing a bell or rhythmic clapping, that cue the whole group to become silent can be given to gain students' attention before instruction is delivered. Additionally, music has been found to help individuals with autism attain both behavioral and communication objectives (Kaplan, Steeve, 2005).
Students with autism also have difficulties attending to stories read aloud because it requires their attention and connection to something they find difficult to visualize what is read and thus to attend to the story. Marks et al. (2003) recommended providing students with their own copy of the materials, thereby enabling them to turn the pages and read along with the teacher. However, this is not always possible in inclusive settings where two copies of the materials are not necessarily available. To increase students' engagement, one could easily devise teacher-made books that reflect the story's main concepts and that could prove to be effective in maintaining the focus of students with autism.
USING SONGS TO FACILITATE TRANSITIONS. When teachers transition from one activity to another, the likelihood of misbehavior increases. Such transitions times can be especially6 difficult for students with autism, as they require shifts in attention and behavior, A song indicating that it is time for a change in activity may help gain students' attention. By selecting songs for common transitions, for instance, students learn what transition is occurring, where they are to go and what they are to do. The song must consistently be associated with the same transition for the strategy to be effective during the acquisition phase of learning to comply with transition requests. Teachers can measure the effectiveness of this strategy by documenting the level of prompting needed or length of time required by the students to complete the transition.
USING SONGS DURING LISTENING ACTIVITIES. To be successfully included in the general education classroom, students with autism must be able to participate in group activities, such as circle time and story time. These activities require higher level listening skills that are difficult for some of them and may result in inattention and possible self-stimulatory behaviors. To maintain engagement throughout such activities, one helpful tactic is to intersperse brief songs within verbal instruction, especially when the student with autism seems to be "drifting" off task.
For instance: Tommy, a 5 year-old kindergarten student, was more interested in talking about his favorite movie than attending to the circle tine activities, Knowing that he enjoys music, his teacher began singing the days of the week before discussing the calendar with the class. Throughout circle time, she continued introducing the next topic using songs. Tommy's attention level increased as noted by the frequency and duration of his eye contact and his on topic responses to questions that were not related to his topic of interest,
Students demonstrate visual engagement by looking at instructors or/and maintaining contact with their peers. Students with autism, however, might choose to fixate on inappropriate stimuli which hinders their social engagement a prerequisite to social interaction and academic independence. Visual engagement is particularly difficult for students with autism and their inability to sustain eye contact compromises their social integration. Visual aids have been demonstrated to elicit a higher level of appropriate social and academic behavior on a variety of tasks (Quill, 1995).
IDENTIFYING SALIENT INFORMATION.
Children with autism tend to find it difficult to shift their attention from one stimulus to the other (Landry, Bryson, 2004). In addition they are unable to filter information that is irrelevant in order to focus on the main topic. Given that general education classrooms tend to be more visually complex than more restrictive settings such as self-contained classrooms, this impairment may significantly interfere with students' ability to participate successfully in inclusive settings. It is recommended to highlight salient information.
For instance: Joey had difficulty focusing on the information the teacher was discussing from the bulletin board as he had difficulty filtering out the irrelevant information. The teacher modified the calendar bulletin board so that the days of the week and months of the year were printed on cards and attached with Velcro. When discussing each topic, for instance "today", "tomorrow" and "yesterday", she removed that card from the board and presented it to him. The teacher repeated this procedure each time the topic changed and found that Joey required fewer redirections and responded to questions and instructions more appropriately.