Special Education Needs and Inclusion for Autistic Children
The Philosophy, Principles, and Practice of Inclusion for Students with Autism
Autistic children form the largest category of students with special needs in the UK and the U.S from the time the disorder was included in the 1990 IDEA (Individuals with Disability Education Act). After the disorder was added to the IDEA, the number of children that met the criteria to be diagnosed with autism grew from 5,000 to more than 118,000, and the numbers are constantly growing (Pappanikou 2). The increase in a number of children with autism has been caused by two factors, which includes the expansion of the criteria used to diagnose autism and its definition, which has seen a number of disabilities and presentations included in the spectrum. For a child to be diagnosed with autism he/she must meet three basic criteria, and these include lack of social skills, poor communication skills and limited interests and behavior (Pappanikou 2).
The growth of the number of children with autism has elicited debates on how to provide public education to these children in an environment that is supportive and less restrictive (Pappanikou 3). This has led to the development of several teaching approaches and these have included teaching techniques that focus on specific areas such as individual skills, physiological processes, and relationship development. Moreover, the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 in the U.S placed emphasis on inclusive practices, which is, allowing autistic children to learn together with other students (Pappanikou 3).
One of the principles that educators have adhered to when teaching children with autism is the principle of social justice. This principle is a fluid concept that is difficult to define, but scholars have examined the principle from a communitarian and individualistic approach. From an individualistic perspective, the principle of social justice concentrates on the life experiences and the position of children with autism (Wiele Vander 4). At the individual level, the principle of social justice concentrates on the entitlements, freedom, and eliminating the inequalities that autistic children experience. From a communitarian perspective, the principle of social justice seeks to address the shared beliefs in communities about justice and living, and to most people, this entails eliminating the injustice in education settings (Wiele Vander 4).
Studies have shown that most children with disabilities have been subjected to some form of educational discrimination. Some of the most common types of discriminations these children encounter include discouragement from joining regular schools, restrictive conditions of enrollment, limited access to school services, bullying, and harassment (Chaaya 10).
The second principle that guides the inclusion of autistic children within the regular learning environment is “teaching functional skills”. Functional skills have been considered aids that benefit students with autism immediately or in the future. To most students, being exposed to the traditional curriculum gives them the necessary skills that are important in pursuing higher education (Forlin et al. 7). However, to students with autism and other learning disabilities, the traditional curriculum may not address their needs as they may struggle to cope to implement the social skills they have learned. Some example of non-academic functional skills that student with autism and other disabilities can be taught include travel skills and money handling skills (Winter and O’Raw 3).
The third principle that guides the education of children with autism and other learning disability is providing a least restrictive environment. In most cases, children with autism spend their free time in diverse environments within the community. If these children are to acquire skills that enable them to function in these environments, then they may need to spend lots of time in regular classrooms (Wiele Vander 4). The classroom or segregated education setting may not inculcate the necessary skills these children need because they prevent students with special needs from accessing the experiences found in regular classes. In addition, including children with disabilities in regular classrooms provide teachers and other students with an opportunity to develop a positive attitude on disability and discover the capabilities of children with disabilities (Wiele Vander 5).
The practice of inclusion for children with autism and other special needs entails modifying the learning environment in order to take off their special needs. Modifying the learning environment requires the modification of four key components, which include physical organization, visual schedule, work systems, and task organization (Wiele Vander 6). Physical organization refers to the setup or layout of the learning area that is crucial for inculcating functional and academic skills. Visual schedule enables students to know the nature of learning activities they are supposed to undertake. Work systems provide the nature and the type of work and activities students are supposed to engage in visually. Lastly, task organization provides information accompanied by task-specific actions such as the steps the students are supposed to follow (Wiele Vander 6).
An inclusive teaching practice for autistic children involves the consideration of all the challenges students and their families face. The most important aspects of inclusive education for students with autism entails the development of communication skills, engaging in leisure and social interests, and encouraging students to engage in more learning activities (Wiele Vander 7). The main principle or philosophy behind inclusive education is that autistic children and students with special needs should learn with regular students. The basic principle that should guide inclusive schools is that all students should be taught together, in spite of the existence of any learning difficulties. Inclusion, therefore, implies that schools should consider the needs of all pupils and appreciate diversity (Wiele Vander 7).
UNESCO has identified four important elements of inclusion that should be observed. One of the principles deals with the inclusion process whereby educators are urged to constantly search for better ways of teaching and taking care of children with learning disabilities. The second element of inclusion according to UNESCO is identifying and eliminating barriers (Wiele Vander 8). This can be achieved through collecting and evaluating data from different sources in order to enable improvements in teaching practices and policy. The third principle of inclusion is making sure that all students perform well, take part in class activities, and are present all the time. The concept of presence deals with issues of the environment in which children are educated, and how often they attend and participate in class activities (Wiele Vander 8).
The concept of participation deals with the quality of the experience children undergo during the learning process and it is important to consider the views of students. Achievement focuses on the outcome of the education process as opposed to raw results. The concept of inclusion places emphasis on addressing the needs of learners who may be marginalized in the learning process (Wiele Vander 8).
Causes of Underachievement and Barriers to Learning for Pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autistic children have a different rate of development, and they do not acquire skills like others do. For instance, children with autism will only use a few words by the time they are 12 months old, and they may only learn a few words every month. A child with autism may start combining words to form short phrases when he/she is 3 years old (Ludlow et al. 702). Some children with autism may be able to name their own body parts but may fail to recognize the same body parts if they see them in pictures (Raising Children Network 1). Apart from affecting the rate at which a child develops, autism spectrum disorders may also affect the course of development and interaction with people. Autistic children may fail to respond to their name, establish eye contact, smile at their parents, or tell others goodbye without being told to do so (Raising Children Network 1).
Children with autism spectrum disorders may also fail to use eye contact and gestures such as pointing to attract people’s attention and engage them is social interactions. These skills are crucial in developing language and communication skills, for instance, if a parent holds a picture of a cow, and the child is not paying attention, it makes it difficult for him to establish the association between the word “cow” and its pictorial representation (Raising Children Network 2). Problems with attention also make it hard for autistic children to acquire social skills like taking turns, attaching meaning to the facial expression, or adhering to the topic of discussion. All of the above challenges acts as barriers that prevent children with autism from learning and results in underachievement (Raising Children Network 4).
Autism also affects the ability of children to learn by affecting their understanding. Studies have shown that children with autism find it difficult to understand things from other people’s perceptive. These children may experience difficulty understanding that other people may hold desires and beliefs that are different from their own (Nag and Snowling 2). Autistic children have difficulty in predicting the behavior of others, in addition to comprehending how their behaviors affect others. The challenges children with autism experience may make them develop specific or general learning problems. Autistic children with general learning difficulties will experience a challenge in acquiring literacy and numerical skills that are appropriate for their age (Nag and Snowling 3).
Children with autism also have difficulty with regulation and control and this affects their learning because they struggle with time management, memory, organization, attention, frustration, and emotional control (Webb et al. 4). The aforementioned abilities are used by people in performing daily tasks such as giving priority to things and cooperating with others (Ekins 5). Challenges with these difficulties affect the ability of a child to learn, for example, when dealing with the arithmetic problem, the child may have facts in his/her tips but may fail to produce a solution. This is caused by the fact that the child cannot arrange ideas and condense all the information acquired to solve math problems (Ekins 6).
Autistic children also have a problem with “seeing the big picture” and this affects their ability to learn. Instead of condensing all the information to understand the entire concept, children with autism may be confused by facts given to them. For example, if a child who can see the big picture is shown a picture of trees, the child will conclude that it is a forest. On the contrary, a child with autism may only see many individual trees (Northamptonshire’s Special Educational Needs Descriptors 33).
How to Promote Organizational Culture and the Best Practices in Teaching and Learning to Improve Outcomes for Autistic Children
Inclusion is a philosophy and not a tangible thing, and this means that schools need to come up with inclusive curriculums that address the diverse needs of students. When schools come up with a learning environment that encourages inclusion, students from the diverse background will feel that they are part of the school and this encourages them to take part in classroom activities, and these enhance their productivity (Wiele Vander 21). Promoting an organizational culture that encourages inclusion means that the school environment should be structured while bearing in mind that diverse groups of people will be using the school environment. Nevertheless, making the school environment all-encompassing is just the initial step towards integration because full inclusion means that autistic children and regular students should have skills that will enable them live and learn in an inclusive environment (Wiele Vander 22).
The skills that schools should inculcate to assist them to live and learn under an inclusive environment include knowledge needed for social interaction, supporting each other, cooperating, strengthening, and complementing one another. The concept of universal design has been proposed as the best approach to ensuring inclusion in schools (Wiele Vander 23). This concept was borrowed from architecture, and it refers to the construction of structures or buildings that take into account the needs of all users. In education, the concept of universal design has been used to advocate for the employment of technology in teaching that enables flexibility to adopt learning styles that cater for the differences among students (Wiele Vander 23).
Scholars have taken the concept of universal design further and applied it to education and other learning settings to cater for the diverse needs of students. For instance, the utilization of organizational approaches such as cooperative learning creates the flexibility that is needed to deal with the learning needs of diverse students including those with disabilities such as autism (Randi et al. 890). Project-based and other practical learning activities also avail the needed flexibility that can be used to ensure inclusion by addressing the individual needs of students. On the same note, community-based teaching approaches ensure flexibility to accommodate all students. For example, if a teacher uses the community as the setting of instructions, students can learn complex scientific and mathematical skills, while students with a disability will acquire extra skills such as how to cross the street safely (Randi et al. 891).
As mentioned earlier, autism is a term that has been used to refer to a spectrum of disorders that are highly prevalent in the developed world. Scientists have not developed a cure for autism, and this means that the only option these students have is being instructed using effective and appropriate teaching and learning strategies (Randi et al. 892). The full inclusion of autistic children in education requires the elimination of all the barriers in classrooms, modification of instruction methods, and the provision of the necessary services and support. According to Marder and Fraser (8), inclusion is the most effective approach because it provides students with learning disabilities with the opportunity to develop functional skills such as performing daily routines and socializing with other children in an appropriate manner within authentic settings.
One of the commonly used methods of instructing autistic children is ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). This teaching approach concentrates on supervising students learning abilities by instructing them on specific tasks that are manageable until the children master them and they form the foundation for developing further skills (Virginia Department of Education 16). Through the ABA the child, acquire skills that assist them to naturally learn from their environment. Some studies have found that the ABA is the best approach of instructing children with autism because it has the best outcome for children. Moreover, the ABA can be applied easily in self-contained instructional setup (Virginia Department of Education 17).
On the contrary, the ABA has been criticized for being very restrictive and structured, and this makes it difficult to implement the approach in the general classrooms. Some critics have opposed the ABA on the basis that it makes children act like robots. However, instructors and teachers who have used the approach have stated that it is effective in instructing autistic children, especially in the area of language. Lastly, ABA has been criticized for being too rigid, and this makes the approach strenuous if used within the family setup (Virginia Department of Education 18).
A second model that can be used to instruct children with autism is the DIR/Floortime Model (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Model), which is an interdisciplinary model that has gained popularity in instructing children with autism. This model uses a challenging, but a child-centered method of instruction that relies on exposing the child to playful friendly experiences. The approach assist teacher, parents, and therapists to learn about the strength and weaknesses of a child, which makes it possible to create instruction strategies that are suitable for the child while encouraging emotional and social development (Virginia Department of Education 18). The main aim of this approach is creating foundational relationships that improve a child’s skills in areas such as communicating and establishing social bonds with significant others. One of the advantages of the DIR/Floortime model is that is that it can be easily implemented at home, and it enables improved emotional and social functioning in addition to information gathering (Virginia Department of Education 18).
The DIR/Floortime Model concentrates on the interests of the child and emotions in order to assist in achieving higher levels of intellectual and emotional functioning. Every autistic child faces unique problems and this means that the approach used to instruct them should be tailored to fit the unique needs of the child (The Thompson Foundation for Autism 71). For example, if an autistic student likes machines and tractors, then it would be effective to teach such a student math by making him/her count tractors, or read about excavators, cranes, and steamrollers in order to learn a language. The DIR/Floortime Model and other related approaches are meant to assist autistic children in establishing cordial relationships that will enable them to interact with other people (The Thompson Foundation for Autism 71).
In the DIR/Floortime Model, clinicians, teachers and parents involve the student through interaction using content that matches their intellectual level, listening to the child, and motivating him to engage in social interaction, form an emotional bond, and grow intellectually. This model takes into account all the needs of a child and addresses them through a comprehensive approach (The Thompson Foundation for Autism 72).
The third approach that is effective in instructing autistic children is play therapy. This technique is good because it allows students to interact and connect with people close to them such as teachers and parents, environment, and objects, and it is one of the challenges autistic children face. Just like the DIR/Floortime Model, play therapy as a method of instruction focuses on the interests of the child in coming up with personal intervention strategy (Kansas State Department of Education 40). However, up to date scholars have not agreed on the definition of the concept “play”. The most commonly accepted definition was proposed by Erikson in 1950, who defined it as a “function of the ego, an attempt to synchronize the bodily and social processes with the self” (Kansas State Department of Education 40).
Some scholars have defined play “as intrinsically motivated, freely chosen, nonliteral, actively engaged in, and pleasurable” (Kansas State Department of Education 41). From the perspective of play therapy, fun is not the main objective to be achieved. Play therapy has been known to be effective in teaching autistic children because the play is inherently complete, and this means that students taught using this approach will not need external motivation in order to learn (Kansas State Department of Education 42). Play therapy integrates different treatment approaches that entail the systematic use of theoretical models in coming up with interpersonal therapies whereby trained clinicians use play to assist the child avoid or resolve psychosocial challenges. Play therapy provides autistic children with an opportunity to grow and develop intellectually and motivates the child to take part in playful activities as required for healthy development (Davis and Florian 28).
From the above definition of play therapy, it can be concluded that it is meant to make the child have fun; become competitive intrinsically; be person-oriented; be non-instrumental; be flexible/variable; and develop a natural flow. This approach has proven to be effective in instructing autistic children, but it has been criticized for ignoring the concept of inclusion (Davis and Florian 29).
Another instruction method for autistic children is social stories, which is designed to address social skills problem that is common, and manifested in terms of communication problem (Davis and Florian 29). Social stories as a teaching approach were used for the first time in 1993 to assist address the challenges autistic children encounter. Currently, there is no concrete evidence to support the effectiveness of social stories, but scholars agree that they provide useful information and concepts that can benefit children with learning problems and those without (Davis and Florian 30).
Autistic children normally struggle with face-to-face conversation and utilization of social stories that capture certain social factors have proven to be valuable intervention. Children with autism have trouble with pragmatics that gives them problems during conversations, especially when expressing their needs (Randi et al. 894). Scholars have observed that social stories are effective in describing the situation under which a behavior takes place, captures the perspective of the characters involved, and establishing the guidelines for appropriate behavior for children. Social stories have been found to be successful in instructing autistic children because of the capability to provide visual representations of the solutions students need for specific problems (Steiner et al. 9).
Autism spectrum disorder is the most prevalent learning disability that affects students in the western world. The high prevalence of autism has made policymakers come up with measures to enable the inclusion of these children in the public education because interacting with other students assist them to learn social skills. The key philosophy that guides the inclusion of children with autism in the classroom is social justice. The principle of social justice demands that all the inequalities and discrimination autistic students face should be done away with. Autistic children have difficulties with learning because they cannot communicate effectively, be attentive, and understand the concepts being taught. This is why autistic children need special curriculum and mode of instruction in order to learn. The current methods used to instruct autistic children, such as the ABA, DIR/Floortime Model, and play therapy, have proven to be effective due to the fact that they facilitate children’s emotional and intellectual development. However, more studies should be done to further improve the methods.