As time goes, we are slowly evolving to become a more inclusive society. More children with autism are coming into mainstream classrooms to learn and work alongside their neurotypical peers. While this has many benefits for them, we cannot deny the struggles and difficulties that they as well as their parents and educators will go through. While some educators are equipped with the knowledge and skills, there are still many who are not. In addition, the student-teacher ratio in the classroom may make it necessary to have an additional assistant teacher to help in lessening the workload (Emam & Farrell, 2009), which may not be a feasible measure for some schools; theoretically, schools can always look into sending their staff on courses to widen their skills, especially when working with children with autism, or hiring more staff to divide the workload accordingly, but not every school possesses the necessary budget to afford these measures. Nevertheless, while there may be challenges in the inclusion of children with autism in mainstream classrooms, it is not impossible at all.
To help you with the integration, here are some tips for including children with autism in mainstream classrooms:
Get to know the child and those in their support system
According to Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory, children’s development is affected by the factors in their immediate environment, namely their families, peers, teachers, and others, as well as the linkages between those factors, like the relationship between their parents, teachers and principals. For children with autism, it also includes a multidisciplinary team involved in their development, such as doctors, psychologists, allied educators, and therapists. Mainstream school principals and teachers will be able to know and learn about the child more when they work collaboratively with everyone within the child’s support system. Everyone should be in tune with the child’s goals (usually planned out by the multidisciplinary team and parents), interests, sensitivity to specific stimulations, and so forth. For example, if the child is working towards a goal like ‘reading and understanding a short story comprising of 100 words’ and has a deep interest in trains, teachers can incorporate trains into the short story during class activities. With consistent communication, teachers can also exchange suggestions with the rest of the team to ensure the child is able to learn and work comfortably in a mainstream classroom.
Be flexible in adjusting your teaching style
Everyone has their own individual way of learning. Children with autism often learn visually or kinesthetically (Earles-Vollrath, Cook, & Ganz, 2006). Thus, they learn better using visual guides or through hands-on activities that allow them to manipulate an object directly. For example, teachers can use a picture of objects that children can look and point at, get them to draw objects on paper, or provide them with blocks to hold on to for practicing counting during numeracy activities. In addition, children with autism have varying levels of audio processing and communication - some may be able to comprehend verbal instructions swiftly while some may not catch distinctive words that would need to be emphasized (Schopler, Mesibov, & Hearsey, 1995). When giving verbal instructions, sentences should be simple and clear. At times, they may need to be repeated, or shown with examples or hand gestures, as the child may need time to process and understand the instructions. For instance, if the child is speaking too loudly, a typical instruction such as, “Can you lower your volume? You’re disrupting the class,” can be confusing. Instead, try using, “Let’s use our inside voice. Your friends are also using inside voices.” Of course, the concept of inside voices will first have to be introduced in this case. You can also introduce more direct instructions, such as “Let’s speak softly.”
Create a comfortable environment
Being in a new environment can be hard for children with autism. It is important to let them have the time to get used to the school and classroom, especially for the first few weeks. While in a new environment, transitions can add to the overall discomfort as children with autism often have difficulty with sudden changes or when they have to move from one activity to another (Sterling‐Turner & Jordan, 2007). Visual guides, like a visual schedule with pictures or a checklist, can be used to ease transitions. A visual schedule can be placed onto the child’s table or where easily seen whenever they need a reminder. They can also interact with it by ticking or crossing off an activity whenever they are done.
Moreover, some children may be sensitive to certain stimulations that can act as a disturbance and may cause them to react strongly. Such stimulations commonly include bright lights, distracting noises, and more depending on the individual. You can help by decreasing sensory stimulation through removing the sources of disruption, adjusting positions within the environment, or giving the child time and space to calm down should it be necessary.
There are endless opportunities for socialisation in the classroom – be it through class discussions, group work, pair work, turn-taking, and queuing up. Consistent interaction with others poses many benefits for children with autism like improving their social functioning skills which in turn improve cognitive functioning and increase the chances of forming meaningful relationships with others (Adreon & Durocher, 2007; White & Roberson-Nay, 2009). As the relationship between teachers and children with autism play a major role in the social acceptance of these children by their peers who do not have autism, it is important for teachers to set a good example to prevent bullying and encourage positive interactions and relationships (Humphrey, 2008). Teachers can have class activities where they discuss social situations like bullying or being kind through videos. Activities where the student is asked to engage, for example, getting them to have their own stand on if the model was right or wrong, and letting the children have their own time to add in their input can be helpful.
Strategic sitting arrangement is also another way of encouraging socialisation and getting the child to feel comfortable in the classroom. The child can be placed in front where teachers can prompt immediately with ease when needed or even next to assigned peer buddies who are open and willing to help. Apart from encouraging more interactions between children with autism and their peers, it also teaches children who do not have autism to be empathetic, patient, tolerant, and socially responsible (Bowe, 2004).
All in all, the inclusion of children with autism in mainstream classrooms may seem like a tedious task, but it is possible and beneficial for everybody. Even though most of the tips are mainly suggested towards educators, they are also helpful for parents to consider when discussing and suggesting to their children’s educators. The inclusion of children with autism into mainstream classrooms does not primarily rely on educators, but everyone in the child’s life.
With that, I hope we can progress further into accepting and encouraging neurodiversity as well as building a more inclusive society.
Written by Alisha.
Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279. doi: 10.1177/10534512070420050201