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Teachers in one school district expressed a strong desire to improve inclusive education for students with autism spectrum condition (ASC), yet acknowledged feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at times. Teachers participated in discussion groups orchestrated by a research team based at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The project included 34 teachers from elementary through high school with varying levels of teaching experience. The cohort emphasized the need for applied experiences for pre-service teachers and collaboration among general educators, special educators, and parents to support student success.
Fernanda Orsati, an associate clinical researcher at the Hussman Institute for Autism who was not involved with the research, agrees that the challenges associated with inclusive education can be daunting for general education teachers—but one more training may not provide a “magic solution,” she said. “It’s a lot more about problem-solving every day and being creative.”
Teachers in the UNC study longed for greater knowledge about ASC in general, as well as specifics about each of their students. Teachers bemoaned the complexity and length of Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and wished for condensed versions describing each student’s distinctive characteristics and accommodations. Special educators in this study expressed that IEPs focused almost exclusively on academics at the expense of social development, but that imbalance may not be widespread. According to Orsati, finding a balance between academic and social goals and including family input is the key for successful IEP implementation.
If parents could provide an “introduction to my child” sheet at the start of the school year, teachers felt it would improve and hasten the support they provided.
Orsati encouraged increased communication beyond September. “There is a need for school/home communication more often,” she said, “and that could help the work that’s being done be extended to home and the other way as well.” Most teachers today have email, and some even hand out their cell phone numbers to parents, which facilitates quick exchanges on a regular basis.
But supporting students on the spectrum goes well beyond getting to know individual students. Teachers expressed that a culture of tolerance among all students was important to reduce bullying of students with ASC. Teachers were also distressed that students who engaged with their classmates on the spectrum were often ostracized by their peers. Acceptance and inclusion of all students would facilitate friendships between neurotypicals and individuals on the autism spectrum, which is proven to be mutually beneficial, said Orsati. In addition, teachers believed close collaboration among all stakeholders in the education process would help create an accepting community-wide culture.
One thing teachers can do to build community is employ more collaborative learning methods. That gives students more opportunities to work with classmates who are different from themselves and learn about their needs. “It’s more organic than we think, and kids step up really nicely” to support their classmates with special needs, Orsati said. “Peers are very intuitive.” Individual strengths are also valued in a group learning setting.
“It’s more organic than we think, and kids step up really nicely” to support their classmates with special needs, said Fernanda Orsati, associate clinical researcher at the Hussman Institute. “Peers are very intuitive.”
In Orsati’s experience, it can help to have students with disabilities give a short presentation at the start of the year about their needs. “It clears out a lot of questions that people have,” she said. If that’s not possible, “Without calling names, you can just talk about difference and accepting difference in general,” perhaps by reading literature that includes a variety of characters. Not talking about difference is the worst thing you can do, Orsati cautions. By not talking about difference, “it becomes taboo,” she said, which results in students being uncomfortable with difference, leading to exclusion.
Teachers also lamented the lack of applied experiences with students on the spectrum during their pre-service training. They wished they knew more about individualized and differentiated instruction, which they could apply to a wide swath of students—not just those with ASC. In response to that need, colleges around the country, including Orsati’s alma mater Syracuse University, are gradually incorporating special education training into all teacher education programs. “That is essential to inclusive education,” she said. “If every teacher could teach all kids, you would not need special ed, and that’s the goal.”
Colleges around the country are gradually incorporating special education training into all teacher education programs.
That doesn’t mean some students won’t still need extra help to succeed in an inclusive classroom. “A lot of students do benefit from one-on-one support” from classroom aides, Orsati said, but these aides are woefully underpaid and undertrained. Providing higher-quality in-class support and school staff that work to support a variety of learners, not just those with disabilities, could improve the school experience for all students.
The volunteer participants in this study were clearly interested in helping their students with ASC succeed in school, both socially and academically. The needs they expressed suggest changes in pre-service teacher training are necessary, as well as major cultural shifts in schools. These will be long-term changes and may not come easily. But there are things parents can do along the way, such as sharing “tips and tricks” regarding their children or pushing to get social elements in an IEP, to help teachers support all kids.
The research article is published here:
Able H., Sreckovic M.A., Schultz T.R., Garwood J.D., Sherman J. 2015. Views from the trenches: Teacher and student supports needed for full inclusion of students with ASD. Teacher Education and Special Education. 38(1):44-57.
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