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Supporting students with autism in the classroom: what teachers need to know

Students with autism often need to take a break from the demands of the classroom. from

In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.

Students with autism often present unique challenges to schools, and teachers can often find it difficult to meet their needs effectively.

Internationally, around 1 in 68 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social communication and behavioural challenges.

A recent study found that among the 934 parents who were surveyed, approximately 77% had children on the spectrum attending mainstream schools.

It also found that, in general, teachers only felt slightly confident in their ability to support students with autism, while parents were even less certain of teachers’ confidence to teach their children with autism.

Teachers, then, need to have a better understanding of autism and how it may affect learning. They also need help putting appropriate strategies in place.

Impact of autism on a student’s life

Every person on the autism spectrum is unique and their needs will be reflected differently.

Challenges experienced interacting socially and communicating with others are common among students on the spectrum, and will have an impact on every aspect of their lives.

These challenges can lead to levels of stress, anxiety and depression that are much higher than for other students. Up to 72% of students on the autism spectrum have additional mental health needs.

Classrooms are social environments that rely heavily on being able to interact, socialise and communicate with others effectively. This can intensify the stress, anxiety and depression students on the spectrum may experience.

This can present unique challenges for schools and teachers, with students on the spectrum being four times more likely than their peers to require additional learning and social support services.

Research shows the importance of understanding the link between academic learning and social and emotional competence.

A lack of social-emotional competence can lead to not only a decrease in a student’s connection with school, but also academic performance.

This reinforces the notion that social-emotional learning has a critical role to play in learning, as well as in school attendance, classroom behaviour, and academic engagement for all students.

The heavy focus on academic aspects of the curriculum and the demand for data-driven accountability that schools are required to address often result in the focus on social and emotional learning and mental health being overshadowed or pushed to one side.

Misinformation around inclusion

Inclusion is about being proactive in identifying the barriers learners encounter in attempting to access opportunities for quality education, and then removing those barriers.

It is about meeting the needs of all children to ensure they get a quality education and have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Often assumptions are made that “inclusion” means students need to be in mainstream classrooms at all times. When inclusion is interpreted in this way, students may be unable to access adjustments that adequately address and meet their needs.

The implementation of any adjustments need to be tailored to the students’ individual needs.

Schools also need to be careful not to run the risk of overgeneralising, as students with autism can be as different from each other as any other students.

Students on the spectrum often need time away from other students and the demands of the mainstream classroom. The frequency with which this needs to happen will be based on the individual needs of the students involved, and where they go in these situations would be dependent on the school setting.

Doing this would help them to not only manage the social and sensory challenges of the school environment, but also the stress and anxiety they can experience.

Ideas for teachers

During the survey, students with autism made some suggestions as to how teachers could better support their needs.

They suggested that it would be useful if teachers could help them cope with change and transition by simply reminding them when a change was looming.

They also asked to use a tablet or laptop to help with school work, instead of handwriting. This can help students on the spectrum overcome many of the motor skill difficulties that make handwriting difficult.

Giving students a copy of instructions or information that their teacher writes on the board may also help.

Students with autism can find tasks requiring a lot of planning and organisation such as managing assignments, participating in assessments, navigating learning tasks, and completing homework extremely difficult.

This can have a negative impact on their cognitive, social and academic ability.

Schools could allow older students to take photos of these instructions using their mobile phone or tablet.

Having a quiet space to complete their assessments and getting assistance with organising themselves and the social aspects of school were also raised as important strategies.

How to better support students

There are a number of barriers to providing better and appropriate support to meet the educational needs of students with autism.

These include: funding, lack of knowledge and training, lack of specialist support staff and time, lack of appropriate resourcing and class sizes.

Funding can impact on the amount of resourcing, support and specialist staff available to teachers to help individualise their approach. Funding and resources vary from state to state and school to school.

Teacher training and experience in autism will vary.

In the Australian Autism Educational Needs Analysis, the majority of teachers (89%) and specialists (97.5%) who participated had received professional learning or specific training related to students on the autism spectrum.

Teachers and specialists working in the field need to feel adequately supported to meet the needs of these students, and this support must be ongoing.

The use of flexible and individually tailored educational approaches is crucial. This requires that teachers have an array of adjustments and resource options which can be implemented both in and outside of the classroom environment.

Input from a multidisciplinary team that includes educational specialists and allied health professionals should also be available.

It is not enough to give teachers professional development on autism. They need additional help from appropriate specialist staff to put adjustments in place that fit within the context of their classroom and school.

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