By Anastasia Alenova
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterised by a group of neurobiological disorders with long-term implications. Diagnostically, impairments include social and communication deficits, repetitive behaviour and atypical response to sensory input (Ashburner et al., 2008). This puts significant weight on the children involved and their families and limits the accessibility to educational services (Vismara et al., 2010). With a large increase of children with ASD in the past 10 years, there is a growing need for emphasis on the inclusion of children with disabilities in schools (Finke et al., 2009).
The inclusion of ASD children in classrooms has benefits for not only the ASD students themselves, but also for the parents, teachers and classmates. According to a study conducted by Finke et al., certain participants felt that ASD children inclusion provided opportunities for social interactions with typically developing peers who developed a sense of responsibility and acted as positive role models of appropriate behaviour. Parents of ASD children also felt more integrated within the parent community at the school. However, certain ASD students felt overstressed by the irregular classroom routine and abundance of background noise. This required teachers to spend considerably more time planning lessons and having to work in noisy environments, as ASD children were more likely to make noises or speak to themselves in such scenarios (Finke et al., 2009).
Studying in classrooms with their peers may also be challenging for ASD children due to a discrepancy in academic abilities. Nation et al. evaluated reading skills in ASD children. Most component skills used in reading, such as world recognition and text reading accuracy, were within average compared to typically developing students. However, reading comprehension was impaired and test scores for the other reading skills varied wildly from individual to individual. This may be strongly correlated to the severe language impairments characteristic of many ASD children. The heterogeneity of reading skills needs to be recognised, as reading may serve as an educational intervention tool (Nation et al., 2006).
However, the variance in academic performance in ASD children is mostly related to poor attention to cognitive tasks. The educational progress of children with ASD can be heavily affected by their limited capacity to self-regulate emotional and behavioural responses. This behaviour seems to be mainly triggered by maladaptive responses to the classroom’s sensory environment and can be explained by the auditory filtering difficulties present and sensory seeking behaviour. In other words, ASD children have difficulty processing verbal instructions in noisy environments. This is further enhanced by the slow ability of attention reorientation between visual and auditory stimuli. Thus, children with ASD typically prefer static and predictable repetitive stimuli, such as objects over social partners. Since classrooms are complex sensory environments, this presents an increased sensory challenge. To enable comprehension and inclusion of ASD children, the use of visual stimuli when giving instructions and the simplification of the sensory environment, such as increasing the predictability of activities and reducing the pace of new information presentation, is recommended (Ashburner et al., 2008).
Despite the challenges, the education of ASD children should not be sacrificed, as the classroom may serve as a strong intervention tool. To influence individual behaviour, ranging from communication to social and academic skills, it is key to assess the influence of environmental events. Behavioural changes may be triggered by changing environmental interactions. Recently, more naturalistic treatment approaches have been preferred, as they manage to address a multitude of behaviours, with ASD children emitting less disruptive behaviour and greater improvements in verbal attempts and word production. Such an approach can be embedded into existing activities in multiple settings such as teaching during childrens’ ongoing play activities. The goal of these approaches is to help the children with ASD feel that they are interactive individuals. It is also primordial to focus on teaching communication as it strongly correlated with reduced problem behaviour. Furthermore, teaching non-verbal social communication is important for development of more complex cognitive skills and should be focused on earlier (Vismara et al., 2010).
Inclusion of ASD children in education settings requires significant support and cannot function without full coordination of support and educational services. To ensure success, it is recommended to communicate and collaborate with parents, while maintaining a positive outlook on inclusion (Finke et al., 2009). Interventions for children with ASD are scientifically multifaceted, and research needs to determine which areas of development to target in order to yield greater changes in learning rate over time. Involvement of audiology and speech-language pathology experts is required to better understand information processing in ASD children. Many studies are heavily limited by the small participant pool and the large variability in a number of variables. However, better understanding of the core features related to the sensory processing of information in children with ASD may promote more effective classroom inclusion and enable access to education for children with other developmental difficulties such as hyperactivity (Ashburner et al., 2008; Vismara et al., 2010; Nation et al., 2006).
Ashburner, J., Ziviani, J. & Rodger, S. (2008) Sensory Processing and Classroom Emotional, Behavioral, and Educational Outcomes in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 62 (5), 564-573. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18826017. Available from: doi: 10.5014/ajot.62.5.564
Vismara, L. A. & Rogers, S. J. (2010) Behavioral Treatments in Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Do We Know? Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 6 (1), 447-468. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131151. Available from: doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131151
Finke, E. H., McNaughton, D. B. & Drager, K. D. R. (2009) “All Children Can and Should Have the Opportunity to Learn”: General Education Teachers’ Perspectives on Including Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder who Require AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication. 25 (2), 110-122. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07434610902886206. Available from: doi: 10.1080/07434610902886206
Nation, K., Clarke, P., Wright, B. & Williams, C. (2006) Patterns of Reading Ability in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 36 (7), 911-919. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16897396. Available from: doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0130-1