New research suggests that understanding the needs and behaviours of children with diagnoses on the autism spectrum is the most important element for teachers in supporting them in mainstream classrooms.
Doctoral candidate Libby Macdonald of Griffith University and The Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC) believes there is accumulating evidence to suggest that students with diagnoses on the autism spectrum can be successfully included in mainstream classrooms if given appropriate support.
However, she said, while specific teaching strategies may prove helpful, the best overall approach to supporting the students, their teachers and other students in their classrooms was to promote an understanding of autism-related behaviour.
Ms Macdonald said that with Autism Awareness data indicating about 73 per cent of students on the autism spectrum are enrolled in mainstream schools in Australia, the focus should be on ensuring all teachers and students are supported in an environment where it is recognised that students on the autism spectrum have the same rights to an education as other students.
“There is evidence that all children benefit from having students with disabilities in the classrooms,” Ms Macdonald said.
“They can learn more about other members of their community, and become more understanding and tolerant by witnessing and contributing to the care and support of children with different needs.
“If there are concerns about the impact of having students with disabilities in our classrooms, perhaps the focus should be on providing additional teaching and professional development resources rather than singling out a student or group of students.”
Ms Macdonald said that strategies designed for use in special education settings were not always feasible for teaching children on the spectrum in mainstream classroom, but that researchers could work with teachers to develop effective support strategies.
“Mainstream classroom teachers may not have training or professional development in supporting children on the autism spectrum,” Ms Macdonald said. “Yet without this knowledge, they may be unable to identify the needs and characteristics of the children in their classrooms and design and implement the appropriate tools.
“Teachers can support their students on the spectrum in staying on-task or moving easily from one task to the next, by recognising and working with the preference some students have for predictability and routine.”
In her recently published research, Ms Macdonald used a case-study approach to investigate how teachers might use and adapt established strategies to support students in their own classrooms.
She worked with an Australian primary school teacher to create visual schedules and task checklists to help students understand what was expected of them and when, and when and how to move to other classroom tasks.
Ms Macdonald said this stage of her research was not designed to measure the effectiveness of the tools themselves, but to demonstrate the possibilities of “participatory research” in mainstream classrooms for other similar intervention studies.
“The use of a single case trial like this one can form the basis of further discussion about ways in which research projects can be tailored to educational settings, making research more relevant to mainstream contexts, and preparing researchers for the many possible challenges that they may encounter,” she said.