Including Low-Functioning Autistic Students in the Classroom

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1 Including Low-Functioning Autistic Students in the Classroom After spending some time in my practicum classroom and observing one of my students diagnosed with low functioning ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, my eyes opened to an issue that is most likely prevalent in classrooms across the globe. Although this student is physically in the classroom on a daily basis, he is not truly part of the class. I observed that he is assisted mainly by his support worker and does not have much interaction with his peers or the teacher. I could not help but ask myself, what is the role of the classroom teacher in this situation? Through these observations, I began to wonder how teachers could successfully establish a classroom environment that is inclusive for low- functioning ASD students. I felt that my first step for inquiry was to educate myself about the disorder. Although the term autism is thrown around quite often, I feel that not many people take the time to truly discover what it means to be autistic. First, it is important to point out that most practitioners and educators believe that autism is a spectrum disorder, a group of disorders with similar features, which can range from mild to severe (Pierangelo & Guiliani, 2008, p. 1). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), autism is defined as a developmental disorder significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, usually evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child s educational performance (IDEA, 2004). Dr. Paula Kluth (2003) acknowledges that autism is a difficult term to define because the disability is complex and no two individuals with autism experience it in the same way: if you know one person with autism, you know ONE person with autism (p. 2). In my opinion, this is one of the most important details for

2 teachers to keep in mind when working with an autistic student. As a future educator, I feel it is essential to be aware that a successful program for one autistic individual may not necessarily work for another. After researching autism, I realized that the disorder has many variations in symptoms and behavioural characteristics. Some of the most notable symptoms include impairment in social interactions, sensory problems (oversensitivity to noise or touch), showing resistance to change, exhibiting unusual or repetitive behaviours (hand flapping or rocking back and forth), and impairment in communication skills. That being said, people with autism vary widely in abilities, intelligence, and behaviours, and some or all of the defining characteristics associated with autism spectrum disorders may be observed in a range of mild to severe forms (Pierangelo & Guiliani, 2008, p. 2). For the purposes of this inquiry, I plan to focus primarily on low functioning autistic learners and investigate strategies for inclusive classroom management. In addition to conducting research about autism, I also received quite a bit of information about the student in my class from conversations with his student support worker, or SSW. We discussed this particular student s daily routine, some of his habits, his personal likes and dislikes, and some of his sensitivities. After gaining a better understanding of my student as an individual, I felt more confident and comfortable in my interactions with him. Moreover, I realized that one of the first steps as a teacher preparing for a student diagnosed with autism is to take the time to get to know your student as an individual. A possible strategy for familiarizing yourself with your student s background could be to sit down with support workers and parents and discuss the child s IEP, or

3 Individualized Education Plan. By doing so, together you can develop an adapted program that meets the student s personal and academic goals, and at the same time encourages inclusion in the classroom. Despite the wealth of information and insight about my student that I attained from his SSW, I also felt that I was only receiving one perspective on an issue of great magnitude and relevance to educators everywhere. Therefore, I consulted with two more student support workers who also have significant experience working with children diagnosed with low functioning autism. After consulting with these experienced student support workers, I was able to identify what they consider crucial factors for an inclusive classroom. First, both of the SSW s emphasized the importance of the role of the classroom teacher, stating that the teacher s role is paramount to the success of integration. In addition, they maintained that the teacher sets the tone from the very beginning, noting that acceptance is in the teacher s voice and body language: all eyes are on the teacher and those eyes take everything in. I learned about the importance of developing an adapted program with support staff that meets IEP goals, and dedication to creating an environment where the child feels safe, respected, and a contributing member of the class. Another valuable suggestion was that information about the child s abilities and disabilities needs to be presented to the class, with or without the child present. One of the SSW s explained that the integration teacher or the parents can provide this information and then help facilitate discussion and questions from the other students. The point of presenting information about the autistic student is to validate that this individual is a member of the class, and therefore should have the same respect, rights, and responsibilities as other students.

4 In addition to the pivotal role of the teacher, the SSW s also stressed the significance of socialization between the autistic child, his or her peers, and the teacher, stating that socialization is probably the most important thing one can do for these kids. They claimed that socialization should be and needs to be a priority for autistic children, because it is a skill that these individuals lack and need to be taught. They also made clear that autistic children do not pick up the little nuances that other children usually do, and social interaction with peers can help autistic students gain awareness to conventional social conduct. This is also supported by researchers of ASD, who claim that [i]t is important to recognize that merely placing a student with ASD in the same place as typically developing peers does not ensure acquisition of social and communication...[these children need] regular and planned interactions with peers (Pierangelo & Guiliani, 2008, p. 63). Finally, the SSW s put emphasis on the need for the teacher to set up and implement a program for social interaction in the classroom. In order to implement such a program, it is necessary to interact with parents and support workers. These are great sources for personal information about the student s personal preferences, strengths and weaknesses, or what may set the child off. The two student support workers also provided me with some useful strategies for promoting socialization and inclusion among autistic students and peers. They suggested one- on- one buddy reading, handing out journals or work to students (which helps learning of manners), participating in gym class activities that have been adapted appropriately for the individual, as well as assigning recess or lunch outside buddies who spend time playing on the playground with the autistic child and SSW. However, both SSW s stressed

5 that the autistic student is to be included in all activities and adaptations need to be done in order for integration to be successful. Although the SSW is available for providing ideas or suggestions for inclusion, the responsibility for implementing any adapted programs belongs to the classroom teacher. After conducting my research and interviews on the topic of including low- functioning autistic students in the classroom, I developed some newfound understandings. First, social interaction with teacher and peers is necessary for success in the classroom. Equally important, all individuals diagnosed with autism are different. Being familiar with the student s IEP is essential because each student will have their own specific learning goals that they are striving to meet for the year. This is a major resource for teachers when planning how to adapt or implement programs for autistic students. Finally, the teacher s role is crucial for including autistic student in class. Support workers take the lead from the classroom teachers, and as the leader of the class, it is our responsibility to set the tone from the very beginning of the year when the child enters. Similarly, taking the time to understand what it means to be autistic and familiarizing oneself with the student s background is an essential beginning step to prepare for an incoming student diagnosed with low- functioning autism. In spite of the information and insight I have acquired about autistic learners, I still feel that this issue will always be a challenge for teachers, parents, support workers, and autistic students who enter mainstream education. Deciding how to include these students in the classroom will depend on the individual with low- functioning autism, the specific situation, parents and support staff, and ultimately, how much effort is invested in

6 successfully integrating the autistic child into the classroom. As a future educator, I believe that the first step is to acknowledge this challenge and remain committed to finding strategies for inclusion that effectively serves each child diagnosed with low- functioning autism who enters my classroom.

7 References Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), 34 C.F.R Part 300.8(c) (1) Retrieved Nov. 22, 2011 from Kluth, P. (2003). You re going to love this kid!: Teaching students with autism in the inclusive classroom. Baltimore, MD: Brooks Publishing. Pierangelo, R., & Giuliani, G. (2008). Teaching students with autism spectrum disorders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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