Educating Students on the Autism Spectrum: Approaches to Education

— Autism Society
Updated on Jul 28, 2009

The determination of an appropriate educational approach for students with autism must be based on the needs of each individual child. Careful assessment by a team of professionals in consultation with parents or guardians will help determine an appropriate educational program for each student.

Highly structured educational setting with appropriate support and accommodations tailored to individual needs. The educational program should build on the interests of the child and use visuals to accompany instruction.
When necessary, it should incorporate other services, such as speech or occupational therapy, to address motor skill development and sensory integration issues.

Children with ASD may be educated in classrooms partially or fully integrated with typical peers, in specialized classrooms within the regular school, or in a specialized school for children with special needs. Higher functioning
individuals may be mainstreamed (included with peers without autism) for all or a portion of their school day. Others may require placement in a special education setting to receive an appropriate education.

To be effective, any approach used should be reviewed and evaluated frequently. It also should provide a smooth transition between home, school, and community environments. Essential to an appropriate educational program is ongoing training of teachers, as well as support systems for parents and guardians to help the child to generalize learned skills to all settings.

Increasingly, children with autism are entering the school system after participating in an early intervention program.
These programs vary, but most concentrate on the development of communicative, academic, social, and life skills to prepare the child for his or her school experience. The “Resources for More Information” section at the end
of this booklet includes several publications on early intervention programs and other teaching methods for children with autism.

Students with Autism in the Regular School Environment

Until IDEA mandated that all children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” most children with autism were educated in segregated classrooms or schools where they had little interaction with children without disabilities. Fortunately, today children with autism have more opportunities to learn side-by-side with peers who do not have autism, and they benefit greatly from daily exposure to age-appropriate social models.
Classmates without disabilities also benefit from their experiences with students with ASD, developing a compassion for and an understanding of children with special needs. Their self-esteem is boosted by the
positive role they take in helping a friend with autism learn.

Parents and professionals may use terms such as inclusion or mainstreaming interchangeably to describe the participation of students with autism in the regular educational environment. In some instances students with autism attend school with their age and grade peers. Some may receive all their instruction in a regular education setting with support services brought to them. Others, when it is determined appropriate to meet their individual needs, might be “pulled out” to another educational setting to participate in certain educational experiences.

Interacting with children with autism at school can be a very enriching experience for all involved. Integration of a child with autism into the school community may help address the core deficits children with ASD have in social and communication development. Research indicates that exposure to peers without autism, if carefully planned and organized, may enhance social and communicative development, elevate self-esteem, and allow for opportunities to learn from positive role models in the classroom, on the playground, and in the community (Wagner, 1998).

Collaborative efforts to provide such a learning environment give teachers and school administrators the opportunity to work with professionals rom other disciplines, such as speech pathology, occupational therapy, behavioral management, and special education. Teachers can play pivotal roles as creators ofan accepting environment in the classroom and developers of mentoring and buddy systems to assist the child with autism.

Classmates in the regular education environment can enhance their own self-esteem, and their compassion and understanding of those who differ from the norm, by serving as peer models for behavior, communication, and socialization. Research has shown that acceptance of the child with a disability increases significantly when classmates receive information about the student with special needs and when they are given the chance to act as
“peer tutors or buddies” with the full support of their teacher (Goldstein & Ferrell, 1987; Goldstein & Wiskstrom, 1986).

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