Students with autism sometimes behave in ways that confuse and challenge teachers. Recent reports in the media highlight some of these challenges and, in particular, demonstrate the importance of having an understanding about autism and the impact of autism on learning and participation to avoid potentially inappropriate and harmful responses to students’ behaviour. See http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2011/s3219518.htm http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/05/18/3220120.htm?site=email.
The number of students in Australian schools diagnosed as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased markedly over the past five to 10 years. In NSW, for example, between 2003-2009 there has been a 165 % increase in the number of students with autism attending state schools (www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/47F51A782AEABBABCA25767A000FABEC).
The vast majority of these students are in the mainstream and the vast majority of schools have at least one student with autism. As autism is a complex developmental disability that affects how an individual thinks, learns and experiences the world, there is clearly a need for extensive professional learning and support for all school personnel (see: www.macswd.sa.gov.au/files/links/Education_Options_for_Chil.pdf).
Although no two children with autism are the same, they usually experience difficulties in five core areas - communication, social interaction, repetitive behaviour/ restricted interests, sensory processing and information processing/ learning style
Unfortunately, the behaviour of students with autism is often misinterpreted as simply being ‘naughty’ or ‘non-compliant’ and if teachers and teaching assistants do not have an adequate understanding of autism, they may respond in ways that unwittingly escalate a situation to the point where they feel their only alternative is to use restraint, or to have the student suspended or excluded from school.
Approaches such as positive behaviour support (PBS), provide an evidence-based model for working with all students, including those with autism
Underpinning the PBS approach is the assumption that all behaviour has a purpose or function, and, when working with students with autism, this means that teachers must have an understanding of the specific characteristics of autism and the impact that these characteristics may have on their ability to learn, interact and participate successfully at school. An emphasis on proactive strategies such as explicitly teaching social skills, teaching a more appropriate way to communicate a message such as ‘This work is too hard and I need a break’ or changing environmental conditions to avoid blow-ups is more effective than a reactive approach because preventative strategies minimise the likelihood of minor issues escalating into distressing and sometimes serious incidents
In addition, a good understanding of the potential effects of autism on behaviour significantly shifts the teachers’ mindsets from seeing the student as ‘naughty’ or deliberately ‘difficult’ to one who does not read and experience the world in the way that so-called ‘neurotypicals’ do (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotypical).
The quality of teachers has a significant impact on the educational outcomes of all students (http://www.det.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/105341/Review_of_S...
The fact that even highly experienced teachers report being baffled by the complexity of students with autism
suggests the need for effective professional development that develops the skills, understanding and confidence of school staff to meet the learning needs of these students.
Through the Australian Government’s Helping Children with Autism Initiative, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) has funded a national professional development program for school staff (and workshop and information sessions for parents/carers) of school-aged children with autism known (Positive Partnerships) www.autismtraining.com.au.
A recent independent review of Positive Partnerships ‘found significant evidence that the program increased the understanding, skills and expertise of teachers and other school staff currently working with students with ASD’
A feature of the Positive Partnerships is that face-to-face professional learning is complemented by extensive online resources including facts, practical tips and advice for teachers and other school staff about learning and behaviour
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).
Emeritus Professor Anthony (Tony) Shaddock, University of Canberra