Over the past two decades, worldwide the focus has shifted towards a social justice and equity-based approach to education. In 1994, UNESCO’s Salamanca conference gave recognition to the need to work towards ‘schools for all. The Salamanca Statement and framework for action, which was endorsed by the representatives of 92 countries including Australia, urges governments ‘to adopt the principle of inclusive education, enrolling all children in regular schools unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise’ (UNESCO 1994, p. x).
In Australia, the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA), mandates that students with disabilities are given the legal right to enrolment in regular schools and classes (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992). The Disability Standards for Education, 2005, further reinforce the right of students with disabilities to inclusion in the regular school curriculum and seek to ensure that students with disability can access and participate in education on the same basis as their non-disabled peers.
As a result of these endeavours, the number of students with special education needs (SEN) studying in inclusive settings has increased, however, ‘the limited research in this area has indicated that their experience of school is often marked by bullying, social isolation and anxiety’ (Humphrey and Lewis, 2008). One group of students which is considered to be ‘difficult to include effectively’ (Humphrey and Lewis, 2008, p. 132-133) is students on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
ASD is ? lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them (National Autistic Society, 2014). It is a spectrum condition which means that even though there are commonalities in symptoms, there is a wide degree of variation in the way in which individuals are affected. Most students with ASD, who do not suffer from intellectual disability, attend a mainstream school in Australia.
Those who have intellectual disability or display challenging behaviours are usually taught in segregated settings in mainstream schools or in Special schools. Even though the students on the higher functioning end of the ASD (referred to as AS herein), also known as High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Disorder, have average to high intellectual and linguistic abilities, they still have difficulties in social communication and interaction (Humphrey and Lewis, 2008). Factors to exclusion
Managing educational needs of students with ASD and managing their behaviour is acknowledged as a challenge to educators in Australian schools (Ashman & Elkins, 2012). Poor understanding of AS by teachers and fellow students, along with the social, behavioural and emotional difficulties encountered by students with AS, make them especially vulnerable to exclusion both inside the classroom and elsewhere in the school. It is assumed that since the students with AS are academically able, they should be able to cope in mainstream schools (Moore, 2007).
However, there is no clear difference between AS and classic Autism (Tony Attwood, 2013) and they are part of the same continuum (DSM V). Regardless of their intellectual abilities, ‘all individuals on the autism spectrum share a common difficulty in making sense of the world’ (Humphrey, 2008, p. 41) and have a ‘preference for routine, predictability and low sensory stimulation’ (Humphrey and Lewis, 2008, p. 133).
Other factors that pose barriers to inclusion of students with AS re lack of whole school commitment to inclusion, issues relating to classroom organisation and layout, withdrawal practices to provide additional support and inability of the school to provide a suitable environment. Inclusive strategies to enhance participation Kelly and Lyons support the view that to achieve inclusion, schools need to cultivate and develop a supportive social milieu (Kelly and Lyons, p. 71) and proactively embrace a culture of inclusion of all students including those with additional needs. It is also imperative that schools provide an environment suitable for the needs of those with AS.
An average school, particularly a high school, has a noisy, bustling and often chaotic environment (Humphrey and Lewis, 2008, Moore, 2007), which can be a source of significant anxiety and cause for overload of stimuli among students with AS. Humphrey (2008) suggests that schools could provide some quieter places where students could retreat during unstructured times if they feel the need to do so. The teacher is the decisive factor in the classroom and therefore, teacher attitudes and their ability to meet the needs of students with AS are very important.
Two Australian studies researched teacher attitudes towards inclusion of students on the autism spectrum. A quantitative study (Hay & Win, 2012) with teachers (n=81) and students with High Functioning Autism Spectrum disorder (n=32) in one particular mainstream school and a qualitative study (Soto-Chotiman et al. , 2012) with 12 Western Australian primary school teachers who had recent experience of teaching a student with ASD in a mainstream class, reported a supportive attitude of teachers towards inclusion but found teachers to be a lacking confidence in their ability to teach this group of students.
Despite their commitment to inclusive education, teachers lack necessary training and support to adequately cater for the needs of the pupils with AS (Humphrey and Lewis, 2008a, Robertson et al. , 2003). Professional development and additional training in the needs of AS can increase teacher’s self-efficacy and confidence in their capacity to successfully teach students with AS in the inclusive settings (Hinton et al. , 2008, Ross-Hill, 2009).
Tobias (2009) also emphasised on the need for the teachers to have ‘a sound basic knowledge of the key characteristics of the condition’ (p. 156) as well as a good understanding of the individual students. Teachers can also use many strategies inside the classroom which can facilitate the inclusion of students with AS. Many students with ASD are visual learners and benefit from visualbased learning (Dorminy et al. , 2009). It is also important to give consideration to the seating of students with AS.
Students with AS can have sensitivity to strong light and certain sounds which can affect their ability to focus on their learning (Attwood, 2013). Teachers also need to set high expectations of students with AS and not have any pre-conceived notions based on labels (Humphrey, 2008). Every student with ASD is a different individual, and teachers need to look beyond the label, such that pupils do not become ‘defined by their diagnosis’ (Molloy and Vasil, 2002, p. 661).
In addition to their deficits, students with AS also have a number of strengths that the teachers can build upon. Students with AS are generally talented in understanding the logical and physical world (Attwood, 2007). Many students have highly developed memorisation skills (Wing, 1981) which help with learning of basic facts, particularly at the primary or elementary level. Most students have special interests in particular topics (Attwood, 2013). Teachers can use these interests to motivate the students by adapting the curriculum materials. Parent and student perspectives
Many researchers feel that in order to make research more relevant to those that it intends to benefit, it is important to listen to the voices of those who have been marginalised and make them active participants in the research (Erten and Savage, 2011, Nind, 2014, Rojas et al, 2011). Listening to the student voices can have significant implications for both nning and practice. Humphrey & Lewis (2008a) and Saggers et al. (2011) have conducted small scale qualitative studies that have explored the experiences of students with AS in inclusive settings.
Both studies found that characteristics associated with AS, posed difficulty for students with AS in mainstream settings. Whereas Saggers et al. (2011) found that noise and crowd were significant factors that students had difficulty with in the inclusive settings, Humphrey & Lewis (2008a) found social naivety to be a trait that made students with AS vulnerable to teasing. Although both studies looked at student experiences in the school, Humphrey & Lewis (2008a) also examined how having a diagnostic label applied to them, affected the students’ self identity.
Students generally talked about AS in negative terms as it brought to them the notions of being different and ‘not normal (Humphrey & Lewis, 2008a, p. 31). Students also did not like to feel different from their peers. Tobias (2009) conducted research with both students with ASD in the mainstream and their parents. It was found that students benefited from having an adult mentor at school, who could help the students with ASD with the social aspects of the school life. Parents valued having a good communication with the staff and approachability of the teachers.
Conclusion Even though the students with AS have the intellectual abilities to perform well in the inclusive settings, failure to plan for strategies to facilitate effective inclusion can make it difficult for this cohort to thrive in inclusive settings. It is clearly evident from the research that the there is a need to thoroughly understand the learning needs and carefully observe the preferred learning styles of each individual student with AS. Only then the appropriate strategies can be determined to facilitate their effective inclusion.