Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is, at its heart, a processing disorder. And while the students with ASD face a variety of challenges depending on where they fall on the spectrum, even those considered high functioning have difficulties with pragmatic social language and understanding social interactions. So, when educators mainstream students with ASD and hope that they will learn how to interact in the classroom just by watching their peers, the educators are setting up the students for failure.
Nina Finkler, a learning consultant with years of experience working with students with ASD, says success comes when schools actually acknowledge the different needs of students with ASD and set up individualized supports throughout their learning career. In her edWebinar “Meeting the Needs of Students with ASD within the Mainstream Classroom,” Finkler outlined the biggest challenges with mainstreaming and key strategies for helping them thrive in their new environment.
First, before even considering placing a student with ASD in a mainstream classroom, Finkler advises asking why the student is being mainstreamed and what the goals are for the student. In other words, students shouldn’t be in a mainstream classroom because that’s all a school has or it’s an overall goal for the school. Students have IEPs for a reason, Finkler reminded the attendees. They need individual accommodations to reach their learning potential, and while mainstreaming may work for some, it is not the best educational environment for all.
How can teachers better support students with autism in the mainstream classroom?
Once in the mainstream classroom, students with ASD will face challenges particular to their disorder, like sensory issues and understanding abstract learning. However, the biggest core challenge is often overlooked: comprehension of language. Although many students with ASD may seem overly verbal, the amount of verbal output does not always equal complexity or comprehension. Coupled with the fact that the majority of students with ASD are visual, not auditory, learners, the typical amount of classroom communication could be overwhelming.
Similarly, educators often overlook that students with ASD have trouble with generalization. They don’t have an innate capacity to take a skill from a specific subject or task and apply it broadly to other classroom tasks and behaviors. Unrealistic expectations from teachers and staff can often lead to frustration when the student does not perform as anticipated.