Difficulties of autistic children to integrate themselves

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Autism is a brain development disorder and behavioural syndrome which can impair social interaction and communication as well as learning development among other possible symptoms. These symptoms normally surface before the child has reached the age of three. Autism can be diagnosed according to the autistic spectrum to determine the severity of the condition which includes a range of disorders from mild to major. Autism can be characterised by three different types of disability: one being a very limited range of thought and behaviour with very limited scope for imagination where the individual may carry out repetitive or "ritualistic" actions. This may include focusing on minor details rather than focusing on the main object. For example the individual might focus on a piece of clothing rather than focus on the person wearing it or focusing on a particular part of an object rather than the whole object. Another characteristic is limited verbal and non-verbal communication with very impaired two-way conversational skills. The individual also has a failure to understand emotions, gestures, or the way of thinking of another individual. This may also lead to over-literalness in interpreting something. The final category is a difficulty with social relationships, with an expression of solitude and detachment from reality.

One can measure the severity of the condition by observing the 'autistic continuum / spectrum'. The concept of a 'continuum' of autistic disorders (or 'autistic spectrum') highlights the range in terms of number or severity of symptoms that individuals may experience. At one extreme of the spectrum, there are children who require very specialist care and provision which will most probably continue into their adulthood. At the other extreme, there are children who can successfully and meaningfully be integrated and integrate themselves within a mainstream school environment. This highlights the importance of individual assessment and intervention planning, and the need to avoid making assumptions or generalisations about the behaviours, skills, and prognoses of individuals who share the autism or Asperger's diagnosis.

The nature of the developmental delay in autism has profound effects on how children with autism learn. It also means that each individual will respond differently to learning, and all schools will need to consider how to support an autistic individual's needs most effectively. Schools and classes for children with autism will have devised particular approaches for teaching which correspond to the specific impairments of the autistic disorder. However, this may not be as easy to achieve in classes where there is only one child with autism or in classes that also take in children with a range of different disabilities. Initial concerns about teaching a child with autism within the mainstream classroom may be overcome by encouraging social development. For a person with autism, much of their social skills training has to be taught as it is clear that not all social behaviours are intuitive. Social relationships require communication at many different levels and if these 'messages' are misunderstood then there will be difficulties in relating ideas and interpreting different social situations. In early development, children often behave by doing something which will gain attention and then there is a flow of interaction which follows. Children with autism have great difficulty with shared attention tasks which involve understanding what another person may be thinking. This is a skill which is vital in any teaching situation and highlights one of the main areas of learning difficulty in people with autism.

Education is the primary form of treatment in autism (Roberts, 2003).There is a growing demand for special assistance for those with special needs in education. Two decades ago, most children in mainstream schools would never have encountered a child with special needs as the practice of matriculating special needs children into mainstream education was not common. Today, the trend has expanded to start integrating children with physical and learning difficulties into mainstream schools for as long as possible. Many so-called "special" schools were closed down in the 1980s, as mainstream schools were encouraged to be more inclusive. According to the National Autistic Society Parents now want a range of provision including mainstream schools with resource bases and more schools which caters especially for special needs (Batten, Corbett, Rosenblatt, Withers & Yuille 2006). The report discusses whether parents had a choice whether they sent their children to mainstream or special schools. Over half of the parents who were surveyed by the National Autistic Society stated that they were not given a choice. 33% of parents felt that they were given an opportunity to choose for their children to be in mainstream schools. 59% felt that that once they their children had reached secondary school, their options of choosing school became a lot narrower. They suggest that help for children diagnosed with levels of autism at a secondary school level is lacking. Race and ethnicity apparently plays a role in having a choice or not. Races bar white British families were less likely to have a choice in choosing schools which suggests unfair discrimination. Half of the parents in the survey felt that they were not satisfied with the schools their children were enrolled in. The majority of parents stated that they felt autism-specific special schools were the most beneficial for their children. 43% of parents whose children were in mainstream schools thought that an autism-specific special school would better support their child. The report highlights examples with quotes from various parents including "Mainstream school dismissed any intention of educating my son when they discovered he had autism" (Batten, Corbett, Rosenblatt, Withers & Yuille 2006 p.9). Mainstreaming refers to teaching children with special needs in regular classes with other children. "Inclusion" is a term coined to describe the philosophical argument that children with mental, physical, or emotional handicaps are entitled to receive education in a mainstream environment within the public education sector. The theory of inclusion according to Harmon & Jones (2005 p187), "…. when special education students are included in the regular classrooms, they have greater achievement, better self concepts, and more appropriate social skills than those special education students who are placed together in one classroom". There are different degrees of inclusion. Inclusion itself advocates supporting the argument that the segregation of children by diagnosis or handicap is not in the best interest of the child's development and welfare. Therefore advocates of "full inclusion" argue that children should be integrated into regular education classrooms at all times. Connor (1999) gives a small example in his report that of a description of the integration of an able boy with Asperger's syndrome into a local comprehensive school (Barber 1996) which highlights the critical issues of social skill development, and staff awareness, as well as behaviours exhibited by the boy. He also reveals the importance of parents' constant surveillance over their children so they can be prepared for any sudden intervention.

In a journal report by Philip Whitaker (2007), he conducts a research experiment using surveys for parents asking for their opinions on their satisfaction of their children's education. A majority of these children and young people were educated in mainstream schools and were not attached to any form of specialist provision within those settings. Less than half the parents who were given the questionnaire returned with responses, this was very similar to the response rate of parents whose children were catered for in special schools and autism-specific provision. Results showed that more than half of the participants were either satisfied or very satisfied with the educational support their children receive. However the report also notes the possible problems that could pollute the research findings. For example the parents may not have the experience to judge whether the education and autistic resources are being beneficial towards their children. The parents who described themselves as dissatisfied appear to have concerns regarding many aspects of the provision made for their children as well as concerns relating to their children's experiences and progress. On average these parents disagreed with all but one of the rating items, recording only a very modest measure of agreement with the item referring to their relationship with the school. Parents placed particular importance on gradual confidence in social skills, a clear understanding between teacher and child, and a broad capacity to enable to handle all types of children behaviour, a decent structure for children to be able to follow and to ensure that the child is happy within the study environment. Later in the report, it states that overall parents were worried about their children's social experiences at school. Across all respondents, only half of all children and young people were said to have friends and only one in five of the parents felt that their children were accepted by their fellow peers. Issues during break times seemed to be a particular issue for parents with 70% of them indicating this was a cause for concern. One in ten parents spontaneously mentioned bullying in their response to the open-ended questions and this was an issue that aroused understandably strong feelings. In this context it is perhaps not surprising that their children's happiness was such a prominent issue for so many of the parents.

Another report by Humphrey (2008) states that research indicates that students with an autistic handicap are more susceptible to bullying at school. Furthermore, students with autism are more than 20 times more likely to be excluded from school than those without special educational needs. Children with autism constantly have to fight stereotypes and unfair treatment simply because they are not normal. Singer (1999) argues, the autistic spectrum is often 'associated in the public mind with images of rocking, emotionally cut-off, intellectually impaired children and "RainMan"-like savants' (p.63). The relationships students with autism have with their peers could be both a barrier and an enabler to their successful inclusion in school. In a recent study according to the report, nearly all students reported being bullied at different levels of severity and frequency. One student was reported to say: 'People in my class know about my autism at school that's why they likely pick on me.' If incidents of name-calling and physical violence were 'one-off' events, then they might not be considered unusual - indeed, many students experience one or both at some point during their schooling (Chan, 2006; Smith, 2004). Subsequently bullying and aggression towards these students turned out with more frequency than anticipated. This can lead to the unfortunate scenario of social exclusion. This can lead to a serious problem when an autistic child's behaviour impacts upon another child, such as irritation from the child's constant talking and consequently disrupts the learning environment which creates more unnecessary pressure for teachers and therefore the 'inclusion' technique fails.

There is still a divide on whether inclusion can work in a mainstream environment. While the implementation of such a policy may lead to an 'inclusive' education in that all children are educated together, it is not clear that it would be an education that actually meets the needs of all children with special educational needs. Indeed, this fact has been acknowledged by the initial architect of the 'inclusion policy' (Warnock, 2005). Although there may be an ongoing, and heated, philosophical debate about the concept of 'inclusive' education, it has to be noted that there is an inefficient amount of empirical evidence regarding whether or not such an inclusive policy promotes the most effective education for children with autistic spectrum disorders. There is concern not only for the child's survival in the academic field, but also within the social aspect of the mainstream environment. In 2005, Boutot & Bryant conducted a study about the social integration of students diagnosed with autism in an inclusive classroom. Their results showed that the students with higher functioning autistic disorders were included in everyday classes alongside the rest of the class, took part in these classes and were invited to social events such as birthday parties: treated as if they were just like any of their peers in the class. In addition, more intensive contacts with typical peers might have a positive effect on the social-emotional development of the student with special needs (for example on self-image). However, several researchers have shown there are also risks in this area. Research shows that, compared to typical students, students with special needs are more often teased, abused and ignored in mainstream settings, which is, in fact, harmful to their self-image. Wiener and Harris (1989) describe that students with special needs (in particular students with learning problems) are rejected and neglected by their peers. Research on social acceptance consistently shows that students with special needs educated in a regular classroom are less accepted than their classmates without special needs (Freeman & Alkin, 2000), generally have a social status which is lower than that of their classmates (Coben & Zigmond, 1986).

An article by Glashan, Mackay & Grieve (2004) highlights the teacher's experience of teaching students with autism, albeit in a Scottish education system. The students attend mainstream classes in primary schools. The students, their parents and teachers were identified as requiring additional support from an outreach service, an extension of the provision of a school-based unit for children with autism, which was on the point of being created at the time of the study. The aim of the trio's study was to understand, from a mainstream teacher's point of view, the nature of the support that the outreach service should provide. They state that the current UK educational policy is based on its belief for inclusive education. In Scotland, all children are required to attend mainstream schools bar special circumstances. For the study itself, five different schools in location, type and size were analysed. The aim being to achieve a diverse demography and encompass all ages of the education stages from nursery to the final year of primary education. School 1 was based in a village school that had one student with autism in Primary 6 (equivalent to Year 5 in England). School 2 was a town school that had two students with autism, one in Primary 1 (equivalent to reception in England) and one in Primary 5 (equivalent to Year 4). School 3 was a rural school that had one student with autism in Primary 2 (Year 1 in England). School 4 was a large new-town school that had one student with autism in Primary 3 (Year 2 in England). School 5 was a nursery school that had one pre-school student with autism. All six students in the study were described as having an autistic spectrum disorder, but their personalities varied with each person. Four were classified as sufferers of ASD (Autistic Syndrome Disorders) of Asperger's Syndrome. The fifth showed symptoms of classic autism and the sixth was a severely challenged physically and mentally. Teachers commented favourably on the acceptance of the children with autism by their peers, even at nursery level. However, this acceptance was not as straightforward in all cases: indicating that children may have to learn their own boundaries before they can acknowledge differences. A given example was a Primary 1 class, which was said to take longer than expected to settle and to learn class routines and procedures, because a child with autism was constantly disrupting the learning process of the class. In that case, the child with autism was removed from some situations to allow the teacher to establish clear boundaries, before reintroducing him at his own pace. In this situation the child with autism and his/her respective peer group may experience significant difficulties when an established peer group is changed suddenly without warning, i.e. class shuffling. In the project, that situation occurred in the later stages of a primary school: it has very clear implications for the support of teachers and students, not only in the primary stages, but also in the transition from primary to secondary education.

Another study by McGregor & Campbell (2001) explored the same theme of finding out Scottish teachers' opinions of autistic children studying in a mainstream environment. The study's aims were to assess provision for integration in Scotland and explore the experience and attitudes of specialist and mainstream teachers. It was evident that some degree of integration is widespread and ranges from full integration of able students with mild or moderate autism to partial integration programmes, including some mainstream class inclusion. Although nearly 50 percent of experienced teachers, who were surveyed, agreed with full integration where possible, they were concerned that it would have an adverse effect on some of the children. The busy nature and unpredictability of a mainstream class could be confusing or even distressing and the learning styles of those with autism would not be easily accommodated. Integration would require some reorganisation of conventional class structure and teaching methods which would then possibly hinder the progress of others. The report suggested that perhaps there are two major influences on teacher attitudes: the confidence that stems from being well prepared and supported as well as direct contact with a child with autism. This attitude indicates that wariness amongst teachers without experience of autism may stem from a negative stereotype, which can be noticeably reduced by contact. They list information sessions for school staff as a way to tackle the problem. However the ones who gave responses to the survey were the minority of staff members. Their views may not be representative of wider mainstream staff attitudes and responders may have had a more positive attitude in the first place. When the specialist staff were asked to rate the frequency of behaviours in autism, the results were that the more common behaviours identified were also those that mainstream staff rated as easier to cope with, such as vulnerability and emotional immaturity. Even though experienced mainstream teachers said they would not cope well with screaming or aggression, they did not rate these behaviours as particularly likely to give rise to problems in a mainstream class. Therefore it appears that the behaviours that are likely to reinforce a negative stereotype of autism are actually relatively infrequent, at least amongst those children with autism who are already integrated.

Humphrey & Lewis (2008) compiled a report on the actual experiences of students, who have autism, who attended mainstream secondary schools. They analysed 20 students across 4 secondary schools in the North-West of England through interviews. Teachers, Assistants, Parents and classroom/break time observations were also used in the investigation. The listed objectives included: exploring the personal views of autistic students within a mainstream environment, to log everyday experiences of the students, to identify the practices in the school that are being beneficial or hindering to a student. A total of 20 students with Autism (age ranging from 11-17 years old) participated in the study. These students were drawn from the four chosen mainstream secondary schools in the North-West of England. After initial consent from each school's management consultants, written consent was gained from each student's parents. Individual students were then approached, usually by the researchers and a staff member that knew them well, to discuss the research and to ask for their personal consent. During the research they introduced diaries for students to keep record of their experiences; this was seen as a useful way of getting information which would have otherwise might have been extremely difficult to get hold of. Diaries can facilitate access to personal and intimate information that may not emerge in an interview context. In the specific context of this research, the sensitivity required in research involving students with Autistic Syndrome disorders was taken very carefully into consideration, whose difficulties in social interaction, social communication, and imagination mean that during situations such as one-to-one interviews can produce feelings of hesitancy and anxiety which could force the child into a panic state. Hence, diaries provided a less 'intrusive' methodological alternative to performing a series of interviews that would still produce rich and meaningful data as the individual is under no pressure and can fill out the diary in their own way and time. Ethical considerations were observed for the study.

The results were separated into different analytical themes. The first topic to appear was the concept of what "autism" meant to the individual. The responses were negative and the individuals responded with responses such as "Oh my God I'm a freak", one student's response to when his mother told him he had Asperger's Syndrome. It is believed that the students formulated their own view of themselves and how they deal with Autism through the feedback they receive from others. One student recounts of his frustrations that staff at his school had been notified of his Asperger's syndrome which prompted an uncomfortable and embarrassed response: I'd prefer they didn't know because everyone treats me differently and I don't like being treated differently" (p31). An interesting contrast to the previous response was seen in a subset of students for whom their Autism was simply a part of their own identity. They had grown to accept and even celebrate their differences. As one student commented, "Sometimes I think I am normal, I'm treating this autism very well. I'm top of the class and doing very well and I've got a good future ahead of me and I've got a vocabulary, I've got very good friends." The mention of 'friends' shows how far this particular student has come to overcome differences and integrate himself into the mainstream environment and make a social connection.

Another set of results concentrated on the particular traits of Autism and how it was reacted to within the classroom at school. One example shows a student gaining confidence due to his particular strong and precise interest in certain elements of sporting talents, with his classmates asking him questions on how he is able to maintain strong interest on such a topic. Unfortunately aside from curiosity, it also inevitably leads to incidents of bullying due to the social naivety of the autistic students, making them very vulnerable targets. An example shows how a student took a joke literally and frustrated the individual who started the joke who resorted to verbal bullying which in turn upset the student who had been the original victim of the bullying.

A student's relationship with his/her classmates proved to be a make-or-break factor in his/her integration into the school. Bullying and teasing were experienced at different levels of severity and regularity by nearly all of them. Samples of diary entries revealed that bullying occurred often. Inevitably those with special needs are most likely to be targeted by bullies due to difficulties in social communication and interaction. Depending on the individual, he or she may not possess the character or resilience to shrug off or confront the bullying. However there were instances where it would be counteracted by support from (and often enduring friendships with) fellow peers. There are examples of students who have expressed their feelings through crude drawings (p36). Undoubtedly this type of situation will lower any student's self-esteem and confidence, let alone students with special needs.

The report goes onto talk about the levels of anxiety and stress in school. The school environment itself was a considerable source of anxiety. For the students, order and predictability was what stabilised them through school life, implying any change to a routine would throw off the students. This also possibly shows that children crave structure or something to follow, especially during the younger years. There were some who were able to deal with distractions but for others, it was not as easy to ignore and they felt upset and could not concentrate and therefore could not progress.

The theme of working in conjunction with the teachers also came up. Students reacted differently once again to teacher's assistance. Some welcomed that there was somebody looking out for them, reassured to know that they could turn to someone for help. On the other hand, students could feel the opposite and felt the extra support was only highlighting further the differences between themselves and their peers. This made them more uncomfortable and resentful to the fact that this difference in ability was exposed. The presence of a teacher only helped to impede their attempts to integrate and settle themselves in a classroom. It seems apparent that a teacher's understanding is important, as highlighted earlier in the essay. A lack understanding of individual student's needs and as a result felt less confident to differentiate their work themselves, instead depending on support staff to prepare work for a student. The final key theme to emerge from the study was how the way in which students with autism attempt to understand and assimilate themselves successfully into the mainstream school environment, set against contexts in which they feel both very different from others but also the same, and experience both acceptance and rejection.

In conclusion the argument that autism poses within an educational setting will be inevitably different for every child. Some children are capable of handling general education classes with assistance, while others would possibly benefit better from a self-contained classroom where they are not mixed with mainstream. Students were experiencing adaptations to common ways of working and interacting that seemed to lead to a more positive experience of schooling. It is important to acknowledge though that whilst useful, the children's views and experiences themselves are a part (albeit a significant one) of a larger picture, and any full account of the inclusion process must also be explored deeper. There is often an assumption that because a student with an autistic disability is academically able, he or she should be able to cope in mainstream school. However, as demonstrated in the current research, difficulties in social communication and interaction experienced by such students are likely to increase their exposure and vulnerability to bullying and social isolation which can lead to depression. Having teachers that are aware and are able to deal with children with autism has a huge bearing on whether the children are able to settle themselves amongst their peers. The parents must also be vigilant in order to choose the correct schools and to also detect when their child is unhappy and is not benefiting from the learning environment. Whether they are in mainstream or special schools, children with autism and Asperger's syndrome must be taught in an environment that is autism-aware and responsive to the needs of individual children by teachers and support staff who have received sufficient high-quality training in the educational and behavioural implications of autism. Even given a suitable environment, the success or failure of a placement relies greatly on the level of specialist support available for each individual child. Each child will face challenges of educational and social integration, whether they have high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, or a low-functioning autism with accompanying learning difficulties. This prospect is of particular concern: the familiar routine and friendly environment of many primary schools is comforting for children with autism, whereas the requirement for independence and more vigorous surroundings at secondary level can prove greatly challenging to their behaviour and self-esteem whilst trying to integrate themselves at school.

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