Autism is one of the top primary five severely developmental disorders that occur in the human race. As according to the National Autistic Society of Malaysia (NASOM, 2012); it is stated that autism is a form of permanent and long lasting brain disorder in which definitely affects one's learning abilities, language communication as well as having a tremendously effect on the mental, emotional and social development growth of the child. As per say with the presence of this developmental disability, the autistic child will not be able to communicate and interact effectively with family members and also the society or community; thus resulting the child to have difficulties in forming relationships with the people around.
Autistics or autistic children always interact differently or against the norms of the society to the world around them so much so that their behaviours and actions are considered bizarre to those who are normal. In other words, autistics are practically living in their own world. Poor social interactions, repetitive or restrained behaviours along with language and communication delays or deficits are the major characteristics that define a person with autism (Durrleman & Zufferey, 2009).
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This is a type of developmental disorder whereby the range of its mode and severity changes from individual to individual. NASOM (2012) further stated that an autistic child can experience mild symptoms such as functioning normally-well in an educational classroom with the specialized equipments and services. Nevertheless, at some times; the child could also encounter some sever symptoms for instance, being institutionalized or confined and being silent or 'mute'. Simon Baron-Cohen (DK Publishing, 2012) believes that autistic children lack the Theory of Mind (TOM).
Basically, autism is a development spectrum disorder which occurs in the brain that affects the person's abilities in communicating, forming relationships with people and subsequently responding accordingly to the outside world. People having this condition or disorder will show repetitive behaviours, obsessive or narrowed-down interests and they will eventually find difficulties in interacting socially (Schoenstadt, Autism, 2008). An autistic child is unable to connect and relate to the surrounding people inclusive of the members of the child's family (Bishop, 1989). In spite of the fact that the intellectual aspect of the autistic child will be affected, the intellectual abilities of each autistic child vary from each other (Schoenstadt, Language Development in Autistic Children, 2006).
1.1.1 Impairment of social communication. When the social communication among those who have autism is involved, it does not mean that it is just about the speech, pronunciation, articulation, grammar or vocabulary; it is also with reference to how the language is being used to communicate with others (Tommey & Tommey, 2011). The main diagnostic criterion for autism is the language impairments or language delays. As according to Durrleman and Zufferey (2009), there are three characteristics in identifying the language impairments of those with autism; they are "(1) late or lack of development of language without attempt to compensate with gestures, (2) impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation, and (3) stereotyped, repetitive, and idiosyncratic language".
1.1.2 Impairment of social interaction. Social interaction impairments include the basic problems dealing with understanding, initiating and developing personal relationships, ranging from turn-taking interaction to those cooperation ones (Tommey & Tommey, 2011). The lack of recognized social skills results in a deficiency in the social realm that is necessary to befriended someone or to understand the complex demands of others. The impairment of social interaction also includes the understanding of the others' expectations, needs and wants. Sometimes the autistics want to initiate and establish a relationship; however, they just have no idea on how to do it.
1.1.3 Impairment of imagination. Imagination impairment is often classified by the specialists as the inflexibility or rigidity of thoughts and having the lack of play. People with autism have difficulty to comprehend abstract thought formations such as adapting to the change in environment or anticipating an event (Tommey & Tommey, 2011). The implications of imagination impairments are often being manifested as the crucial problems of bringing into the mind. Autistics have metathesiophobia, which is the fear of change and they have a high level preference for sameness and uniformity. In short, those with autism have restricted interests and limited play.
Focusing on teachers or special educators from the various special education schools in Malaysia, this research studies the teachers' behavioural attitude, perception and awareness of the language development in the English Language - which is the functional academic field among autistic children.
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Statement of the Problem
Language development and communication are always the hot topic for psycholinguists as well as speech therapists when the subject is narrowed-down to autism. Yes, there have been studies done on the differences of expressive language and sentence comprehension between the autistic and the normally-developing children; nevertheless little information is obtainable and accessible regarding the parallelism of the language development pattern between these two groups.
One of the primary unanswered and still pending questions in relation to autism and language is to apprehend "if the patterns of language development found in autism parallels that of normally-developing children with a substantial delay, or if language is disrupted in a more fundamental way" (Durrleman & Zufferey, 2009).
Throughout the years, there are studies and researches done on the language impairment among the autistic children as well as books and magazines published as a practical guide for the parents and teachers to help autistic children to improve in terms of language acquisition and communication. Although many of the researches conducted were based on the Western countries such as the United States and Britain, the studies based on the autism in Malaysia were considered inadequate. Needless to say, little is known on the perspective or the viewpoint of the special educators in regards to teaching special education with structure syllabus in the context of Malaysia.
Objectives of the Study
The main objective of this research study is to assess a significant number of special educators in the various special education schools in Malaysia, with the purpose of determining the attitude, perception and awareness of the special educators towards the language development pattern in English of those autistic children. On top of that, this research also seeks discussion as to determine the presence of parallelism of language development pattern among the autistics and normal growing children. Basically, this research is to study the response of the educators towards the syllabus and the language development of autistic children.
Another significant objective of this research paper is to provide a guideline for the special educators and to bring forth recommendations or effective ways (if any) on the methods of teaching in which will be able to strengthen or improvise the syllabus and teaching materials for schools to be used in the autism education.
Significance of the Study
The significance of the research study is to uncover the attitude and perception of the special educators towards the language development pattern in English Language among the autistic children. Likewise, the evaluation of the attitudes towards the current syllabus written for special education schools will be stated as well. Not to forget, the perception or what the special educators perceive and are aware of the language development of English in autistic children will be taken into much significance.
This study will discover whether is there any parallelism of language development pattern between autistic and normally-developing children. This study is of importance to the special teachers or other educational staff as well as speech therapists in order to understand children with autism better in terms of language development pattern and language acquisition. There will be new ways of helping and giving children with autism a better and brighter future as well as increasing their intellectual competency granted that this study is successfully carried out.
This research study will cover the three key areas in regards to special educators in teaching children with autism in terms of language development pattern of English Language. The three key areas or the research questions are as follows:
What are the attitudes of the special educators towards the current syllabus teaching for the children with learning disabilities?
What are the special educators' perceptions in regards to the language development pattern of autistics in terms of learning English?
Are the special educators aware that there is a possibility of parallelism in terms of language development pattern between autistic and normal-developing children?
As written in (DK Publishing, 2012), one of the most influential and prominent theories is the Theory of Mind (TOM) by Simon Baron-Cohen. This theory of Baron-Cohen's is supported by his own observations in relations to the sex differences in the brain in which provided a proposition that autism is one way or another an extreme mode of the male brain. As Premack and Woodruff (1978) defined in their seminar paper, TOM is the ability to impute cerebral states to oneself as well as to others. It is also the competency of making inferences regarding what people believed in, along with allowing one to figure out what they would do. TOM is in fact the ability to interpret other people's actions and emotions; in which Baron-Cohen believes that people having autism are lacking of this feature. Thus, they are unable to perceive people's intentions and assess the state of the minds. According to Chin and Bernard-Opitz (2000), due to the lack of TOM, children with autism are unable to adhere to the conversational rules, thus; showing inappropriate topic shifts and turn takings. All in all, people with autism would be unable to assign beliefs and intuitions to the other party as to predict their behaviours (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).
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One of the major limitations encountered during the research process was the classification of the children with different language disabilities in the special education schools. The special educators that were entrusted with teaching a class will have a combination class of autistic children, Down syndrome children and Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) children. The special educators were not able to assess each individual due to the fact that the special education schools do not separate the children into the different classes according to their learning disabilities, ultimately having children with different learning disabilities and with different level of intellect grouped together into a class. Therefore, the observations done for this research may not be accurate as the classes are not entirely filled with children with autism.
Another limitation lies within the small number of participants, which are the special educators. They were selected from the various special education schools in Kuala Lumpur, to with the special educators have experience with both the autistic and normally-developing children. Therefore, the findings obtained from the research may not be generalized to the whole population of special educators in Malaysia.
Definition of Key Terms
1.8.1 Autism. Autism is one of the subdivisions of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) in which affects the normal development of the brain in relations to communication and social skills (DK Publishing, 2012; Brealy & Davies, 2006). People with autism are called autistics and they may have poor communication as well as interacting skills. Interacting socially with people have autism can be said to be a challenge as many of them either partly fail to converse and speak or simply show little or no interest in others.
1.8.2 Language Development. Language development simply means "the process by which a child begins to understand language and communicate" (Penn, 2012). Basically, it is how the child develops and acquires a language. Children who acquire or develop a language also eventually know the methods of combining sentences into larger unit of discourse (Hoff, 2009).
1.8.3 Parallelism. Parallelism is the extent to which English or any other language that is taught in both normal and special education schools are on par with the syllabus.
1.8.4 Special Educators. A special educator is a teacher who is directly involved with children with learning disabilities such as autistics, Down syndrome children and hyperactive kids. Sometimes known as special education teachers, they are those who provide day-to-day teachings and instructions as well as other supports for those students with disabilities. In this research, special educators are meant as qualified teachers who have the experience of teaching both normally-developing and those children with learning disabilities.
It was back in the days when autism is considered as a rare condition or disorder whereby the occurrence of having an autistic child is five out of 10,000. Nevertheless, the rate of autisms skyrocketed and now "the numbers are staggering, indicating a rate of 1 out of 88 eight-year-old children" (ARI, 2012).
Although this statistics report was done in the United States, however, the rate of autism in Malaysia is increasing tremendously as well. There has been both government and public concern regarding the education system for those with learning disabilities for the past few years. This research is therefore believed to impart recommendations for the special educators as well as the education authoritative to come up with a better guideline for those with learning disabilities.
In a nutshell, this chapter presented an overall view on the central and primary ideas of the research. With the following chapters, the readers will take in the sights of the review of literature, research methodology, findings and analysis, and lastly discussion and conclusion for this research.