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Autism is often characterised by either behaviour deficits or behaviour excesses as a result of a neurodevelopmental disorder. This opposes previous ideologies which saw it as psychodynamic with parents being blamed for being primarily responsible for the child's disability. According to Lord, Cook, Leventhal and Klin (2000) autism is a brain based disorder.
Behavioural deficits are often locked in two aspects; these include deficits in social awareness and reciprocity and deficits in the production and understanding of communication and language. Behavioural excesses on the contrary deals with excessive display of odd, repetitive behaviour and interests (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). These behavioural defects affect academic performance in any learning environment as they are bound to interfere in learning. In order words, repetitive behaviour and/or disruptive behaviour in a class setting jointly interfere with a teacher's attempt to promote learning and optimal development. In a mainstream classroom set up this can seriously affect the performance of other students in attendance.
In attempting to provide all students and pupils with appropriate education, schools, policy makers and parents are faced with the daily dilemma of fairness and equality. While autistic children access mainstream education institutions, the learning facilities and amenities may not allow for both social inclusion and academic performance as there is bound to be a trade-off. Some mainstream schools have witness severe indiscipline and class disruption by modelling full inclusion. This has serious implications for learning outcomes for both autistic and non autistic students. Although full inclusion in its strictest sense would provide for a mandate that would spell equal treatment, adopting a mainstream system that would take on students or pupils who lack the aptitude, the interest, or even the need would be unfair on both students and teachers alike. Mainstream schools generally view full inclusion as a waste of time and effort, thus in the field of special education, equality and fairness, under the mantle of full inclusion cannot be assumed to be the same.
There is general understanding that accessing mainstream schools by children with autism impacts positively on social behaviour. The argument is that children with disabilities (autism in this case) are more accepted by their peers and experience more fulfilling friendships with non-disabled peers when placed in full time general education settings (Bergen, 1993; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994; Hunt, Farron-Davis, Beckstead, Curtis, & Goetz, 1994; Kennedy & Itkonen, 1994). However, autistic children can also copy bad behaviours or negative vices often displayed by non autistic children in a general school setting. With regards to academic performance the arguments are analysed below.
Kentworthy et al (2005) argued that children with autism have trouble with organization. It becomes evident that putting them in mainstream schools makes it difficult for them to start and complete assignments and transition within or between classrooms. This has consequences for educational performance. Moreover, Siegal & Blades (2003) argued that, children with autism have difficulty processing auditory information. This makes them to take longer to follow multistep or complex adult directives. This problem is even compounded when the teachers have little specialist training or understanding of how to deal with these traits and lack specialised skills or methods to communicate effectively to meet the special needs of autistic children and deliver the learning outcomes.
Research shows that the sensory processing tissues of some children with high functioning autism such as the inability to filter out background classroom noise affect their academic performance (Ashburner, Ziviani, & Rodger, 2008). Thus, studying in a mainstream school may result in the child feeling frustrated, experience unnecessary failure, and/or acquire little or no new knowledge (Gallagher, 1994). It is therefore important to consider how the specific presentations of autism of autistic children studying in mainstream schools affect their academic achievement and that of peer non autistic children. For instance, it is important to understand what evidence-based practice means for toddlers versus school-aged children, or for children with Aspergerââ‚¬â„¢s syndrome versus autistic disorder.
It is common knowledge that children with autism need individual instruction and such cannot take place in a mainstream study environment without the education of non autistic children being sacrificed (Jenkins & Pious, 1991; Mather & Roberts, 1994; Smith, 1994). Worst yet, if the headmistress/master or class teacher does not know how to deal effectively with these problems, the entire staff and class will suffer academically. It then becomes difficult to mainstream children with autism effectively and especially those who demand too great a proportion of the teacher's time without comprising their academic performance. The situation is aggravated when such autistic children are not even developmentally ready for the mainstream curriculum (Huefner, 1994) and require a functional approach to education.
In some instances where children with autism show a rigid cognitive processing style, they over-focus on details and lack the ability to meaningfully integrate and/or interpret information (Happe, 1994). Integrating them in a mainstream school would mean ignoring the severity of these handicapping conditions and the need for special related services to boost academic performance (Mather & Roberts, 1994). This is very vital as children with high needs display the need for a more functional academic focus rather than a fundamentalist approach to education which cannot be fully provided by mainstream schools. Gallagher, 1994; Hunt et al. (1994) argued that being taught crucial life skills, such as using the toilet, identifying money and reading survival is more important and play a crucial role for autistic children to enjoy a happy lifestyle.
In a mainstream school where the generalization of learned skills to new people or situations is the common norm, school children with autism find it difficult to learn. Most often, they become victims of peer bullying with high experiences of social isolation and loneliness (Bauminger & Kasari, 2003; Shtayermman, 2007). This is often counterproductive to their educational performances as they turn to be emotional distressed and even more secluded from the society.
With the push towards full inclusion in the general education curriculum, researchers and policy makers need to determine the sequence of actions as the face of autism continues to change. Thus, the current and pending policy and legislative initiatives will require constant revision as it affects classroom services and educational performance for this growing and changing population of children. Such policies need streamlining as older students with autism face their own unique set of challenges (such as social isolation and mental health issues) different from pre age school children or the school age children. The push towards evidence-based practices in classrooms founded in policy initiatives, such as IDEA (2004), and the Combating Autism Act (Govtrack. us, 2009), cannot be undermined in aiding to improve academic performance in a mainstream school. Regrettably, research seems to suggest that current practices being used in classrooms for children with autism lack an evidence base (Hess, Morrier, Heflin, & Ivey, 2008). Practitioners and related service personnel also need to have an understanding of the evidence base and to seek out opportunities for ongoing professional development to deliver effective learning programmes. The need for practitioners to partner with families to transmit sound information on research-based strategies cannot be over emphasized. It is imperative to study early intervention and school-based practices as well as provide meaningful professional development opportunities that are likely to benefit practitioners and children to improve academic performance.
While some children with ASDs can do well in mainstream schools, many cannot, and suffer greatly by being in an environment which does not meet their needs. The quality of provision of ASD children in mainstream schools is very variable, dependent largely on the attitude of the head teacher and knowledge of individual teachers. These can lead to conflict between teachers and parents. Many autistic children who have coped reasonably well in a mainstream
primary school find that they cannot cope at secondary.