Promoting Learning for Children with Autism: Some Schools May Not Be Fully Prepared to Provide the Learning Environments Required by the Growing Number of Autistic Children

By Mastergeorge, Ann M. | Leadership, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Promoting Learning for Children with Autism: Some Schools May Not Be Fully Prepared to Provide the Learning Environments Required by the Growing Number of Autistic Children


Mastergeorge, Ann M., Leadership


Autism was once considered to be a rare disorder. Today, the condition is so prevalent that almost everyone is familiar with the term "autism," and most of us know someone with the diagnosis.

It is widely accepted today that autism spectrum disorders affect approximately 1 in 166 children in our nation. In our own state, autism cases have increased four-fold over the past decade for the California Department of Developmental Services. According to the California Department of Education, between 1992-93 and 2002-03 the number of children with autism enrolled in our schools increased ten-fold.

While the increase in autism has been well documented, many schools may not be fully prepared to provide the learning environments required for children with the disorder. It is imperative for school administrators and educators to be aware of factors that promote and facilitate learning for students diagnosed with autism, each of whom requires special education services in order to reach his or her fullest possible potential at school. Some guidelines for accomplishing this are provided later in this article. First, here is some background on what is currently known about autism.

The hallmarks of autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that usually becomes apparent by age 3 and persists throughout adulthood. It primarily affects communication and social interaction, creative or imaginative play, and coordination or motor skills; however, these hallmarks can vary quite a bit in terms of severity. The full range of symptoms is commonly referred to as "autism spectrum disorders."

In some cases, children are so affected by what is called "classic autism" that they are unable to function well in their families and communities. Children diagnosed higher on the spectrum, such as those with Asperger's syndrome, can at times seem barely distinguishable from their typically progressing peers.

While children with autism may express their core symptoms in different ways and in differing degrees, they have some common deficits: They have trouble communicating meaningfully with other children; they have difficulty maintaining normal peer relationships, especially in terms of understanding the perspectives of others; they have strong desires for order and routine; and they can be preoccupied with a narrowly focused range of activities, which are called "circumscribed interests," such as only being interested in talking and learning about the solar system or dogs or Power Rangers.

At the same time, they tend to have some strengths that can exceed those of their peers, including precocious reading and memory skills and heightened visual-spatial skills. These common features provide the best clues for developing interventions and learning environments that children with autism need in order to succeed in school.

Even though specific interventions should be developed to meet the needs of particular students, noted below are a few general guidelines that can help schools with their obligations to provide the least restrictive and most enriching learning environments for students with autism.

Four guidelines for schools

1. Be social "engineers." Children with autism do not always know how to take steps to enter a social group. They often want friends and talk about having friends, but they do not have strategies for initiating or sustaining interactions. It is therefore important for educators to encourage typically developing children to interact with them, which will help them stay connected both socially and academically.

For instance, you could assign lunch buddies to sit and socialize with children with autism, establish peer tutoring groups or create social skills groups to work together on social communications interactions. Another tactic is to establish small work groups for school projects. When small groups are not possible, be sensitive to the possibility of sensory overload for children with autism. …

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