Academic journal article High School Journal

"Falling through the Cracks": Challenges for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Academic journal article High School Journal

"Falling through the Cracks": Challenges for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Article excerpt

High school students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle in the complex social and academic secondary environment. Current literature suggests postsecondary success is limited for adults with ASD, but little is known about the high school experiences of individuals with ASD that may be impacting their postsecondary outcomes. Focus groups with multiple stakeholders were used to examine challenges facing high school students with ASD and their service providers. Through qualitative analysis, three themes emerged that illuminate challenges posed in the high school setting for students with ASD: (1) inconsistencies, many of which are intrinsic to the secondary environment, (2) difficulties with interpersonal connections, and (3) knowledge/process breakdowns. The findings demonstrate the misalignment or "crack" that exists between the nature of high schools and the needs of students with ASD as they prepare for success in postsecondary environments.

Keywords: autism, asd, secondary, postsecondary


High schools are large, complex environments that often lack cohesion (Rutledge, Cohen-Vogel, & Osborne-Lampkin, 2012). The average size of a high school in the United States (U.S.) is 854 students, approximately 50% larger than the average middle school (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2011). High school tends to be more impersonal, competitive, and grade-oriented than middle school (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). Middle schools are often organized in teams allowing teachers to collaborate around a cohort of students, whereas high school teachers have few opportunities to interact regarding the needs of shared students. In a single day, a high school student may have seven different classes, each with a different teacher and group of peers. Even more so than in middle school, students in high school are expected to be independent in their academic functioning with greater demands on their planning and organizational skills (Rosenthal et al" 2013). As their brains and bodies are rapidly changing, high school students may find social experiences more complicated (Crone & Dahl, 2012). For students with disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the high school experience may pose additional challenges. The present study explored the perspectives of stakeholders, including individuals with ASD, parents, general educators, and special education personnel through a qualitative analysis of focus group data to identify the challenges experienced by high school students with ASD and their service providers. These findings have the potential to inform improvement of services for high school students with ASD.

Secondary Students with ASD

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by deficits in social functioning and communication with restricted interests and repetitive behaviors (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). Although the overall prevalence of ASD has been consistently rising in the U.S. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014), only recently has the prevalence of ASD in 14 to 17-year-olds matched that of younger ages (Blumberg et al, 2013). This increase in prevalence among adolescents has placed added strain on secondary education systems. Some authors have suggested symptoms of ASD may improve during adolescence (Schall & McDonough, 2010), but a review by Levy and Perry (2011) suggested there are varying degrees of aggression, resistance to change, unacceptable sexual behavior, and self-injurious behavior in this age group. Comorbid anxiety and depression have been noted as prevalent among adolescents with ASD (Schall & McDonough, 2010).

Within the social environment of high school, difficulties in the areas of communication and social interaction can put students with ASD at risk for social isolation and bullying (Humphrey & Symes, 2010). For some individuals with ASD, adolescence brings a growing self-awareness of social difficulties, and negative experiences with peers may exacerbate social anxiety (White, Ollendick & Bray, 2011). …

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