Inclusion at school: new study finds that public school may reinforce negative self image for those with autism
Inclusionary measures for those with disabilities in the public educational system have become far more widespread in the last few decades. With more understanding and support at the public school level and programs like Sesame Street developing characters with autism, we have come a long way to creating inclusion for those who don’t fit the mold. Continuing to educate our society as a whole to create an accepting place for our children with autism is essential, but we need to be very careful how we create these inclusive settings according to a new study conducted by the University of Surrey in the UK. The study – entitled How pupils on the autism spectrum make sense of themselves in the context of their experiences in a mainstream school setting: A qualitative metasynthesis by Dr. Emma Williams – has found that how children with autism perceive themselves to be treated by others has a profound effect on how they see themselves.
Inclusion only works when everyone is…inclusive
Inclusionary educational situations can play out quite differently depending on the school. Just “including” a child with disabilities in the room is not enough. While those on the spectrum are sometimes seen as emotionally distant or cold, the study found that in fact children on the spectrum are very aware of how others see them and take it to heart. As Dr Williams states in her conclusions: “Inclusive mainstream education settings may inadvertently accentuate the sense of being ‘different’ in a negative way to classmates.” If a child on the spectrum is included in a mainstream educational environment, but either the environment doesn’t support them, or the structure isn’t there to support them socially, it can be more damaging to their sense of self esteem, and development. This doesn’t mean that children on the spectrum should not be included, says Dr. Williams:
“We are not saying that mainstream schools are ‘bad’ for pupils with autism, as other evidence suggests they have a number of positive effects, including increasing academic performance and social skills.”
“Rather, we are suggesting that by cultivating a culture of acceptance of all and making small changes, such as creating non-distracting places to socialise, and listening to their pupils’ needs, schools can help these pupils think and feel more positively about themselves.”
There are three main areas that create a sense of being “different in a negative way”
The study targeted three main areas that those on the spectrum struggle with and that contributed to their being viewed as – and thus perceiving themselves as – different from mainstream students in a negative way.
1)Accessibility to the school environment: many students on the spectrum have sensory processing disorder that causes them to have issues with school environment on the whole. They can have trouble tolerating overhead lights, regular playground sounds of shrieks and yells, and even the smells of a school. Creating quiet spaces for those on the spectrum to have downtime, allowing for calming fidget toys, or even headphones or special glasses can go a long way to creating safe spaces for those with sensory challenges. Have a look at Setting Up Classroom That Support Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders or Building Sensory Friendly Classrooms.
2)Interpersonal relationships, especially with peers: many children on the spectrum struggle with social skills, and this is an area that they will need help and support both in the school and at home. It was found that those children who did develop supportive friendships and felt accepted by classmates had less anxiety and generally had a more successful school experience. The PEERS Curriculum for School-Based Professionals is having great success with the adolescent population. For younger children, the Autism Acceptance Book provides many different activities to support empathy and foster understanding and friendship for those on the spectrum.
3)Difficulties linked to ASD: naturally some of the feelings of being “different” are because of the different behaviours and challenges related to autism. The more accepting the culture is at the school and in the class, the easier it will become for those on the spectrum to deal with those challenges without the added stress of being labeled as “different”. Walk Awhile in My Autism has over 100 activities to help a person walk in the shoes of someone with autism, supporting both understanding and empathy.
More research is needed to insure a truly inclusionary environment for those with ASD
The study concluded by targeting some areas that still need more research including: “typical pupils’ attitudes and responses towards peers with autism spectrum disorder, unusual sensory reactions to the physical school environment and individual sense-making about the self in order to improve the experiences, self-esteem and well-being of pupils with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive settings and to inform educational policy and practice.”
As Dr. Williams says in her final statement:
“With over 100,000 children in the UK diagnosed with autism, it is important that we get this right to ensure that pupils with autism get the education they deserve and leave school feeling accepted, loved and valued, rather than with additional mental health issues.”
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