How schools can meet the autism challenge

How the system can become truly inclusive

As the number of students with an autism diagnosis climbs rapidly, schools are struggling to meet the challenge of supporting students who exhibit a variety of skills and needs.

Teaching students on the autism spectrum is arguably the most challenging task confronting Australian schools.

"Students on the autism spectrum are the fastest growing group being served under special education services in schools," says Dr Amanda Webster one of Australia's leading experts in autism and inclusive education.

"If you ask schools which group of kids experiences the most challenges in schools or presents teachers with the most challenges, they will say, 'students on the spectrum'."

How best to provide an equitable and effective education for students with a disability is something nearly all school communities - parents, teachers, principals, policy makers and the students themselves - are wrestling with. Should children with special needs be separated into special classes and special schools? Should they share the same schools and classes as their mainstream peers?

According to the most recent figures, Australia has a school student population of 3,849,225 and 18.8 per cent of these - close to 725,000 students - receive an educational adjustment due to disability. These numbers have grown steadily over recent years and will continue to grow as the number of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to rise.

Between 2009 and 2015, the number of Australians with an ASD diagnosis jumped from 64,400 to 164,000. Around two-thirds, 107,700, were of school age. In NSW, the number of students on the autism spectrum increased by almost 15 per cent each year from 2013 to 2017. At the same time, only nine per cent of NSW teachers were approved to teach special education, and the number of new special education graduates each year is declining.

These numbers emphasise both the complex issues schools face in supporting students with disabilities, and how important it is that they get it right.

The philosophy of inclusive education - that all children have a fundamental right to learn and be provided with the support they need to achieve in an open and inclusive environment - has widespread support among educators. In inclusive school settings, all students are valued and welcomed and supports and services are utilised at school, class and individual levels so that all students, regardless of their needs, can participate fully and progress within the curriculum.

However, determining how to achieve inclusive education is something that most schools are still trying to work out.

 "If you ask schools which group of kids experiences the most challenges in schools or presents teachers with the most challenges, they will say, 'students on the spectrum'." - Dr Amanda Webster. Photo: Paul Jones

'There is no special class in life'

The arguments in favour of inclusive education are simple: it's the right thing to do, and the alternative doesn't work.

"Nowhere else in society do you have to prove yourself to be allowed to participate," says Dr Webster, Academic Program Director for the University of Wollongong's autism postgraduate programs.

"People with a disability shouldn't have to prove themselves able to be in society, the burden should be on society to show why it can't adjust for them."

That's the moral argument. The practical argument is we don't have any proof that segregation of students into full-time special education classes or curriculum helps them to do better in life. Putting people in special education settings often results in lower expectations, whereas the evidence shows that students, even those with significant disabilities, will respond to high expectations if they are provided with emotional and structural supports.

This is particularly true for individuals on the autism spectrum. If a student is struggling with reading, for example, their teacher will get better results putting them into situations where they are motivated to read, than by putting them in situations where the instruction is oversimplified.

Increasingly, the evidence shows that with the right support, students on the autism spectrum do much better in mainstream settings. The majority will benefit from having a quiet place they can go when anxious or to access extra help when needed, but this should be part of an overall approach, not a full time placement.

Another practical argument in favour of inclusive education is that for individuals on the autism spectrum to learn the skills needed to problem solve and deal with issues in life, they need to deal with those issues as they go through school.

"There is no special class in life," Dr Webster says. "The only way to prepare people with a disability to be in their communities is for them to be in their communities as they grow up. To do this, though, they need emotional support from people who believe in them and see them as capable, not disabled."


From the charity model to the human rights model

While the debate now is about the rights of children with special needs to access the same educational settings and opportunities as their neurotypical peers, up until the 1970s, they didn't necessarily have the right to any sort of education.

In 1975, the United States passed an act that said all children with disabilities had the right to go to school. Others followed suit and by the 1990s a lot of countries had similar laws.

In the 1980s and '90s there was a move towards "mainstreaming" - putting students with special needs into mainstream classes, but only after they were able to perform at specified levels or meet certain standards of behaviour.

More recently the emphasis has shifted to inclusive education. Where mainstreaming allows students with special needs to join regular classrooms when they meet certain criteria, inclusive education is the philosophy that children of all abilities have the right to be educated alongside their peers. In mainstreaming, students have to adjust to meet the needs of the classroom; in inclusive education the classroom also needs to adjust to meet the needs of the students.

"Inclusive education isn't just about students with a disability; it's about valuing and supporting students with a range of abilities and needs, including students who speak another language, students who haven't been to school for whatever reason, students who have experienced trauma, or students who have a chronic illness," Dr Webster says.

"When you create more flexible ways for individuals to be involved, you automatically cater for a much wider range of needs."

While the theory of inclusive education is widely supported, in practise the approaches taken in Australia vary widely from state to state, system to system, and school to school. Over the past five decades, special needs education has moved from a charity model to a medical model and now to a human rights model. Unfortunately, a lot of the systems and structures that support our community and schools, however, are still based on the charity and medical models of disability.

 "Inclusive education isn't just about students with a disability; it's about valuing and supporting students with a range of abilities and needs." - Dr Amanda Webster

Focus on needs, not labels

With more than 30 years' experience working with people on the autism spectrum, Dr Webster has seen first-hand the evolution in special education and is a champion of inclusive education.

Before moving into academia in 2011, she worked as a classroom teacher - including in special education - for many years. Originally from the United States, she began working with people with disabilities while studying for an undergraduate degree, when she ran a group home for adults with significant disabilities, including autism, who'd been taken out of institutions and put in homes.

"I lived with them full time and was responsible for teaching them home and community skills," Dr Webster says. "These were women who, except in large groups, hadn't had the opportunity to go out in their community except in large groups for 10 or 20 years. What was amazing though, was to watch how much they learned and achieved once they had the chance."

Over the years, Dr Webster has worked with students with a range of needs as a teacher in high school, primary, and pre-school settings, and has served as an advisory teacher for early intervention, school leader and behaviour analyst in school and home settings. Moving to Alice Springs in 1998, she became a key leader in the region for programs and supports for students on the autism spectrum and led many professional development programs for staff and parents during the 13 years she lived there.

Dr Webster now lectures in Autism and Inclusive Education at UOW and leads the University's involvement with the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism, an Australia-wide network of researchers working with governments, industry and the autism community to improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum and their families. She is co-author of the books Empowering Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Life on the Autism Spectrum.

Dr Webster's experiences in small schools in the Northern Territory showed her how inclusive education can work in practise, and how effective it can be. She says the rest of the education system could learn a lot from those schools, which often have students with a big range of abilities, but don't have the resources to offer pull-out classes.

"Some of those small country schools have kids across three year levels in one class, and that's before you look at other areas of need. A lot of them do a really darn good job because they're very focused on the students," she says.

"We had incredibly diverse, very inclusive schools. We had students with disability, students who technically had no disability, but didn't come to school until they were eight or nine years old, and students from other countries who didn't speak a word of English."

 "One of the reasons I'm so passionate about inclusive practices is that when you create a strategy for a student on the autism spectrum, there's often a big group of other students who benefit." - Dr Amanda Webster. Photo: Paul Jones

The key was to focus on the students and their needs rather than their label - whether a student has cerebral palsy or an intellectual disability, whether they're Indigenous or from another country.

"We had to maximise our resources and be creative. We were running a speech and language group for kids with disabilities, so I said 'perfect, let's put our other students who need to learn English in there too and make it a language and vocabulary program'.

"One of the reasons I'm so passionate about inclusive practices is that when you create a strategy for a student on the autism spectrum, there's often a big group of other students who benefit."


Flexibility, creativity, persistence

Teaching students on the autism spectrum requires flexibility, creativity and the persistence to try alternative approaches when something doesn't work.

Individuals on the spectrum inherently don't demonstrate a predictable pattern of abilities, needs, or behaviours. They can have a high degree of intelligence and still have a range of support needs. They can be assessed as having an intellectual disability and yet exhibit impressive knowledge and skills in areas of interest to them.

And all students on the autism spectrum are different. What works for one student won't necessarily work for another; an environment that works for one is not guaranteed to help another.

Variations in stress and anxiety can make students exhibit inconsistent skills and needs in different settings or on different days. A student might have had an interruption in routine at home and then be faced with a substitute teacher. By the afternoon, they're already more anxious and less able to cope or utilise skills they would be able to use on a less stressful day.

Students on the spectrum are more affected by their environment than other students. They can do really well in environments that match their interests and needs, but do terribly in others, such as those with overwhelming sensory input or social demands.

"It could be there's too much noise or too much movement - or it could be they need to move more. If these needs are accommodated, the environment is a supportive one, then the student is able to achieve," Dr Webster says.

"I was in a two-teacher country school a couple of years ago and there was a little girl on the spectrum with significant challenges. She'd wander around the room when she needed to and then sit back down and get on with her work. Nobody cared! She didn't bother people. They'd worked it out and she was achieving."

Another student was highly intelligent, but struggling with academic work in class.

"They were doing an assignment where he was supposed to put himself in the mind of a convict and write a story about convicts coming to Australia. Individuals on the spectrum often have a hard time understanding other people's thoughts and actions, and he just couldn't do it. He was like, 'Why would I do that? Why would I be a convict?'

"I said, 'Give him two puppets and have him act it out'. It worked a treat. We recorded him acting it out and he listened to it and got the story because he didn't have to put himself in the convict's head to have the puppets tell the story. Sometimes you just have to find new ways to do things."


Big challenges, big rewards

Despite the challenges, working with students on the autism spectrum can also be rewarding. Dr Webster cites one of her former Alice Springs students, now studying at university, as an example of a student who's achieved remarkable outcomes - thanks to a supportive environment and the planning, work and support of many people.

"When he started preschool he hardly talked," she says. "They weren't sure if he had an intellectual disability or not. He was one of those kids who are really hard to assess. He had major behaviour issues, major sensory issues.

"By the time he left primary school he was on the debating team. He had received an Australian Citizenship Award, which was really competitive; it wasn't something they just hand out. He's now studying film at university and making a film about autism.

"His parents did a lot and there were many other people involved, but it's nice to know you've played some part in a positive outcome like that."

* Data from Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2015, Australian Bureau of Statistics (cat. no. 4430.0)