What do teachers really think about teaching children with ASD
I have been teaching in a special school for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in Northern Ireland since 2007. Early on, I realised that despite a keen interest in the subject, I had received only limited training in SEN, and in particular in autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), during teacher training. I therefore decided to undertake a master’s degree in ASD in which I examined the experiences of other teachers in relation to conditions on the autistic spectrum. This article explores the attitudes and knowledge of a sample of post-primary school teachers surveyed in one education and library board in Northern Ireland via a lengthy questionnaire undertaken through dissertation research.
Since starting at the school, I have noted and wondered why the number of children with ASD being referred to the school has increased. The school is effectively for children who have been excluded from mainstream and other special school settings. Is it because teachers don’t have enough training to cater for children with ASD? Is it that schools don’t have the resources to support children with autism? Does the hidden nature of ASD make it hard to include these children or is it all the result of negative attitudes towards them in schools. Questions such as these were the driving force behind my research.
Attitudes to ASD
The questionnaire’s findings showed that the majority of the 65 teachers who responded are currently teaching pupils with ASD and that they are all aware of ASD. This sample was taken from across the secondary, integrated, grammar and special school sectors, and teachers provided a wealth of information pertaining to their experiences of teaching children with ASD. Teachers identified many challenges. A very experienced secondary school teacher said that “Managing the needs of all pupils in the class while providing the individual attention ASD pupils require is a challenge”. An integrated teacher with roughly five years of experience identified “Lack of organisation, homework not done, constant on task reminders, noise levels causing concern, refusal to work and inappropriate language” as problems associated with ASD pupils.
Teachers also identified many positives, such as the quirky nature of children with ASD. A grammar school SENCO said that “The children often relate very well to adults [teachers]; they are very enthusiastic about topics in which they are interested. They are very often highly intelligent and gifted. They present an interesting view of the world.”
Many teachers support inclusion and they identified key factors which can help promote inclusive practice in the classroom. These include:
- effective use of training and external support
- positive attitudes from teachers, parents and other children
- good knowledge of the condition and teaching strategies
- the ability to use classroom assistants to promote inclusion.
However, many also pointed to issues which can act as barriers to effective inclusion, including:
- large class sizes
- negative or poor attitudes from teachers
- lack of knowledge or training
- intolerance from peers.
As one special school teacher pointed out, inclusion is only possible if appropriate resources have been put in place and if staff have the right abilities.
Interestingly, no trend was identified based on the length of teaching experience, with a wide range of responses coming from newly qualified teachers up to those with 25 years or more of service.
Most teachers were aware of some of the potential difficulties associated with teaching those with ASD and possible strategies for managing these issues. Strategies mentioned included, creating a routine, using visual cues and providing information in small chunks. However, teachers’ perceptions of their level of knowledge of ASD did not necessarily match their actual understanding of the subject. The vast majority of teachers (74 per cent) said they want more training on ASD. This seems to contrast with the level of confidence in managing ASD amongst the sample, with 62 per cent saying they are confident to cater for children with ASD in their classrooms. Moreover, 45 per cent of the teachers felt that classroom assistants are better trained to deal with children with ASD. As one SENCO explained, “One-day teacher ASD training is a flash-in-the-pan approach which doesn’t lead to very long-term provision”.
The need for ASD training
The lack of knowledge and want for more training expressed by many of the sample may explain why only 63 per cent of teachers said that they enjoy teaching children with a diagnosis of ASD. This is not so shocking when one considers how training increases knowledge and confidence. Indeed, appropriate training should help any teacher to be more able to adapt and support children with ASD in the classroom, consequently making the task seem less daunting. Crucially, better training on ASD also enables teachers to encourage the positive and engaging characteristics of these children to shine through.
While effective training is important in terms of giving teachers knowledge about ASD, it is also essential that teachers understand their obligations to develop themselves and their teaching methods to enable greater inclusion for children with ASD in both mainstream and special school settings.
While the sample of this study was relatively small, it does provide valuable insight into the opinions and daily practice of teachers working with children with ASD. In an open section at the end of the questionnaire, many respondents provided thought-provoking insights into their experiences, as the following three comments demonstrate:
“As an SEN teacher and a parent of an ASD child I have strong views against inclusion for the sake of it. I feel outside pressure on parents often disregards the fact that the resources (both financial and skills) are simply not available to adequately provide the child with a suitable placement in a mainstream setting.”
“Each pupil with ASD has different needs and the attitudes of individual teachers also vary.”
“Teaching children with ASD is exhausting. They need a quite calm and gentle environment without any distractions. They find ordinary school life very difficult.”
What seems apparent to me is that children with ASD should not have to change to fit our education system or teaching style; we as teachers should seek appropriate training and gain as much knowledge as possible so that we can include them in school life and nurture their uniqueness. After all, what works for children with ASD, will benefit all children.
This article is based on research conducted by Craig Goodall for his Masters Degree in Autistic Spectrum Disorders at Queen’s University Belfast: