How to Make Inclusion Successful for students with Autism?

Article By: Stacy Vaughn
Article Date: 05/26/2009


Autism is one of a group of developmental disorders called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). ASDs include a wide continuum: Autism, Pervasive Development Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Cohen and Volkmar 1997). While children with ASDs share some characteristics such as limited communication skills and deficient social skills, it is important to remember to look at each child’s strengthens and weaknesses individually. Every person with ASDs is different; it is important to look beyond the label, so that children do not become ‘defined by their diagnosis’ (Molloy and Vasil, 2002, p. 661). The number of children being diagnosed with a form of autism has seen great growth over the past years. Two years ago it was estimated that 1 in 166 children born in the United States (Frombonne 2007) would be affected. Today it is estimated that 1 out of every 150 American children is living with autism (Greenfeld). This has had a drastic impact on the school systems in the United States. Many students with autism are being included in the general education setting while teachers have had limited training on how to educate students with autism. This has lead to a growing concern about how to make inclusion successful for students with autism. The purpose of this paper is to look at what is currently being done and what is needed to make inclusion successful for students with Autism.

Methods of Collecting Data

Three different methods of collecting data were used for this paper. The first was parent surveys. Six families with children with autism were invited to complete a survey describing their experience with the school system. However, only two families responded to the survey. The second method for collecting data was interviewing teachers who teach inclusion classrooms. Five inclusion teachers were invited to complete the interview process with three of them doing so. The last method for collecting data was observation of students with autism. Four students with autism were observed in multiple academic settings.

So what do parents think?

While only two families responded to the survey the findings were consistent. Overall both families are satisfied with the services their children have received while being enrolled in the school district with the elementary and high school years receiving the highest marks. Junior high years received the lowest mark in satisfaction with services provided to their children. Parents commented that their children struggled with not just the academics but also with social situations while attending junior high. One parent stated “it became a struggle to get my child to go to school during the junior high years.” The families also indicated a decrease in communication from the school once their child left the elementary building. The parents felt the only time they received communication was when misbehaviors occurred. In addition, parents remarked that their child’s behavior outburst increased during the junior high year and carried over to the high school years. However, once their child entered high school they felt the behavior outburst decreased. Lastly, when asked what a perfect school environment would look like to them both families stated that teacher training and education on the aspects of autism and the behaviors associated with autism were the most important. Another factor the families would like to see is a class or instruction period to assist their children with developing social skills. A mother stated, “Lunch period is the worse time for my son. For him it is like being in a middle of a riot. The noise level is high and there are students everywhere. When lunch is over he is emotional drained from all of this.” She continued to say she would like to see a more structured lunch period for her son. The last factor that the families indicated was improved communication between home and school. The parents felt that the communication was one sided. A father wrote, “the only time the school calls us is when our son has misbehaved or had an outburst. This has lead to some negative feelings towards the school for us.” Both families did rate their overall satisfaction with their school district as mostly satisfied as a mother wrote, “we feel the schools are doing the best they can at this moment. Our hope is that the school district will use this experience with our son as a learning growth to be better prepared for students with autism in the future.”

The teacher’s perspective

When teachers were asked “do you enjoy teaching inclusion classrooms” all teachers responded with “yes but there are great frustrations that come with that.” The teachers contributed the frustrations to their lack of education and training. Two of the teachers stated that students with autism were placed in their classroom and the teachers received no background information when this occurred. A teacher commented “the student transferred into my 7th period class and no one had informed me that he was autistic. Not to mention that he came to my class directly after lunch. Our first class together was rough.” The teacher went on to say that over time once he developed a relationship with the student things went smoother. He just wishes he had some warning so the transition would have been easier for the student. All three felt they received some support through an Intervention Specialist being in the classroom with them for the academic part however, they felt they did not receive enough support to assist them with the behavior aspect that comes with teaching students with autism. All teaches felt they would benefit from behavior trainings in order to make inclusion successful for students with autism. In addition, the teachers indicated that they had limited resources and support to turn to when they were struggling with a student. Much of the teacher’s knowledge of what is needed to teach students with autism has come through past experiences and their own research. All of these factors make it challenging for the teachers to feel successful when teaching an inclusion classroom. One teacher stated “all my success has come from trial and error. There has to be a more effective way of teaching these students.” The three teachers stated they use one another when one of them is struggling with a student but the teachers would like to see the school district adopt a policy or program to assist them with making inclusion successful for students with autism. A teacher added that, “I’m not exactly sure what that would be but I am sure with all the awareness that is being made about autism there has to be something out there to assist the students and teachers with making inclusion work.” When each teacher was asked about how they communicated with the parents and how often each teacher had a frown on their face. All stated that they did not communicate regularly with the families. A teacher noted, “this is not done intentionally. I usually spend every minute I have trying to think or find ways to assist the student in addition to my other responsibilities to the other students. The only time that I call the parents is in moments of desperation.” Another teacher went on to say, “this is a weakness on my part. We (the families and teacher) should be working as a time not individuals.”

The observer’s eye

All four students with autism were observed in different settings and at different times of the day. Observation took place during English, History, Math and lunch time. During each observation it was apparent that the students with autism were struggling with completing the daily task and were lacking the social skills that are involved in participating in an inclusion classroom. The four students seemed to struggle the greatest when the teacher was lecturing to the class as a whole. Each of them appeared to be staring into space or was easily distracted by random classroom noises. Math provided the highest degree of difficulty to the students because of the one on one needed to assist them with completing the work. While the teacher made every attempt to work with the student it became a challenge to do so while trying to provide a quality academic learning environment for the other students in the classroom. One student had an outburst during history class due to the fact that there was a schedule change and the student had not been made aware of the change. In all classes each of the students required repeated directions and spent most of the class time with the teacher consistently redirecting them to the task at hand. The lunch period provided the most difficulty for the students. Each of the students showed low social skills during this time. While two of the students have lunch the same period they only interacted with each other. The two other students eat at different periods. During their lunch each of them sat at a table by themselves. One student continually rocked back and forth during the entire lunch period due to the noise level. The other student stood to eat lunch and then paced around the lunch room until the period was over. Neither of these students engaged socially with any student or staff.

Where to go from here

There is no doubt that there is a break down in the schools on how to make inclusion work for students with autism. Parents and school staff are in agreement that school districts need to adopt and properly use effective strategies and methods for teaching students with autism. This raises the question, “how do the school districts do this?” To start with it is important for the school districts to understand that there is not a single universally best method for all students with ASDs. (Simpson, McKee, Teeter, & Beytien, 2007). Just as each student learns different each student with ASDS has different abilities and behaviors. Currently there are two models (The Caps and Ziggurat) that use evidence-based practices to teach students with ASDs. The Ziggurat Model is a guide for designing comprehensive interventions for individuals with ASDs. It is designed to utilize students’ strengths to address true needs or underlying deficits that result in social, emotional and behavioral concerns (Myles, 2007). The second model that is being used is CAPS (Comprehensive Autism Planning System). CAPS provide an overview of a student’s daily schedule by time and activity and specifies of supports that is needed during each period. CAPS enable professionals and parents to answer the fundamental question: What supports does the student need for each activity? (Myles, Grossman, Aspy, Henry, & Coffin 2007). The Ziggurat Model and CAPS provide a unique way to develop and implement a meaningful program and comprehensive for a student with ASDS (Myles, Grossman, Aspy, Henry, & Coffin 2007). While these two models are widely used in school districts it is important to remember that research and studies are consistently being reviewed. Just as education has taken on many different phases how to effectively teach students with ASDs will follow the same path. No matter what model or strategy a school district choose to follow the key factor to remember is that each student with ASDS is unique and has different needs. In order to meet the needs of students with ASDs more than one model or strategy may be needed.


Cohen, D., and F. Volkmar. 1997. Handbook of autism and pervasive development disorder. New York: Wiley.
Frombonne, E. 2007. Autism Spectrum Disorder: Rates, trends and links with immunizations. Lecture presented at Advances in Autism Conference: New Insights in the Diagnosis, Neurobiology, Genetics, and Treatment of Autism, New York.
Greenfeld, K. (2009, May). The Unseen Struggle of Autistic Adults. Time 173(20), 32-36.
Molloy, H. and Vasil, L. (2002). The social construction of Asperger syndrome: the pathologising of difference? Disability and Society, 17, 659-669.
Myles, B., Henry, S., Coffin, A., Grossman, B., Aspy, A., (2007). The CAPS & Ziggurat Models. Autism Advocate 1 (3) 16-20.
Myles, B., Henry, S., Coffin, A., Grossman, B., Aspy, A., (2007). Planning a Comprehensive Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders Using Evidence-Based Practices. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities 42(4), 398-409.
Simpson, R., McKee, M., Teeter, D., Beytien, A., (2007). Evidence-Based Methods for Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Stakeholder Issues and Perspectives. Exceptionality 15(4), 203-217.

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