Autism is not simple to define. First, because it is a spectrum rather than a single disorder. Thus, some autistic people will never be able to communicate through traditional means while others will find themselves in professional and academic settings without anyone suspecting anything. Especially since in just a few years, we have moved from a society classifying autism as a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) to the idea of neurodiversity. Indeed, many parents and advocates are advocating that children considered to be on the autism spectrum (AS) no longer be seen as a burden, but just students with brains that are a little different from others.
What educational environment for autistic people?
This leads to the question for parents of these students: where to enroll them for schooling? Because there are various specialized facilities that hire trained staff to deal with individuals on SA. Incidentally, this is the main advantage of this type of school. The teachers and staff there will not be destabilized when the child exhibits certain "abnormal" behaviors. They have developed, in general, pedagogical and communication tools to adapt to each learner. For heavy cases, this does indeed seem the ideal solution since the classes are smaller, the follow-up is closer, etc.
What about children who are "lighter" on the spectrum? Parents may therefore hesitate because while supervision may be better in a specialized institution, the socialization aspect with other "neurotypical" peers is missing. This contact is essential since they will have to deal with this type of person for the rest of their lives. Thus, many of them want to be integrated into the traditional schooling system. In fact, several states and authorities support this type of integration.
However, when questioned on this subject, teachers are not overly enthusiastic about the idea. While not radically against it, despite the integration guides, they feel a lot of fear. Managing a classroom is already a balancing act, so adding potentially more disruptive elements to it... They would like more guidance from specialized staff to support them.
Yet some institutions around the world are succeeding. What are their secrets? Nothing special. All it takes is a little adaptation of the teaching and even the school.
In Rimouski, Quebec, the École de l'Aquarelle manages to accommodate both regular and special needs students. For example, a child with autism who is overly stimulated by the hustle and bustle of his class can go to a sensory modulation room to calm down and read. One parent says that music classes were difficult for her son, the high noise level was assaulting him. As a result, he was able to enter a specialized class where learners play an instrument with headphones.
Other Quebec schools have also realized that the key lies in adaptation. For example, knowing that SA people are rested in a certain routine, it can be disorienting to change classes each fall. So one school in Rouyn-Noranda thought that the teachers of the current grade, near the end of the year, meet with the child the person who will follow in September. By already having a first, or even a few meetings, it will therefore be less threatening for the child at the beginning of the school year.
In the Eastern Townships region (Estrie- Cantons de l'Estrie), a young autistic person expelled from a class will be welcomed in the premises of Autisme Estrie, a non-profit organization helping young and adult autistic people and their entourage. He will be accompanied by an intervener from the association, another in rehabilitation and even a teacher to keep the student in a "school" context. All with the goal of reintegrating him later.
In Clermont-Ferrand, France, the Daniel-Fousson School has two kindergarten teaching units specializing in autism. Thus, the little ones are taught in a more specialized context. However, they are regularly integrated both in the school and in the playground. Seven professionals from the medico-social milieu surround the students in order to prepare them for their integration. This is done in a climate of goodwill towards their peers. This attitude is also reflected in the families of the neighborhood who do not stigmatize these young people, quite the contrary. A constructive environment that autistic students need.
A different teaching approach
For teachers, this means demonstrating positive reinforcement with these young people. The use of visual prompts can be of great help in getting classroom rules across. This can also be a way for autistic children to communicate with pictograms, for example. Tools such as filing cabinets or timers can help them structure their time, which is sometimes more difficult for them. Finally, it is important that the school (or classroom) have areas where stimuli are reduced. This can prevent anxiety attacks that these young people may experience when their senses are "overloaded."
The other issue lies in the use of technology in the classroom. Should a setting that incorporates AS students make use of this type of tool? Yes, but as this study reminds us, we need to be aware that it may challenge these learners. It may be more challenging at first to keep them calm in front of the computer. In addition, even specialized applications may involve comprehension problems in different skills depending on the child. The collaboration of psychologists could help the faculty in selecting software based on the different autistic functioning present in the group.
Integration of these special needs students is not easy. It can even be arduous for uninformed and unsupported teachers. However, environments more open to neurodiversity and alternative approaches do exist. It is possible to create them in traditional schools. It takes a willingness from all stakeholders, a lot of support in terms of staffing, knowledge of personalities, and adaptability from all in order to provide the best for these children.
Photo: Mikhail Nilov on Pexels
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