Teaching children with autistic spectrum disorder in a mainstream school is both challenging and rewarding. It provides the teacher with unique opportunities to facilitate social integration between pupils with autism and mainstream peers.
Wing (1996) defined the core deficits of autism as the ‘triad of impairments’. The author explains that children with autism exhibit significant social impairment in three developmental areas, namely, impaired social interaction, impaired communication and impaired thinking and imagination. The pervasive nature of the social deficit in autism inhibits the development of interpersonal relations. Therefore, simply placing pupils with autism in an inclusive setting may not be enough to encourage positive relationships with peers. Rogers (2000) reports that improved social functioning is the most significant intervention outcome for pupils with autism. Many experts emphasise the importance of carefully designed programmes to facilitate social interaction between peers.
Thus while the principle of integration is supported within the school, the question of how best to facilitate the development of positive relationships between peers remains unanswered. This study is based on the premise that there is a need to develop the skills of both the mainstream pupils and the pupils with autism to facilitate social integration.
There are three special classes designated for pupils with autism in Scoil Chiaráin, which is located in Donnycarney, Dublin. There are six pupils in the class and three classroom assistants. This high staff ratio provides a supportive framework for the pupils who present with a wide range of individual needs. From the outset, the school has adopted a policy of inclusion for all children with special needs within the school. The principle of inclusion is endorsed by The report of the task force on autism (2001),
All schools have a responsibility to serve children with autistic spectrum disorders in the least restrictive environment’ (p.10).
A brief outline of approaches to promote social interaction.
Historically, attempts to facilitate socialisation in children with autism focussed on adult-mediated approaches and results from such studies have demonstrated some positive outcomes. Recent research indicates that the emphasis has shifted from adult-mediated approaches to focus on peer-mediated approaches to enhance social interactions with peers (Laushey and Heflin 2000).
Specific peer tutoring is an effective intervention for training mainstream peers, to enhance social interaction with their peers in the special classes. Wolfberg (1995) recommends the use of ‘guided participation’ to promote social interaction between peers. This framework includes the following strategies: to initiate a reluctant peer to play; to persist with social initiations; to respond to communicative attempts made by a peer; and to maintain the interaction with a peer. These simple techniques give the mainstream pupils sufficient skill and confidence to direct and respond to their buddies with autism without direct teacher involvement.
This social-skills approach was adapted and implemented with four pupils with autism and pupils from a mainstream class. The main objective of this project was to promote positive peer interaction and to promote the idea that play is fun. For this type of intervention a reverse integration model was used where children from mainstream classes visited the special class. Structured play sessions were organised to encourage the practice of social skills. Play activities and cooperative games were selected, based on the interests of the pupils with autism. The mainstream pupils were given a brief explanation of the guidelines outlined above. Each session was videotaped and reviewed with the mainstream pupils. Problems were discussed and the mainstream pupils were given advice on how to communicate more effectively and to give instruction to their buddies.
While considerable effort was invested in implementing the programme, the positive outcomes appear to provide a basis for future development. The framework of guided participation as recommended by Wolfberg (1995) appeared effective. The tutored peers demonstrated skill in their ability to motivate their buddies to respond to social initiations and to maintain social interactions. Observations of the videotapes indicated that the tutored pupils demonstrated persistence, patience and empathy in their ability to interact with the pupils in the special class. The pupils with autism demonstrated the ability to initiate social interaction, to maintain joint focus and to complete tasks cooperatively. It is hoped that this progress can be maintained and that plans to develop further peer tutoring programmes will be realised.