autism schools

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”- Mark Twain

Are autism schools the most effective spaces to educate children with autism or do they become schools that interfere with education? This article seeks to briefly look at what skills are required for successful learning to take place in a group setting for children on the spectrum, how children with autism can effectively learn and what is an alternative to an autism school.

We send children to school in the hopes that they will be educated but in order for that to happen actual learning needs to be able to take place. Learning can be defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, whether that is being taught and or through self study. The question that professionals and parent who are charged with educating a child on the autism spectrum are the faced with is, ‘how and where is the most effective and meaningful way to educate a child with an autism diagnosis?” For the vast majority of parents in South Africa their options are limited, there are very few private autism schools and even fewer government funded autism schools or educational spaces. When we talk about autism schools we are referring to the traditional structure of there being one teacher, teaching a group of children in a classroom setting which specifically caters for the autistic learner. The challenge then is that children on the autism spectrum often lack the prerequisite skills that allow for learning in 1:1 setting let alone a group setting.

At the very foundational phase of learning a child needs to be able to imitate others as this is one of steps in the development of speech and language production. If we think about how we interact with non verbal infants, we make a sound or say a word and they attempt to imitate. Their attempt is reinforced by our response and so they keep trying to make meaningful sounds until they start using words and eventually sentences. This is a challenging skill for many children on the spectrum and in order for this skill to be developed they need to be able to attend to what another person is saying, or interact with events occurring in their environment. Another skill that facilitates imitation is the ability to following simple instructions, such as ‘come here’ and ‘sit down’. This ability to follow instructions is imperative in ensuring the safety of a learner.

Another skill that is necessary in order for effective learning to take place in a classroom setting of any sort is some form of functional communication. Again this is a skill that often needs to be explicitly taught. Being able to sit still in order to complete a task, having joint attention, waiting, some understanding of first/then contingencies and basic play and social skills are also necessary skills. These are the skill deficits present in many autism learners along with behaviour excesses which need to be well managed for success in the classroom setting. It is virtually impossible for any child to learn functional and meaningful information in an environment where tantrums, excessive stereotypy, self-injurious behaviour or aggressive behaviours are present. Thus children who are placed in school without these prerequisite skills are in a situation where schooling gets in the way of their education.

Now that we have identified what the prerequisite skills are, we need to understand how children on the autism spectrum learn. Research tells us that “applied behaviour analysis (ABA) has become widely accepted as an effective treatment” for children on the autism spectrum. ABA applies the principles of behaviour to improve socially significant behaviour in order to produce practical and meaningful change to the individual. What this means in practice is that through an individualised 1:1 ABA program, individuals with autism can be effectively taught the skills that are necessary for learning to take place.

Once child has these prerequisite skills in place the question of whether an autism school or a mainstream school is the best placement becomes appropriate. Autism schools may well offer some benefits in that they offer small classes, teachers who are trained in understanding the challenges of autism and provide a sensory environment that is sensitive to the needs of an individual with autism, however there are draw backs. Once we have taught children on the spectrum to imitate and learn from their environment we want to allow them to progress and learn age appropriate and functional skills, one of the best places to learn these being from neurotypical peers in a mainstream environment. For some children that may translate into being facilitated in a mainstream school while receiving some 1:1 ABA while for others it might mean that they are able to participate in extracurricular activities with neurotypical peers. Autism schools are likely to fail in this area by the virtue of being a school for individuals with autism.

The Star Academy is an alternative to an autism school as they are in a unique position in that they are able to provide an educational environment that ensures learning for each child by providing an individual program that focuses on the 8 domains of learning while utilising effective ABA methods and continually changes to meet the child’s needs. They are able to teach the prerequisite skills discussed in this article and because of the intense individual attention, children can receive an education without schooling getting in the way.

– by Janine Clark case supervisor and board certified autism technician

Autism Spectrum Disorders Pervasive Developmental Disorders, NIH Publication No. 08-5511, 2008 alth/publications/autism/nim hautismspectrum.pdf