Can a child with an autism spectrum disorder be integrated into mainstream school?

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
August 17, 2022
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If you’re a parent, having a child on the autism spectrum must be testing enough. I’ve never been a parent myself, nor have I ever been in a teaching capacity. I will be talking about my experiences in this post.  

There may be another thing causing you worry, your child’s education. You may be wondering whether to send your child to a mainstream school, or to a special needs school.  In the case of mainstream school, you might wonder how your child could be integrated into the mainstream school environment.

As I write this post, I’m thinking back to my experiences at primary school, the strategies put in place by my parents and teachers to best help me, along with their benefits. 

Statistics show cases of autism have been increasing in more recent years. This is partly thought to be due to increased awareness of the condition.  If you’re a teacher, the odds of you meeting a child with an autism spectrum disorder(ASD) are considerably higher nowadays. These are likely to increase in the future.

No pressure on learning

I was seen as nonverbal and didn’t start speaking until I was 3 years old. When I was approaching school starting age, we were informed by our local playgroup leader that she wouldn’t have sent me to school that September in 1982 if I was her child. My tendency was to say words only when I could say them perfectly. 

My parents planned to keep me at playschool for another year due to my delayed speech and language development. However, the headteacher of the local primary school urged them to think again. They promised there would be no pressure on my learning whilst allowing me plenty of opportunities to play. 

For a time the headteacher agreed for me to attend for half days until I became more settled at school. The playgroup leader was prepared to take me back in the event of me not adjusting to the school environment.  Special education was even being suggested for me.

My diagnosis

About a year or two later we moved house. At my new primary school, there was a headteacher, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, who was a firm believer in giving every child a chance. It was easy to have faith in them in how they ran the school. 

Sometimes in class I readily lost my concentration, being in worlds of my own. One class teacher in infants recognised this by noticing my lack of cooperation during class stories. In the circumstances, it was agreed for teachers to be allowed to deal with me firmly whilst retaining dignity between both parties. 

Looking back to those times, whatever it was that was hindering me, relatively little seemed to be known about it at the time. I was seen as a relatively new case of its kind. I think my case forced my teachers to try and think up new and unique ways to help me.  I, of course, was too young to understand anything about it all. 

One important thing here was that I wasn’t ever seen to be troublesome in class in any way. From what I understand now, the teaching staff wondered whether too much of their time would be dealing with matters related to my needs, thus preventing the other children from receiving the level of education they deserved. 

My parents took me to see a Professor of Psychiatry, who luckily was not far from us. After carrying out a series of observations and tests, he confirmed my behavioural traits to be a form of autism

In my case, he compared it to me being in the Pacific Ocean within touching distance of the seashore rather than far out in the middle of the ocean. Now think about it here. An ocean is a very vast expanse of water. If you’re far out in the middle of one and you get into trouble, you’re going to be in an extremely challenging situation. 

I ended up going along with my classmates into the juniors after the professor informed my school that they were doing a good job, following observations by certain therapists. He also reassured them everything would sort itself out in time.

What I found particularly challenging at school 

The problems I found particularly challenging at school were largely linked to my problems with understanding language. Consequently, reading and writing would present many difficulties for me. More often than not, I found it difficult to understand what  I was being asked to do. This meant it was difficult for me to apply new knowledge and grasp new concepts in various subject areas.

Idioms and other forms of figurative language were particularly difficult, since I took  literal views of language.

Whenever I did listen to other peoples’ words, I had the tendency to misinterpret what was being said. I often asked questions even though I may have known the answers, partly due to a lack of confidence and trust in my potential. Often, I took the cue from the first keyword I heard or read, when, for example, I needed to consider a question in its entirety.

There was also, to some degree, an element of fear in me about making mistakes and not being perfect in my work. 

If a mainstream school decides to accept a child on the autism spectrum, there are certain strategies, some outlined below, which I found from my experiences, could be employed. They may be beneficial to your child or students, depending on whether you're a parent or teacher. However, be aware that whatever works for some children might not necessarily benefit others. But having said that, it may still be worth reading through them.

By working and communicating with parents 

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It was decided for there to be communication between home and my first junior class teacher to enable my parents to offer backup from home. My mum, once a primary school teacher herself and very child focused, did some work with me. 

My first junior class teacher came up with a list of suitable books for me to read, along with phonics to learn. I had a favourite quiz programme on television, and had a phonics quiz in a similar format to it. This approach I found to be fun, and proved beneficial in terms of helping me improve my knowledge of phonics.

From time to time, my mum would find pictures and encourage me to write what was going on in them in my own words. At other times she offered me opportunities to write about whatever was interesting to me, and about matters related to my own experiences. This particular approach proved important in terms of getting me to cooperate more. The key here was to ‘catch’ such moments of cooperation.

Over time, my creative writing improved to the extent that it was less repetitive and confused, and more logical and descriptive.

Sensory overloads and routines

Those on the autism spectrum are known to prefer routines, and get upset when there are any unexpected changes. Being sensitive to strong stimuli like noisy environments, for example, can be problematic as well. But these didn’t seem to cause me too many problems.

Towards the end of my first year of junior school, a student teacher came in and worked with us in smaller groups. This may be beneficial as it could enable one to devote more time to one’s needs. 

Other benefits for me in smaller groups included less distractions and sensory overloads, along with developing a good working relationship with the student teacher.

Think about the classroom

During my first year of junior school, our teacher decorated our classroom when we did work on the subject of colour. Outside of school, I designed my own garden, using green coloured paper for the lawn and trees, and blue paper for a pond. A mixture of other different colours was used for the flowers. My garden design inspired the rest of my class to come up with ideas for garden designs of their own.

There was also a small poster stuck up on the wall showing the solar system and data about the planets and the sun.  

This classroom setup was of benefit to me, since I was interested in both space and colour. At home, we had a height chart displaying all the planets of the solar system. Sometimes I felt inspired to calculate my own distances of the planets by dividing distances by the height to come up with my own distance scale.

Try using visuals aids

I saw myself as a visual learner and thinker. To show me what fractions looked like and how to compare them, one of my teachers drew a shape on the board. They divided it up into equally sized parts to show me what  fractions looked like, such as two parts for a ½, 3 parts for a ⅓ etc. See this post here concerning ways you can teach maths to those with autism.

Resilience and tolerance

There were times when I, along with the rest of the class, did various tests, including reading ones. On one occasion, I scored a low mark. It turned out to be the lowest in the class. 

Some days later, our headteacher came into our class and went through the reading test with us. When he saw my score, he took a very sensitive and sympathetic view. Here, in a situation like this, it can be easy to jump to conclusions and think it is due to laziness or lack of effort. 

The professor, who I saw, had already informed my school that my situation was comparable to describing the colours of holly to someone who is red and green colourblind. It was seen as that sort of level of failure. Looking back, this, I believe, helped the school to be more accepting and tolerant of my particular situation. I genuinely believe it gave them the confidence to tackle any future cases of special needs.

Target special interests and strengths

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During my final year in junior school, I was allowed to do my own projects outside of school on music and trees. It was different to what the rest of the class was doing, since it was judged I wouldn’t get much out of whatever work they did. 

My piano playing ability earned me a place in an orchestra, which formed part of a school play, The Wizard Of Oz. This particular play, to an extent, was musical. 

Having access to building blocks during my time at my new school gave me the chance to build my own bridges and tunnels. This gave me an insight into how balancing worked. 

Some years later, during the juniors, I felt compelled to build tall houses and long gardens with Lego blocks. This, I believe, helped me to develop my creative side.

I imagined myself living in such a house with my favourite things, one being a telescope able to see far into space along with a grand piano. In addition I also imagined having Lego friends, going on adventures with them in the surrounding areas. 

Another educational opportunity afforded to me and the rest of my peers was having the opportunity to talk about subjects of interest to us. My talk on telescopes was judged to be very good, especially in powers of retention related to the talk.

Class activities

On one occasion, we did work based on snooker and how we could work out the highest possible scores, depending on what balls one potted. We had snooker and pool tables at home and I felt inspired to pot balls and add up my own scores, having my own values for every ball. This was one way that helped me with my maths and mental arithmetic skills.

One activity consisted of doing work on signs of the zodiac, which happen to be star patterns in the sky at night. We had to match up their latin names with their English translations. This, I found to be particularly difficult at the time.

However, in later years, I thought back to this particular activity. Despite finding it difficult   I still felt inspired to learn the names of star patterns, along with names of stars themselves and other celestial objects.

Activities at home

There were a number of activities I did at home to improve my learning. However, one activity stands out by far for me. It involved our own treasure hunts, in which written messages were left in boxes at random places around the house. This was my mum’s idea by the way. Each message led to another, eventually leading to chocolate bars. This was an important factor in increasing my desire to read and write. It was the sense of adventure here. 

By allowing spiritual development

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Attending catholic schools proved valuable in helping me to develop spiritually as well, strengthening my faith and trust in God. This gave me more confidence to reach out to him in all times of difficulty and uncertainty.

Link

Here is a link to a report in the Republic of Ireland from 2014. It talks about a child with severe autism who managed to make significant strides at mainstream school.  Like me, this particular child was nonverbal. And the progress made by both of us was due to the standard of education we both received.

Summary

Going back to the title of this post, from my personal experiences, it is possible for a child on the autism spectrum to be integrated into a mainstream school.  However, a lot could depend on how severely a child is afflicted with autism. My case was found to be only relatively mild. Another factor can be to do with how well a particular school is equipped to handle any children on the autism spectrum.

However, back in my time, schools were beginning to learn about autism and its effects on children’s learning.  Unfortunately, there will still be those with more severe levels of autism who may need special education or, if possible, a specialised class within a mainstream school.

With appropriate measures agreed with my school, I was able to get plenty out of being at mainstream school. The educational opportunities I was offered by my primary school enabled me to target my special interests. Some of the class activities, along with high achievements from some of my peers, fuelled my determination to learn more and improve myself. 

I was able to make progress to the satisfaction of my teachers, and to the point where specialist support was no longer deemed necessary.  And more importantly, the school also offered the opportunity to learn about spiritual development too.

For me the benefits of me being in a mainstream school outweighed the negatives, especially as I never posed a problem for my teachers or classmates. I could mix with the other children, giving me a valuable insight into sound social skills.


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