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Learning Alongside Autism: Integrating Autistic Children in Mainstream Canadian Classrooms

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School can often be an intimidating place for just about anybody. But it is on the playgrounds and classrooms of our schools where we learn many life skills. Part of life's journey is learning how to cope with the unfamiliar.

One of the most daunting issues for children with autism is how to interact with classmates – unfamiliar territory that can prove overwhelming for all involved. While public awareness for autism has increased, understanding autism on a human level remains a work in progress.

Autism is a neurological disorder with a wide range of symptoms that often leaves educators and parents alike confused by its mysterious nature. Understanding the nature of autism can go a long way to alleviating some of the frustration felt. Despite efforts, it isn't always easy.

"There's nothing worse than getting a phone call from a school teacher asking you to go pick up your child because they were out of control. Many times I felt helpless. I often cried myself to sleep thinking I failed him," explained Mary DeMauro, whose son lives with the disorder. Eventually Matthew was prescribed Ritalin to help him keep focused in class, but this did not solve his problems. School was still having a negative impact on him. "They bug me a lot on the bus. I know I'm different."

Early diagnosis is crucial to the development of children with autism. If a specialist determines that a child has autism, it is believed that interaction in a normal social setting can go a long way to helping a child open up. Indeed, initiatives have been undertaken to integrate kids with autism in regular classrooms. What have been the results so far?

According to Tania Piperni, Autism Special Disorder consultant at the English Montreal School Board, it's not the kids from regular classes who have been a source of frustration, but the lack of proper resources. "It has become a normal and learned behavior for students to be helpful with kids with special needs. However, sometimes our resources need to be pooled more towards supporting and assisting the adults such as teachers and educators. Providing them with general information about autism and visual learning styles can be most helpful."

Jennifer Youakim, an elementary school teacher from the EMSB, further adds, "Never underestimate the power of empathy and compassion among children. They have a natural sense of understanding when confronted with special circumstances." Ms. Piperni views the experiment in a positive light. "I believe that the results of integration are working nicely for many of our students."

Some educators are not as comfortable with integration, and must therefore be taught strategies on how to deal with special needs students. Parents haven't always been all that accommodating either. "Raising a child with a neurological disorder is difficult enough, but having to face indifferent parents only makes it harder. No amount of explanation will suffice for some, unfortunately. They just don't want their kids in the same classroom with autistic kids," says Maria DeMauro.

Are parents' fears justified? Yes and no. If the proper support and resources are not made available in the class, then it is not effective for anyone – not the teacher, nor the students, and ultimately not the autistic child. In Quebec schools, for example, both trained childcare workers — special education technicians — and attendants with no special training are simultaneously taking care of autistic children.

"Attendants tend to use a 'baby-sitting' approach to their jobs, thus children don't advance as much as they could. In contrast, a special education technician will essentially treat the child as a regular member of the class and encourage independence," says Patrick Lortie, a childcare worker with the English Montreal School Board. This leads to a lack of consistency from one childcare worker to the next. For instance, it is entirely possible that a child with special needs gets the proper care from a SET one year, and a different exposure with a less trained attendant.

With two different approaches and no comprehensive plan, it leads to ineffective education. The problem is further compounded when there is a lack of communication between the teacher and childcare worker in the classroom. Mr. Lortie further added how frustrating it can be when a childcare worker is not treated as an equal, but more as, "help in the back of the classroom." This can lead to a strained relationship, which can ultimately affect the child. Everyone has to work together in order to obtain the best approach to meeting the child's needs.

It is only fair to point out that integrated classes are in their infancy stage and growing pains were bound to happen. Still, there are already positive and rewarding signs. "I've seen what integration can do. In an environment with proper collaboration, which I am in this year, two of my autistic students have made advances beyond anyone's expectations. This is incredibly rewarding, above all for the parents." Ms. Youakim agrees. "My students are always quick to help out and offer praise for any successes disadvantaged students have. It really is amazing to witness the wisdom and maturity children can show at times."

"We stuck by Matthew. We ploughed ahead. Now we're beginning to see positive changes in him. He still needs medication for other related problems, but we are all learning to cope with it," says Ms. DeMauro's as a gleam lit up in her eye. Integrating children with autism in mainstream classes is a challenging and important concept. Once again, as adults get lost in the shuffle of analysis, it is our children who are teaching us precious life lessons. The question is whether we are listening.

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About Alessandro Nicolo

  • http://whitterer-autism.blogspot.com mcewen

    I think it’s a daunting task whichever country you are in. Best wishes

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro nicolo

    McEwen, you got that right. Matters of health does not consider nationality. However, Canada trails behind the U.S. and Europe right now when it comes to dealing with autism.

  • Gary

    Integration can many times backfire if the child is not high functioning. I am the father of a child with autism and we fear by putting him into a normal school system, he will be left behind academically and also be subject to teasing and bullying. Good idea, but a “one size fits all approach” should not apply. Each child is different and parents and educators should do what they feel best for the child.

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro nicolo

    Hello Gary. I understand. Indeed, in some cases it just doesn’t apply for certain autistic kids. The theory is that integration is beneficial when appropriate help is applied. Concerning the students, when guided properly, kids are more understanding than we think. There are no right answers – especially when resources are strained. Just good intentions. You’re right. Each case is unique and therein lies the challenge.

  • C

    My son is in class with an autistic child who has bitten three different people (one being my two year old daughter) since school began less than two weeks ago. The laws protect children with special needs, but the school won’t protect children without disabilities. It is not right that my children are not safe from violence (whether the offender is autistic or not) in their elementary school.

  • alessandro

    You’re absolutely right. And you should speak up.

    Integration is here to stay and EVERYONE should be considered and respected.

  • http://www.stageslearning.com Angela

    One of the most difficult issues I find is how to go from one on one therapy to the classroom. When you first begin a one-on-one intensive teaching program with a child with Autism or Developmental Delay, the environment is very structured. Often one child will sit alone at a table with one teacher or therapist. The teacher and student are just a few feet away from each other, to minimize the outside distraction.
    As a child progresses, the teaching sessions will gradually become more natural. Perhaps the teacher will stand up and walk around the room. Instructions which were once short, concrete sentences may become longer, multi-part directions. This new structure is intended to simulate a classroom environment, where children must attend to a teacher who is at a distance, working with the entire classroom.
    A good way to move toward this integration process is to use items which are familiar to the child from their one-on-one, structured environment, in new and different ways. Accordingly, while the instructions and style of the lessons may be different, the materials used will not pose an added distraction.
    Since Stages Language Builder Picture Noun Cards are a staple in many one-on-one teaching programs, children often find the basic picture cards to be familiar. Stages products can help you transition children from the one-on-one setting, into the classroom inclusion environment.
    Stages Real Life Learning Posters are large format 14 x 19 inch cards using the same photos as the original Language Builder Picture Noun Cards. The teacher can use these photos with the student from a distance. Start simply by asking the student to identify the image when it is held up from 4 feet away, then 8, then 12, and so on. Certainly the student would have no problem with this expressive labeling task if the teacher were at the table with them. But, now we are asking the student to expand their ability to focus on and attend to a teacher who is further away in proximity. You can add more and more familiar lessons to the repertoire as the student becomes comfortable with this new style of learning.
    As a next step, you can use different Stages products together. Consider giving the student 6 or 8 cards from the Language Builder Picture Noun Card set at their table, while the instructor holds a poster “at the front of the class.” Ask your student to find the card that matches the poster and bring it to the instructor. This is a complex task that involves 1) attending to the instruction from a distance, 2) selecting the matching picture, and 3) carrying out the task of bringing the picture to the front of the class … without getting distracted along the way.
    Next, you can invite in a few friends or siblings. This will be even closer yet to the classroom setting, and the other kids will love to “play school” with you and your student! Hopefully steps like these will help ease the process of getting into the regular ed classroom and succeeding.

  • http://intersportswire.com alessandro

    Angela thanks for the comment.

    I think this is a good point, but here in Canada (and I trust in Europe and the USA)usually there are social workers assigned to classes to work with autistic cases.

  • Rocio

    My son has autism and he in a close setting class but he also mainstream but only in elective classes like in music, art, and P.E and he is doing great and other kids in his school are also learning how to be around kids with autism so that they can understand it. He is not being bullied or made fun of the other kids help him and the other kids that also have autism. I feel that the school did a good thing they are helping him be around other kids and they are also educating other kids on how to understand someone with a disability.