Recommendations for Helping Teens with ASD Succeed in General Education & Mainstream School Settings
There is definitely research that supports including youth with ASD in the mainstream setting. Students with ASD may experience a number of different benefits when being included in the mainstream setting.
Benefits that may be experienced by youth with ASD include:
The student displaying more acceptable socially-related behaviors and improvements in overall social skills
The student being expected to achieve more advanced educational goals
The student displaying less characteristics of ASD that impact daily functioning
The student being more able to cope with transitions and change
Even though research supports the likelihood that these and other benefits could be experienced by an individual with ASD participating in a mainstream school setting, it is important to consider the individual needs and preferences of each student.
Although there is support for including youth with ASD in the mainstream educational setting, sometimes there is a disconnect between the overall goal of including the student and making them fit in with the mainstream classroom and parent or teacher expectations and the best interest of the student in terms of their needs and preferences.
Some adolescents with ASD feel socially, emotionally, or physically isolated from their peers in school. They might also feel lonely or even experience bullying at times.
Some teens with ASD report feeling unsupported or misunderstood by teachers in school. Students with ASD are 8-20% more likely to be permanently excluded from schools than their peers with no special education needs.
Some teens feel that the environment in the school setting isn’t designed to suit their needs regarding their social and sensory experiences. It is important to consider the individual student’s needs and preferences regarding their environment. Sometimes, the student and even their parent might not know exactly what the ideal social or sensory environment would look like for a particular student but it is worth exploring and looking into more consciously.
In regard to the social environment, some students with ASD may prefer to have more time alone, others may prefer to have more time to talk with others about their special interests, and others may prefer the social environment to be modified in certain ways. Additionally, some youth with ASD desire to have friendships while others are satisfied with one or even no friends. It is important to be careful about giving off the impression that everyone should have a certain number of friends; instead, it is important to consider the individual’s best interest.
Some teens feel anxious or unpleasant emotions before they go to school each day and sometimes throughout the school day, as well. Challenging behaviors and anxiety seem to be higher in youth with ASD than the general population.
Although research supports including students with ASD in the mainstream school setting, some individuals may experience a negative impact on their well-being as a result of the mainstream setting.
Research Study Findings
In the study by Goodall (2018) that looked at the perspective of young adults with ASD and their perspective of their personal school experiences, the research identified multiple themes and common experiences amongst the study participants. With their findings, it is recommended to address these themes and consider how each of the themes may impact a student with ASD who is in a school setting today.
Common themes of concern about the mainstream school setting from individuals with ASD who had gone through school include:
Exclusion in inclusion (feeling excluded even when the goal from the school is to “include” them”
Feelings of dread (anxiety, depression, not wanting to go to school)
Feelings of isolation (feeling left out, feeling lonely, etc.)
Feeling misunderstood (not feeling as though teachers, staff, or peers understand them)
Supporting me (not having support as an individual person)
Supportive teachers (lack of experiencing support from teachers)
Supportive curricula (the way curricula is presented can be problematic, such as when it creates uncomfortable social situations or is too face-paced)
Supportive environments (the environment can be overly stimulating or too noisy)
Examples of what individuals with ASD reported they experienced in the mainstream classroom (Goodall, 2018):
“I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.”
“I never felt excited, always dread. I would not want to get up, I wouldn’t want to open my eyes. I would wish I was still asleep.”
“I felt closed in and like I couldn’t breathe as there were so many people. It was so difficult being in there all day.”
“It [mainstream school] is not about them adapting to you, but you adapting to them.”
“Actually start caring about the students rather than the results they give you. It is about teaching the children and not only caring for the results. Really knowing and paying attention to the children… each child has their own individual needs.”
Although we will provide some recommendations for helping teens with ASD succeed in the mainstream or general education classroom based upon research findings, it is important not to generalize these recommendations to all teens with ASD. It’s always important to find what works for the individual student and select strategies that will be appropriate for them
Some potential strategies that could help teens with ASD include:
Having more breaks throughout the school day
Being in classes with fewer students (smaller class sizes)
Having less homework
Instructions being broken down into smaller and easier to understand steps
Providing visual supports for instructions
Being able to use technology instead of handwriting when possible
Being allowed to use alternative methods to mental problem-solving alone (especially with math)
Providing written instructions to the student rather than expecting them to remember instructions or expecting them to write down instructions that are told to them verbally while they are also trying to ignore distractions
Having access to places that make them feel safe when they feel the need to obtain relief from a particular situation or when they feel anxious or overwhelmed. This safe place should be easy to access, predictable, and quiet.
Having teachers who would actively listen to their concerns and consider their requests and needs
Not having teachers and the school system implement practices that enhance their sense of isolation – such as educating the student separately from the group (whether that’s because the student with ASD can’t find a partner for a two-person activity or because the teacher feels that the student will learn better outside the classroom – unless that is, in fact, the preference of the student)
Not being kept inside during recess or lunch times – which can also enhance feelings of isolation
Teachers should not assume that a particular strategy is appropriate for all individuals with ASD just because it works for some (for example, using a visual schedule made of icons and Velcro may not be appropriate for an older teen even though there is some credibility in this intervention)
Teachers should receive ASD training but they must individualize how they work with and teach each and every student rather than using a “one-size-fits-all” approach
The presence of high yet reasonable expectations to give students with ASD something to strive for while also placing these expectations on the student in a compassionate and understanding manner giving support where needed.
More relaxed environment, such as making environmental modifications (like having comfortable seating or changing the layout of the classroom)
Although every individual with ASD is different and will experience school in their own way, overall, teens with ASD can be supported through having teachers and staff who understand their needs and preferences, who support them through providing individualized accommodations, and feeling included in ways that make them feel comfortable and accepted (Goodall, 2018).
Teens with ASD can participate in their educational planning within reason
Adolescents with autism spectrum disorder should, to the extent reasonable and possible, be a part of the decision-making process in what types of supports they receive throughout their mainstream educational experiences.
Although it is acceptable for parents and teachers to place expectations and limits on all youth including those with ASD, considering the perspectives, needs, and personalities of students with ASD will ultimately help improve their success in the school setting, in life, and hopefully even prevent or reduce symptoms of other behavioral (or mental) health concerns like depression or anxiety.
Overall, teens with ASD should be heard and supported. Individualized intervention should be thoroughly considered for each student.
TIPS FOR BEHAVIOR ANALYSTS WORKING WITH PARENTS WHO HAVE A TEEN WITH ASD
If you are a behavior analyst who works with a parent who has an adolescent with autism spectrum disorder and that child is or will be in a mainstream school setting, this article can provide you useful information to share with the parent and/or the teacher during a parent training session or meeting with the teacher or school staff.
You could provide our handout on the topic of helping teens with ASD succeed in a mainstream school setting to the parent or teacher for their reference to help guide planning for the school year. We have a handout that covers the content of this article in a downloadable PDF document. GET THE HANDOUT BY ENTERING YOUR EMAIL BELOW.
Goodall, C. (2018). ‘I felt closed in and like I couldn’t breathe’: A qualitative study exploring the mainstream educational experiences of autistic young people. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments. https://doi.org/10.1177/2396941518804407