Promoting Autism Acceptance in Children
March 07, 2023
By: Sherri Alms
In November, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for eight applied autism research studies in 2023. These new grants, totaling $313,712, bring OAR’s total research funding to more than $4.7 million since 2002. This article is the third of eight previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.
Between 40 and 60% of autistic children in elementary school, particularly those with average to above-average intellectual abilities, spend a significant portion of their school day in general education settings. Doing so provides significant benefits for them, including the chance to develop age-appropriate academic skills, enhanced socio-emotional functioning, and expanded opportunities to develop peer relationships.
However, inclusive educational practices alone do not necessarily lead to social inclusion of autistic students. Parents and teachers report that autistic children are more likely to be perceived negatively, isolated, and bullied compared to their neurotypical classmates. Autistic children’s peers may have a hard time understanding the social and behavioral differences that characterize autism.
For this two-year OAR-funded study, Promoting Autism Acceptance in Children with Virtual and In-person Elementary School Programs, researcher Denise Davidson, Ph.D., will address these issues through a program that uses OAR’s Kit for Kids materials. In 2020, she and her research team piloted a five-week virtual Autism Acceptance Program using the Kit for Kids materials along with videos, interactive activities, and handouts. Data analysis showed significant gains in neurotypical children’s knowledge about autism, their attitudes, and desire to interact and establish friendships. For this study, Dr. Davidson’s goals are to:
Dr. Davidson is a child psychologist and tenured faculty member at Loyola University Chicago whose research focuses on issues that affect autistic individuals and has included numerous autistic children and adults as participants. In addition to promoting autism acceptance, her recent research includes assessing the efficacy of a socio-emotional training program for autistic children and exploring aspects of functioning impacted by autism, such as executive functioning.
The research team will recruit 3rd and 4th grade children (8 to 10 years old) from four elementary schools in Chicago and nearby suburbs for a total of eight participating classrooms. Autistic children are welcome to participate with parental consent and their assent. Middle childhood is marked by increased emphasis and importance of peer relationships, especially the development of friendships. Research has also shown that by middle childhood, children have the capacity to understand information provided about others while negative stereotypes and misconceptions toward a group can be lessened with factual information.
Four classrooms will participate in the virtual program and four will participate in person. Four classrooms will serve as wait-list controls in the first year of the study and will participate in the program in the second year.
The weekly program will take place over five weeks, with one 35-minute module presented each week on topics related to children’s understanding and acceptance of their autistic peers:
Dr. Davidson and doctoral students at Loyola will facilitate the program.
Each module contains material that relates to facts about the topic and discussions about how to promote specific behavioral intentions, for example, including an autistic peer in activities. These OAR education materials will be used in the modules:
Additional components will include videos, interactive activities, PowerPoint presentations, and handouts giving instructions on interacting in a positive manner with autistic peers.
Each module session will include:
Pre-program measures will evaluate the children’s knowledge of autism and behavioral intentions toward another child. Teachers will complete a scale assessing children’s behavior toward their classmates. Those same measures will be administered again after the program and then again two weeks after program completion. In addition, assessment measures will determine what the children learned and what they thought about the materials and modules. Teachers will also assess the materials and modules.
Facilitators will complete a checklist that includes time to complete each module and its activities, children’s attendance, and a listing of problems that arose during the module. Statistical assessment will measure changes in knowledge, affect, and behavior between pretest, post-test, and maintenance.
This study seeks to address how educators can ensure that autistic children thrive in inclusive educational settings by educating non-autistic children about autism. Practical outcomes of the project will include the development of an autism acceptance handbook.
This program fits within anti-bullying, anti-stigma, and inclusion and equity curricula. Most importantly, the program is in line with OAR’s mission and has the potential to improve the lives of autistic children.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.