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OARacle Newsletter

The number of autistic children in general education settings has grown substantially over the past two decades, as noted in a 2016 Education Week article. In the United States, this increase was due in part to the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandated that all children receive an education in the least restrictive environment to the maximum extent possible. For a significant number of autistic children with average to above average intellectual ability, the passing of these laws was beneficial because placement in special education classrooms often did not meet autistic children’s educational or social-emotional needs.

Benefits of General Education Placement

The placement of autistic children in general education classrooms offers many benefits, including increased opportunities to develop age-appropriate academic skills, expanded opportunities to develop peer relations, and the development of socio-emotional skills within a classroom setting. For example, recent research has shown that autistic children in general classroom settings exhibited significant improvements in academic achievement in math and language arts, particularly when compared to their autistic peers in more restrictive, specialized classroom settings. Moreover, placement in general education classrooms can lead to improved social and emotional functioning because it increases autistic children’s opportunities to interact with their neurotypical peers within a classroom setting. 

Equally important, typically developing children benefit from having autistic children in the classroom as it can promote better understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of autistic children, as well as other children who may be different from them. Inclusive education may also reduce “autism stigma” by providing children with meaningful, daily contact with their autistic peers. Unfortunately, inclusive educational practices alone may not be enough to ensure that an autistic child will thrive in a general education classroom.

Costs of General Education Placement for Autistic Children

Parent and teacher reports show that autistic children are significantly more likely to be perceived negatively, be bullied verbally and physically, and be socially isolated and excluded from social activities in their schools than neurotypical children. Bullying and other inappropriate behaviors toward autistic children may occur because autism is a “hidden disability.” Lacking physical differences, neurotypical children may struggle to understand, and empathize with, autistic children who exhibit social communication and behavioral differences.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that neurotypical children often lack knowledge about autism. Study findings show that neurotypical children are often unable to define autism accurately and hold erroneous beliefs about autism, believing, for example, that autism is contagious or that all autistic people are the same. Moreover, neurotypical children may be unaware of the challenges autism might pose for a child, including the social-communicative issues, behavioral differences, and the sensory sensitivities associated with autism. Thus, the behaviors of autistic children are often misconstrued by their peers in their classrooms, with negative attributions made about these behaviors. For example, neurotypical children may erroneously believe that the behaviors of autistic children are fully within their control and therefore reflect acting out or misbehaving.

The Case for Autism Acceptance Programs in Elementary Schools

It is theorized that negative peer relationships in the classroom are due to the reciprocal effects of challenges associated with autism, such as social communication difficulties, and the lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of typically developing peers. According to the reciprocal effects peer interaction model (REPIM), a lack of understanding about autism, reduced acceptance of differences, and limited opportunities to learn about autism all contribute to bullying and social exclusion of autistic children and devalue the benefits of inclusive education for them. Although only a handful of autism acceptance programs have been developed and assessed empirically, most include an educational component to increase children’s knowledge about autism and an attitudinal component to address negative beliefs about autism. 

Our Autism Acceptance Program

Using the REPIM approach as a guiding principle, we initially developed an autism acceptance peer-education program for school-age children, funded by an OAR education grant, that was implemented virtually during the pandemic. This stakeholder-approved, pilot program consisted of five weekly 35-minute modules that covered a themed topic each week, such as facts about autism, similarities and differences, sensory sensitivities, strengths of those with autism, and friends with autism. Presentations included a variety of online educational materials from OAR’s website, public domains like YouTube Kids, and those that we created. Each module was in line with attitude change theory that asserts that increasing knowledge and improving attitudes toward a group not only results in less stigma toward a group, but is essential for improving behavioral intentions and ultimately, behaviors toward individuals in the group. 

Pretest, posttest, and maintenance results showed that our virtual autism acceptance program was effective in improving children’s knowledge about autism and children’s attitudes and behavioral intentions towards their peers with autism. In fact, a maintenance condition one year later showed that children maintained many of these gains in knowledge and positive attitudes. Recently, with additional funding from OAR, we have extended this program to in-person presentations that we are currently implementing in third- and fourth-grade classrooms. Although we are encouraged by the initial findings of our virtual autism acceptance program, as well as the findings of others who have implemented peer-education programs, more work needs to be done.  

One of our primary goals is to create a well-organized, comprehensive, and cost-effective peer education program that can be made available to others and is easy to implement. Equally important, it is imperative that the neurotypical community understand that stigma and discrimination toward autistic individuals begins in childhood and that this stigma can have life-long consequences for autistic children. With better understanding and knowledge about autism, increased acceptance of differences, and the opportunities to learn about autism through peer-education programs, significant benefits for autistic and neurotypical children are possible. Importantly, this will enable autistic and neurotypical children to successfully navigate and thrive together in inclusive general education classrooms. 

Dr. Denise Davidson is an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Beginning during the pandemic with the development of a virtual autism acceptance program for 8- to 10-year-old children, she has since expanded the stakeholder-approved program and is currently implementing it with her undergraduate and graduate students as an in-person program in Chicago grade schools. This program takes a strength-based approach to reduce autism stigma. Her research also focuses on socio-emotional development and language development in autistic children and autistic adults, promoting excellence in college and capturing the experiences of autistic college faculty members.