Students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can pose unique teaching challenges due to the complexity of the range of disorders and students’ individual level of disability, which can range from mildly impaired to severely disabled. As a developmental disorder, ASD is characterized by a variety of social, communication and behavioral challenges, requiring teachers to have deep knowledge in these areas.
While a special education classroom might be a great fit for some ASD students, an inclusive, mainstream classroom might work best for others. Within each classroom environment, teachers can also tap into a variety of special education to teach students with ASD, such as Floortime, PRT, SCERTS and TEACCH. Due to so many educational options, this sparks the debate of whether students with ASD perform better in mainstream classroom settings or self-contained environments.
Self-contained vs. Integrated Classrooms
When students with ASD stay in self-contained classrooms, the environment can feel more accepting because they see other students “just like them.” Created to help foster enhanced support for students with special needs, self-contained classrooms – commonly led by a special education teacher –have fewer students, fewer transitions and fewer distractions. This smaller student-to-teacher ratio coupled with the advanced training of special education teachers can provide a greater level of attention and differentiated instruction that caters to the unique challenges of special needs students.
Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted in 1975, schools are required to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities. Recently schools have shifted towards an integrated classroom model, also known as “inclusivity” or “mainstreaming.” The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research says that inclusive classrooms promote “a welcoming environment for all, where differences are valued and learning opportunities are accessible to all, in every classroom.”
Ari Ne’eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, goes a step further in an NPR interview by saying that “segregated schools lead to segregated societies.” Ne’eman, who was appointed to the National Council on Disability by former President Obama, says that many segregated schools and classrooms have “a culture of low expectations.”
While both sides of the debate have merit, there’s no consensus on which educational setting serves special needs students best.
“Currently there is no specific method to evaluate whether a child on the spectrum learns better with typically developing peers in their classroom or makes better progress in a self-contained classroom that provides one-on-one teaching and therapy,” says Dr. Michelle Rowe, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Health Services and past founding executive director, Kinney Center for Autism, affiliated with Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “It’s important to remember that each child has his or her unique way of learning […] there is no ‘one size fits all’ in autism.”
Readying to Teach ASD Students
With so many unique teaching methods and skills to master when instructing ASD students, special education teachers need, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree (such as in special education or elementary education), along with a teaching license. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, “many states offer general licenses in special education that allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities. Others offer licenses or endorsements based on a disability-specific category, such as autism or behavior disorders.”
Taking advanced, specialized training or pursuing an advanced education better prepares educators to understand the special needs of students with ASD and assist with their challenges, whether these students are in a special education classroom or integrated classroom.