April is Autism Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls were diagnosed with autism. Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental and neurological condition that begins in early childhood and has a life-long impact. In a learning environment like school, a big challenge for students with autism is understanding and interacting with their teachers and peers.
More Students with Autism in Public Schools Today
During the 2000-01 school year, 93,000 students ages 3-21 were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but in 2015-16, this number jumped to 617,000. In 2015-16, 13% of all public school students ages 3-21 received special education services; 9% of that group were students with autism. As shown in Figure 1, among students with different types of disabilities, the segment that grew the fastest except for other health impairment from 2000 to 2016 was that of students with autism.
Figure 1: Percentage distribution of children 3-21 years old served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B, by some types of disability: Selected years, 2000-01 through 2015-16.
(Note: The chart does not show the percentages of low-incident types of disabilities, such as deaf-blindness, multiple disabilities or traumatic brain injury. Data source: U.S. Department of Education)
Hidden Curriculum as a Barrier for Students with Autism to Develop Social Skills
Research shows that the number of students with autism in general education classes has been increasing in the past two decades. In 2000, 18% of students with autism served under IDEA spent 80% or more of the school day in general education classes. By 2010, the number of students with autism who spent 80% or more of the school day in general education classes rose to 39%. The same research also reveals that fewer than 5% of students with autism develop friendships within the classroom.
It is important for students to learn social norms and communication skills in school, but often such social skills are not explicitly taught in the general classroom. Students with autism are challenged to learn in a traditional classroom setting because of what is known as the hidden curriculum. The curriculum is “hidden” because some social norms and rules or patterns of behavior that students are expected to learn are unwritten, unofficial, unintended and undocumented in school’s textbooks.
Within the hidden curriculum, students with autism often experience more difficulty in understanding the different aspects of social interactions. According to a 2019 report by Dr. Mona Sulaimani and Dr. Dianne Gut, two scholars in special education from Ohio University, students with autism often suffer from deficits in communication and interaction skills. Thus, they suggest that educators address expectations and rules in a clear and straightforward manner and help students with autism to better understand facial expressions and other body language cues.
Teaching Social Skills to Students with Autism
Social skills, particularly communication and interaction with persons from different backgrounds, have become increasingly important for students to succeed in K-12 classrooms and in their postsecondary lives. Studies show that teaching social skills can improve the learning outcomes of students with autism by increasing their interaction time with their peers. Evidence also shows that using social stories (i.e., short descriptions of a particular situation and specific information about what to expect in that situation and why) is an effective strategy for students with autism to engage in personalized, situation-specific learning.
Clinical psychologists, such as William Frea, suggest that to help students with autism develop social skills, school programs should integrate three critical components:
- Creating opportunities across the day for social skills to flourish
- Preparing peers to support the use of social skills
- Planning direct instruction time to ensure the acquisition of new social skills
According to Sulaimani and Gut, the most straightforward strategy for educators to teach social skills to students with autism is to hold daily discussions with the students on how to behave and appropriately respond to specific situations. Teaching social skills to students with autism can be a most challenging, but certainly rewarding, task for educators.