Anyone who has an autistic child knows that one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome is communication. Without the ability to communicate effectively with a child, teaching them (in order that they might one day function at a high enough level to live their own lives) can be an extremely difficult and frustrating process for everyone involved. Not only do these children need extra help to comprehend academic materials, they often encounter social issues that can hold them back and isolate them, as well. This becomes even more compounded by the fact that many teachers are operating with larger class sizes and less resources, making it even harder to devote singular attention to the kids who need it the most. However, this issue is becoming more and more important as the number of kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder continues to rise. But according to a study done by researchers at the University of Missouri, there could be a workable solution that changes the way classrooms are run.
The program was developed by Janine Stichter, a professor at the MU College of Education whose focus is special education, and a team of researchers under her. The team surveyed 27 students between the ages of 11-14 and utilized cognitive behavioral principles to target social deficits in an effort to increase social functionality and thereby improve the ability of the students to communicate effectively (based on the premise that impaired social function hampers the ability to communicate and comprehend). The team therefor undertook to expand the social knowledge and teach acceptable social performance to the students.
It should be noted that this study really only included students who displayed high-functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) in an effort to target those that appear to have a desire to be social but simply lack the knowledge and skills to behave correctly. The team used the issues inherent in this particular group (including understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, recognizing facial, gestural, and verbal expressions and putting them into context, and controlling impulses) to formulate a system by which these students might learn social competency. And the system has two parts.
The first aspect of the program relies on intervention. Teachers first need to be able to recognize which students are attempting to behave socially, but failing. Following this, teachers will implement a course of treatment (that can theoretically be carried on in a classroom setting) that helps students to recognize social signals (in the form of facial expressions, bodily gestures, or verbal clues), share ideas and feelings, take turns, and enhance problem-solving skills. The best part about this program is that it not only targets autistic children, it also includes the whole class in the process so that everyone is learning and improving together as well as helping those who are affected by autism to feel like a part of the group. This social programming has the potential not only to improve social function for these children, but also to increase their communication skills and provide a supportive and cooperative environment for learning.
While this study was conducted in a classroom setting, it occurred as an after-school program. The researchers concluded that it was possible to integrate the program into a real classroom with similar results (although they noted that further studies would be required to prove this theory). However, the study itself produced encouraging results; parents across the board reported significant improvement in social functioning of all students involved in the program. If the study is continued and expanded, we may soon see a new way of teaching children with autism spectrum disorders, and indeed, entire classrooms of diverse students.
For more information on this study, seek the following article: Stichter, J.P., Herzog, M.J., Visovsky, K., Schmidt, C., Randolph, J., Schultz, T. & Gage, N. (in press). Social competence intervention for youth with Asperger Syndrome and high-functioning autism: An initial investigation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Published February 17, 2010.
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