Autism and Inclusion in the Classroom: The Social Challenge

Autism is, for the most part, a social disability. The very derivation of the word autism reflects a preference for isolation. One of the most challenging tasks set before parents and educators integrating students with autism into the general education classroom is overcoming social obstacles. By the time typical children enter kindergarten they have developed skills and strategies which enable them to navigate the social aspects of the classroom. Children with autism often do not possess these strategies.

A Rare Insight

Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University who has autism. In her book, Emergence, Labeled Autistic, she writes about her experience in the elementary school classroom and describes herself as a visitor from another planet who had to learn the strange ways of the aliens (Grandin, 1986). She further shares the difficulties and successes she encountered in her quest to gain social understanding giving readers a rare insight into a child struggling with the social uncertainties of autism. Often these overwhelming uncertainties manifest themselves in behaviors that can become barriers for inclusion. A child struggling to understand the active environment of the elementary school classroom has little ability to appropriately interact with others. Schools must provide supported and authentic opportunities for students with autism to gain the necessary skills of social interaction.

Inclusive Practice

Classrooms are micro societies designed to facilitate learning in a routine manner. Teachers strive to maintain order and achieve curriculum benchmarks, while attempting to meet the social and emotional needs of each and every child. The needs of children with autism are so diverse and individual and they can be quite difficult to meet in this setting. We have learned through practice and legislation that inclusive environments are generally preferred placements for children with autism. It is here they have access to the general education curriculum and opportunities to observe the day-to-day social and behavioral models of typical children doing what children will do.

Unfortunately, this is the most difficult environment for children who have difficulty understanding and interacting with their peers. Inclusion for the autistic child can be a deadly sentence if those responsible for overseeing the process are not properly prepared. It is imperative that educators receive instruction and training on the methods and strategies necessary to insure success. Too often students with autism are left to their own sparse devises for unstructured times of the day such as lunch and recess. These activities, although loosely organized by adults, are highly social and peppered with unspoken childhood rules.

A child with autism has little or no understanding of these rules unless they are specifically taught, explained and practiced under the guidance of a knowledgeable adult. Typical children quickly comprehend what it means for a peer to turn their back on them, children with autism can be observed talking to the back of a peer’s head well into the elementary grades and beyond.

How Can We Help?

Since inclusion is preferred, how can we improve the practice? Children with autism must be taught to recognize those subtle cues, identify an implied intent and formulate a plan of action in response. Although typical children learn to read this blueprint usually beginning in infancy through constant observation, this is not the case for children with autism. They often do not possess the tools needed for making these social, emotional and behavioral adjustments. Perhaps more important than math or reading, teachers must teach students with autism how to navigate this complex world. They must learn to see the world through “autistic eyes” and recognize the potential pitfalls their students encounter throughout a school day. Taking a close diagnostic look at their students with autism and appreciating their confusion is a responsible starting place. Understanding how overwhelming school can be we should ask ourselves, “Why is he/she acting this way? What is it about this classroom that makes it so difficult or even unbearable for this student?” An environmental inventory which considers all aspects of the classroom, noise level, lighting, space definition, peers, seating, smells, temperature, etc. will increase the teacher’s awareness of classroom surroundings previously unnoticed. Observing how children relate and the intensity, speed and duration of these interactions can provide guidelines for creating a less challenging and more understanding classroom environment, allowing greater success for all students.

Social Scripting

Carol Gray developed a method of teaching children with autism to literally read these social situations (Gray, 2000). With careful planning, adults target particular social situations which have been troublesome in the past resulting in a lack of appropriate classroom behaviors, such as lining up to go to the lunchroom. They then compile a booklet using simple drawings and descriptive sentences to explain the procedure. Using words like “I will, or “You can”, help children understand social expectations. A positive conclusion might contain phrases such as “Your friends will be proud of you” to reinforce behaviors and underscore opportunities for social connectedness. Social stories can be used in a variety of settings and can be designed to address simple or complex social situations. Their design is unique to a particular social encounter which is misunderstood or even incomprehensible for the student with autism.

With consistent practice and reinforcement, they can be faded out in hopes that this appropriate social behavior has been internalized and the script is no longer necessary.

Learning strategies to help and teach students to become part of their social world is not an easy task. However as inclusive practice continues this is perhaps the greatest challenge for classroom teachers. An overwhelming classroom is not a place conducive to learning. Students need to feel welcome and comfortable so they can focus their energy on the tasks at hand. The classroom is a place that holds many challenges for children with autism, not the least of which is just learning how to become a part of it all.

Diana Friedlander is a special education inclusion teacher in elementary education in Ridgefield, Connecticut and a Doctoral student at Western Connecticut State University. You may contact her at

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