Saturday, July 04, 2009

Autism at School: Smaller Classrooms for Autistic Children

Neuroscientists at a meeting of the International Multisensory Research Forum held held at The City College of New York (CCNY) have argued that children with autism require smaller class sizes because of sensory integration dysfunction. I agree with the learned neuroscientists although I would add that some autistic children also have Intellectual Disabilities and serious lack of understanding and communication skills. Some require ABA based instruction to learn. For all these reasons the larger mainstream classroom is not appropriate for some autistic children. I have stated that position many times on this blog site, in the Wayne MacKay review of inclusive education here in New Brunswick and in other public meetings with education officials.

My son, at our request, receives his academic instruction in a small room with a teacher assistant. He visits common areas of the school such as the gym, kitchen, library, pool etc where he is around other children. Several children say hi to Conor when they see him. One of these students who lives nearby even visits him at our home now and plays with water balloons on the step with Conor. Prior to being removed from the mainstream classroom Conor was coming home with bite marks on his hands the result of over stimulation in the classroom.

Science Daily quotes Dr. John J. Foxe, Professor of Neuroscience at CCNY :

“Sensory integration dysfunction has long been speculated to be a core component of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but there has been precious little hard empirical evidence to support this notion. Viewing a speaker’s articulatory movements can greatly improve a listener’s ability to understand spoken words, and this is especially the case under noisy environmental conditions.”

“These results are the first of their kind to verify that children with autism have substantial difficulties in these situations, and this has major implications for how we go about teaching these children in the classroom,” he continued. “Children with autism may become distressed in large classroom settings simply because they are unable to understand basic speech if the environment is sufficiently noisy.

“We should start to pay attention to the need for smaller numbers in the classroom and we need to carefully control the levels of background noise that these kids are exposed to. Imagine how frustrating it must be to sit in a classroom without being able to properly understand what the teacher or your classmates are saying to you.

“Being able to detect speech in noise plays a vital role in how we communicate with each other because our listening environments are almost never quiet. Even the hum of air conditioners or fans that we can easily ignore may adversely impact these children’s ability to understand speech in the classroom.

“Our data show that the multisensory speech system develops relatively slowly across the childhood years and that considerable tuning of this system continues to occur even into early adolescence. Our data suggest that children with Autism lag almost 5 years behind typically developing children in this crucial multisensory ability.”

Actually this research simply confirms what many parents, including me, have observed directly for many years.

When your child comes home every day with bite marks on his hands it is evidence that can not be ignored by a parent.

When your child is moved to a quieter, less stressful environment and the biting ceases the conclusion to be drawn is obvious and all the feel good rhetoric of the mainstream classroom for all crowds such as we have here in New Brunswick will not cause you to change your mind.

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farmwifetwo said...

If your child can handle a mainstream class you don't want him in a PDD one here.

The teachers are not specialists, and they tend to put the most voilent behaviours in them. Children are regularly suspended for assaulting the other children, trashing the rooms and harming teachers and EA's. The stories are not rumours... I've heard them 1st hand from those that have been in the classrooms.

Classrooms can range from 4 to 8 children with 2 to 4 extra support staff.

My eldest was mainstreamed - dumped and left to manage for himself - it took to Gr 4 to get supports... and a Mother that threatened a Behavioural assessment of the classroom (never make threats you don't plan to go through with). But it's one of the cons to "appearing normal".

Little boy is in a regular classroom, but his is a program of inclusion. When they do math, he does his math... they do theirs. When they do reading/journalling.. ditto. Yet, he does spelling with them, carpet time with them, music etc.... he does as close as possible to the same with them but usually with a "twist" so he can do the work with his EA. I suspect I get this kind of programming due to the extra work that's done at home, advocating for services, and the fact that he learns, learns quickly and is a happy fellow that enjoys being in class with his friends.

I'm pleased with the program. I'm not happy with the fact he may get dumped into a self contained classroom in highschool. Luckily Gr 9 is still years away. We'll leave that battle for another day.

Christine said...

Hi Harold,

Can I ask how old Conor was when you changed his learning environment? Do you wish you had done this sooner? I am very happy for Conor and your family that his schooling is benefiting him and first and foremost he enjoys it. Wishing you all a wonderful summer and I look forward to the beautiful pictures of the trails.