Teachers Use of Autism Evidence Based Practices - A research snapshot.

Authors: Lorna Barry & Dr Jennifer McMahon

Autism has become increasingly prevalent over the past number of years (CDC, 2018).

In Ireland, almost 14,000 students with autism are educated in the school system, with 63% of these students being educated in mainstream classrooms, 23% in autism units or classrooms, and 14% in special schools.

Given that a large majority are educated in mainstream schools and classrooms, it is important that our teachers are adequately prepared and supported to provide the type of individualised, evidence-based multi-disciplinary education that is shown to be best for students with autism (NCSE, 2016). However, what research in the i-TEACH lab has highlighted is that teachers remain significantly ill-prepared to educate students with autism, and have trouble accessing appropriate training and access to professionals that can support them in providing evidence-based strategies to support students with autism.

Over the past three years I (and a team of researchers from UL and NUIG) have been exploring the knowledge and use of autism evidence based practices by mainstream class teachers in Ireland. In our first study, we interviewed 14 teachers, and found that they perceived many issues with access to appropriate training, access to professionals and a lack of knowledge and preparation for teaching students with autism. The key findings from this study were:

  • 13 out of the 14 teachers interviewed reported that they had received no autism-specific training before they had a child with autism in their classroom

  • Teachers felt that they weren’t able to access CPD in a timely manner, and some felt that doing CPD courses during the summer or day-long courses meant that the information was hard to hold on to and implement.

  • The teachers reported the importance of working as part of a multi-disciplinary team “you need a full circle of all different professions”, but reported difficulties accessing these supports.

  • Some teachers also felt that they were being required to work outside of their competencies “Teachers aren’t psychologists, they aren’t occupational therapists or anything like that”.

In a second larger study we surveyed 369 teachers from all 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland, which greatly added to our understanding of how teachers can struggle to access appropriate training. Some key findings are:

  • 70% of teachers reported they had received less than 3 hours autism specific training in their initial teacher education courses

  • 78% of teachers reported they had received no autism specific CPD training before beginning to teach a student with autism.

  • 33% of teachers received no autism specific CPD to date, despite being responsible for educating students with autism.

  • 80% of teachers of students with autism received support from professionals less than twice per year.

  • Teachers were unfamiliar with and used evidence-based practices for students with autism infrequently.

  • Of the teachers surveyed, mainstream class teachers had the lowest levels of knowledge and use of evidence-based practices.

Our research highlights a significant lack of support and training available to teachers of some of our most vulnerable students. As we strive towards inclusive education, one of the most important factors in student outcomes is high-quality teaching which needs to be supported by appropriate CPD and multi-disciplinary support. The study findings suggest that teachers needs may not be met within the current system, which can lead to teachers feeling daunted, ill-prepared and experience significant stress trying to do their utmost for their students.

Given the increasing numbers of students with autism included in mainstream classrooms, teachers urgently need access to appropriate evidence-based training and increased access to support professionals. In short, we need to do more to support our teachers to bridge the gap between research and practice in order to make inclusive education for all a reality.

For more information please contact the author lorna.barry@ul.ie

The research team is Dr Jennifer McMahon (UL, & primary supervisor on the project); Dr Jennifer Holloway (NUIG) and Professor Stephen Gallagher (UL)

This research has been funded by the Irish Research Council.

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