Using Evidence based practices for children with autism: Barriers and Facilitators for Teachers

#evidencebasedpractices #autism #irishteachers

Authors: Ms. Lorna Barry & Dr Jennifer McMahon

What is the issue?

As inclusive practices are a cornerstone of Irish education policy, increasing numbers of students with a range of disabilities are being included in mainstream classrooms alongside their neurotypical peers[J1] . Autism, a developmental disorder that leads to social and communication difficulties, is fast becoming one of the most common developmental disorders in children (The latest figures estimate that 1 in every 54 children will receive a diagnosis of autism in the US) (CDC, 2013) and over 63% of children with autism in Ireland are in a mainstream class, with another 23% attending an autism special class attached to a mainstream school.

Students with autism can experience a range of challenges in a school environment, including socialising, making friends, understanding language and communicating. While inclusion can be of benefit to students and schools, teachers often face challenges in educating students with autism, and report they can feel overwhelmed or ill-prepared[J2] . As Initial Teacher Education programmes are just beginning to cover autism-specific course material recently many[J3] teachers lack basic training and have to learn on the job.

Research has demonstrated that employing effective strategies with students with autism can be of benefit to teachers and students alike[J4] , as evidence-based practices have the potential to improve social, communicative and adaptive behaviours for students, which in turn can reduce teacher stress. However, teachers face challenges in adopting these practices to their classrooms, for reasons we don’t yet fully understand.

What did we do?

We conducted research (Barry, Holloway & McMahon) [J5] to explore the factors affecting uptake of evidence based practices by mainstream teachers when teaching young children with autism. We completed a scoping review of the literature with no specific time constraints and studies were included if they examined an evidence based practice as identified by Wong et al., 2015 and was an empirical study (either qualitative or quantitative).

What did we find?

We found that teachers experience challenges to adopting practices on a number of interdependent levels. Organisational or macro level factors including budgets and lack of access to multi-disciplinary teams which can potentially impact a schools ability to support evidence based practices. We found school level factors such as a lack of resources and school policies or school cultures that did not promote the use of evidence based practices. Finally we found individual level factors such as a lack of training, lack of time and a lack of buy in from teaching staff. All of these factors were demonstrated to impact the choosing and implementing evidence based practices.

However, one of the main findings of the study was that this area is poorly researched. Our review identified just 7 studies that met the criteria for inclusion and none of these were conducted in Ireland or Europe. Given that context is likely a very important factor in adopting evidence based practices this is very concerning.

What does this mean?

Our research highlights the complex process of adopting practices for students with autism, and also highlights that teachers are unlikely to be successful at adopting these practices unless they are provided with the correct resources and support to give them the training and time they need to successfully implement these practices with their students with autism.

As teachers in Ireland already experience time constraints and lack of support from multi-disciplinary teams and can struggle to get special needs assistant support, this model demonstrates that teachers are likely to struggle to adopt effective practices for their students with autism. However we also identified in this study important factors which would facilitate the adoption of practices, including school support and positive feedback from colleagues, and so collaborative and supportive school cultures should be fostered to help overcome some of the difficulties.

Give that none of the identified studies were conducted in Ireland or Europe this is an area that warrants immediate attention. In addition further research is needed to identify teachers current needs and experience, something which we are currently working on in i-TEACH so check back for more updates!

About the author: Lorna Barry is a doctoral student of the University of Ireland in the Teaching for Inclusion (i-Teach) research lab and an Irish Research Council funded scholar. Her programme of research focusing on the implementation of evidence based practices in primary schools for young children with autism.

[J1] [J2] [J3] [J4] [J5]

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