Surviving in the mainstream: Capacity of children with autism spectrum disorders to perform academically and regulate their emotions and behaviour at school

Ashburner, J., Ziviani, J., & Rodger, S. (2010), Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4 , 18-27

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent deficits in social communication and social interactions in addition to restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities. Recent figures from the Australian Medical Association indicate that Autism effects approximately one in every one hundred children in Australia and at this rate it has been suggested that every third classroom in the country is likely to include a student with ASD.
This article is a comparison of teacher perceptions of academic, behavioural and emotional functioning of high functioning ASD students in mainstream classrooms, as compared with their peers. Teacher perceptions of 28 ASD students and 51 typically developing students from across 12 schools in Queensland were collected and analysed for classroom emotion regulation, behaviour regulation (e.g. compliance, attention, social behaviours) and educational outcomes. Results indicated that the children with ASD were exhibiting significantly higher levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties at school than their typically developing peers. These difficulties included internalising behaviours (anxiety, depression, withdrawal) and externalising behaviours (aggression related).

The findings in part relate to the way in which individuals with ASD process environmental stimuli and emotional information. The results also relate to research which address the reasons why these students are experiencing such high levels of anxiety, depression and withdrawal, suggesting that is likely related perfectionism, inflexibility and often a disparity between the desire to connect with others and the skills required to cope with the social and cultural complexities of a school environment. Another notable result from this study was that a high proportion of students with ASD were found to exhibit clinically significant issues with emotional lability indicating that these students were experiencing frequent involuntary emotional displays that would appear to be excessive in nature.
The school environment can be an overwhelming experience for children with autism and studies such as this suggest areas in which these children require targeted support. We are often asked by schools about how they could support students with ASD to develop the social and emotional skills required to cope more effectively with their environment. To this end, we are currently in the process of collecting information that would inform an Autism specific Emotional Intelligence development program. We may shortly be reaching out to schools to assist with the development of the program and would welcome any contributions on this topic.