The Importance of Explaining Autism to Peers for Promoting Social Inclusion and Interaction in Mainstream School Classrooms

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
P. Molteni1, L. d'Alonzo2 and M. Colombo3, (1)Research Center on Disability and Marginality, School of Education, Universitą Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy, (2)Research Centre on Disability and Marginality, School of Education, Universitą Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy, (3)Department for Inclusion of students with Special Educational Needs, Ufficio Scolastico Regionale per la Lombardia - Ufficio XVIII Monza e Brianza, Monza, Italy
Background: Italy has a long history of inclusion of students with autism in mainstream schools but there is no research evidence on the experience and impact of explaining autism to peers. Indeed, peer interaction and friendship is fundamental to support inclusion and learning processes (DeRosier et al., 2011). The present research investigates how teachers help peers in understanding the condition, enabling them to interact with their mate, and how awareness activities have to be designed and implemented in a proper coordinated manner, considering students’ age and school setting (Feldman et al., 2013).

Objectives: The research aims to analyse the importance of explaining autism to peers in mainstream schools and its impact on classroom inclusion and social relationships quality. The research questions are: i) Why and how often do teachers plan specific peer-to-peer activities?; ii) Are teachers aware of the importance of explaining autism to peers?; iii) Which insights do teachers have in explaining autism to peers?; iv) Which positive consequences do occur in peers interaction after explaining autism?

Methods: This research was designed as a pilot study that involves a multi-methods approach, including Action and Collaborative Research Methodology. The designed research allows the researcher to catch the complexity of a province school district (from kindergarten to high school) through a deep detailed analysis of selected aspects. The researcher explored the questions described above through observations (10), questionnaires (133) and focus groups (2). The qualitative and quantitative data collected during the research were analysed using the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA).

Results: Explaining autism to peers is fundamental to support class interaction and friendships in inclusive mainstream schools, since the kindergarten. The research underlines: how teachers promote small group interaction instead of large groups activities involving the student with autism; how teachers working in kindergartens and high schools are not aware of the importance of explaining autism to peers; how the students’ group can positively benefit by understanding the classmate with autism; how, after the explanation, there is an significant increase of positive interaction with the student and toleration of his/her challenging behaviours.

Conclusions: As this research as shown, promoting and enhancing the importance of explaining autism to peers is fundamental to enable mainstream schools teachers to define educational and life-long plans able to properly answer the group’s needs and support the student’s real inclusion in the classroom. This study is a good example of how the educational research can meet and help the daily practice in working with people on the autism spectrum and promote good practice of mainstream school teachers: the results will support the implementation of new class intervention and tools for raising professionals and peers’ awareness.

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