Merits of a Specialist Autism Unit in a Mainstream School


The paper posits by looking at the historical development of the need of Special Needs Education (SNE). The body concentrates on exposing the merits of having special autistic units in child care centers’ and schools. The literature discussed is based on scholarly articles on merits of special units for students with disabilities. They are centered on a human rights argument of provision of education to all regardless of ability and disability, as a way of providing maximum learning and teaching for autistic children, as a platform to increase economic growth and development as argued by specialists from economics of education, and a chance to instill social skills necessary for settling in societies. Learning strategies for maximum utilization of special units in schools are identified in light of how best they can be incorporated in schools for maximum benefits. The approach for discussion is by outlining the learning strategies for autistic teachers, schools and learners.

Provision of educational opportunities to autistic children can be traced back to global conferences such as the World Conference on Education for All (EFA) in Jomtien- Thailand in 1990, the Salamanca statements (UNESCO, 1994) and the Dakar framework for action (2000) where the basis for provision of education to all was set. Among the many recommendations in these conferences was the provision of education opportunities to all learners regardless of their ability and disability. According to the world rules on equalization of opportunities, a person should be labeled ‘disabled’ when he/she is denied the opportunities generally available in the community necessary for fundamental elements of living. Among the fundamental elements include: going to school, accessing employment opportunities, acquiring adequate housing facilities, and participation in social and political groups. It is clear that disability as defined is contrary to the scholarly reference, where disability is defined from a level of incapability. The United nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in (1990) in Article 23, states that disabled children should enjoy a full and decent life, conditions which should ensure a life of dignity and self reliance. The Article 23 (3) further asserts that children with disabilities should be educated to their maximum potential within their own communities. In America, the No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2001 mandates accountability for educational outcomes for all children, including those with special needs by requiring participation in standardized testing and disaggregated reporting of achievement by students with disabilities. This call requires an investigation on importance of special autistic units for children with autism.

Merits of special units

A number of scholars and researchers have observed merits for provision of education opportunities to autistic children through special units. First, research has shown that dropouts rates of children with special needs are always higher than those of counterparts when put in inclusion or mainstreamed classes (Karen, 2010). In Rhode Island, for example, there was high drop out rates of children with disabilities put at 31% higher than those considered normal students. Most of these drop outs are attributed to mistreatment in regular schools that leaves autistic with no options but to drop out of schools. Children with disabilities are prone to abuses and neglect four times more likely than their counterparts. Special units will not only curb the high drop outs rates of autistic children but will also offer them an opportunity to pursue education without mistreatments.

Special autistic units’ ensure adequate learning and participation of autistic children in education. Autistic children having complex behavioral needs may require a degree of expertise that can be lacking within child care settings and general classrooms. This may result in exclusion, inferior services, low expectations and unrestrictive placements. In mainstreaming and total inclusion some subjects become easier to handle while others difficult since inclusion may require substantial modifications of the general curriculum. Due to the delayed concept development of autistic children, their curriculum calls for curriculum adaptations in order to meet their learning needs. They need adopted curriculum that takes care of the severity of their conditions. This disadvantages them when put in child care settings and general classrooms. Although many special education scholars are advocating for full inclusion of autistic children in normal schools, the high speed at which most of the normal students build their concepts discourages children with autism. If the teaching gets so bad and completely ignores them, they get discouraged and sometimes become violent with themselves and others. To have special units allows them to learn at their own pace taking into consideration their defects which becomes a motivating factor. Since special units are always equipped with the necessary facilities to facilitate maximum learning, teachers have a chance to use all the available facilities to ensure the affected children are involved in productive learning. However, studies have shown some autistic children with a high Intelligent Quotient (IQ) which aid their faster acquisition of concepts in learning. Such children can selectively be moved a way from special units into normal classes and only involved in special units when deemed necessary by the teachers. This is only possible when both special units and normal classes exist.

Special autistic units in either child care centers or schools have also an advantage of preparing them for the highest degree of independence possible in their later lives. Majority of the people with disabilities have reported dependency on other people even after receiving a sound education to necessitate their independence in later life. Education provided in purely special autistic units have an advantage of providing an autonomous living as early as when one starts schooling. Generally, the rising aspirations worldwide have introduced yet another task for education of autistic children; that of raising there economic conditions. There is a conviction that the best way a country can overcome gross disparities rooted in past prejudices and socio-economic injustices that autistic students have faced is by expansion of education through special units either in child care centers or schools (Coombs, 1985:66). Thus, according to UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Reports of 2005 -2007, education has come to be regarded as an economic panacea, which can assist autistic people move from underproduction, and pandemic diseases that have rocked there hopes for high standards of living (UNESCO, 2007). Thus, there is a strong conviction that expansion of education opportunities to autistic children through special units is an investment for economic and human resource development (Psacharopoulos et al., 2004). As argued in human capital theory, good education builds special skills and abilities that enhance contributions to economic development of the world (Blaug, 1985; Shultz, 1961; Psacharopoulos and Woodhall, 1985). Thus, providing educational opportunities to autistic children in special units either in mainstreamed school or special child cares is a preparing for their future roles. Special units in schools help them acquire knowledge which they use to derive skills and super skills that are useful in helping them access jobs.

Integration of special units in normal schools presents another unique advantage of giving better social and emotional training that makes an exceptional autistic child more acceptable and employable in the normal society. Integration is based on socialization which enables autistic children learn the alternative modes of behavior available in normal social settings. The activities of these children in the company of other children contribute to development of a picture of the social world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions the need for full participation of children in the society through social groups and community. This applies to all people including those with disability. Socialization provided in special units in mainstreamed schools help the autistic children to identify, and provide them an opportunity for group existence relevant for both present functioning and future relationship (Horton, 1988, Woolfernsberger, 1972). It thus promotes a sense of community and social acceptance for autistic children, virtues needed for working and fitting easily in the society after completion of schooling. Such arrangements play a major role in the self esteem of autistic children which in turn widens the avenues for communication for young autistic children. Education has always been seen as a preparation for life and schools viewed as centers’ which prepare one for social life in the society. The only way to prepare autistic children for life in a society is by providing education opportunities through inclusion and not segregation (Groenewegen, 1984). Since living in a society calls for learning social skills, having a special autistic unit in a mainstreamed school provides an opportunity for them to learn the skills. Provision of these cherished skills is made possible when they are given a chance to associate with a variety of individuals than when they are left to learn in isolated environments. These kinds of isolated learning environments seem to stress more on the perceptions that they are incapable of learning normally and consequently, unable to settle for a normal life in a society after completing their studies.

Provision of educational opportunities to autistic children is also a way of domesticating the United Nations declaration of education as a human right. Following the end of World War II in 1945, people’s aspirations worldwide were enlarged by two convictions –a political one and- an economic one (Coombs, 1985: 66). Among the strongest desires soon after the war was access to education which found expression in international declarations, notably the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which stated that ‘everyone has the right to education’ (UNO, 1948) regardless of ability and disability. The right to education has, since then, become one of the strongest claims of all people in all nations. The world has, since then, witnessed a number of resolutions for, and initiatives in making education available to all. These include; the regional UNESCO Conferences at Karachi, Santiago, and Addis Ababa; UNESCO’s call for education for all in its medium term plan for 1987-1989; and the world conference on Education for All (EFA) in March 1990 held at Jomtien in Thailand (International Agency Commission, 1990); and the world education forum, held in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000. Advocacy in these initiatives has been on provision of education to the masses which requires that pupils go to school and complete education regardless of their ability and disability. Besides provision of education to autistic children as a universal commitment by nations, it also helps in developing them academically, which in turn develops a sense of self-help. Educational institutions should therefore, aim at providing a human, habilitating environment that allows maximum, personal freedom and self actualization to individuals with autistic disorders. Schools have a responsibility of providing an effective education to the majority of the children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost effectiveness of the entire educational system (Booth, et al., 2000; tom, et al., 1998). Statistics show that for every 1000 young Americans, 2 are autistic. Opening up special units in mainstream schools expand access to educational opportunities to this growing numbers. This shows the severity of the condition to a level that the American scholars and researchers think if special attention is not given autism, schools that are required to ensure a relevant and quality education will continue giving a contrary state of education to children with autism.

Provision of education opportunities to autistic children through special units in mainstreamed schools or otherwise has a number of benefits to teachers. First, since autism manifests itself in a number of defects with varying severity, having a special unit in a mainstream school improves the teacher’s chances of meeting their learning needs. The teacher can plan for their classes objectively with minimal disruptions. For example, he/she will allow those with mild defects to attend normal classes and have them into special classes when only deemed necessary. For those with severe conditions, teachers will have them in special units long enough for maximum learning. These allow teachers to come up with individual learning schedules that facilitate adequate learning of the affected children.

Special units in regular schools tap the services of regular teachers in teaching autistic children. This gives teachers an opportunity to serve as many students as possible in general educational environments (Smith & Luckasson, 1995). Today teachers must effectively be prepared to teach all kinds of students in public schools (Johnson, Psugach & Devlin, 1990). This means many classroom teachers will directly be involved in educating students with disabilities (autism). This collaboration among parents, Special education teachers and general classroom teachers is critical for students with disabilities to receive an appropriate education (wood, 1998). Involvement of regular teachers presents another chance for improving the status of special education. Inclusion classroom presents a challenge to teachers who are not specialists in Special Needs Education (autism). For them to adequately deal with the varying needs of autistic children, they need basic information given through special education training before attending to inclusion classrooms. Schools normally make arrangements to orient their regular teachers before involving them fully in teaching autistic classrooms. Basic information on special education sometimes acts as a catalyst for these teachers to seek more training in Special Needs Education. This in turn increases the number of trained specialists in autistic conditions and provision of education opportunities to them.

Strategies for maximizing special autistic units in schools

There are a number of strategies that can enable maximum use of special autism units in schools. They can be categorized into three: school strategies, teacher strategies and students’ strategies. For school strategies, the main concern is on how the school environment provides the favorable conditions for the education of autistic children. Schools should provide an environment and build a culture especially where special autism units are put within the normal school to have normal students in an inclusion classroom support teachers to meet the needs of autistic children. They can provide the additional assistance that autistic children need hence spare teachers time to attend to other individual needs, and also, an opportunity for autistic children to learn working in groups. This is necessitated by the fact that autism disorders present a varying range of disabilities. The more they are in a school, the more the responsibility to teacher. This develops their social skills that are required in the society after there education. The pressing question has always been doubts over the ability of peers to help autistic colleagues to learn. However, research has shown that use of both teacher and peer interventions are effective in building social behavior of autistic kids (Odom & Strain, 1986). A study by Goldstein and colleagues (1992) on learning social skills of autistic children noted a positive correlation between social interactions among autistic children and their normal peers. The involvement of the autistic children is key in learning most of these social skills. Kohler and Strain (1997) found that disruptive behavior of autistic children rarely decrease unless they (autistic children) initiated the social interactions themselves.

Schools have a responsibility of implementing the best learning strategies for autistic children. Research indicates that the use of naturalistic behavior therapy in teaching autistic children provides a higher probability of maximum learning (Madrona et al., 2010). This approach provides better chances of changing autistic behaviors than the applied behavioral analysis. The approach incorporates natural situations where learning and positive reinforcements is done by giving the autistic learners more chances of doing what he/she already seem to like. It utilizes the services of non-autistic children in the therapy. Creation of these approaches for educating autistic children requires the full support of the schools. Schools should provide high quality programs for young autistic children when they are young, since these yield sustainable improvements in their education. The Chicago Longitudinal study, a 17 year study of an extended early intervention program for children between 3-9 years and their parents, found 41% reduction in prevalence (autism part of the study) for preschool students. Provision of services in schools should be in natural, least restrictive environments, which promote inclusive learning. They should be adequate in facilities, including a trained workforce and a variety of services specifically for the varying spectrum of autism. They should strive to transform their system of education to provide opportunities for autistic kids to utilize their strengths and abilities since a school for all kinds must embrace the conviction that every learner has distinct educational needs. All schools should keep track of assessment and reports in the early grades and provide instant educational support for autistic children who need extra individual remedial supports, as well as prompt special education assessment where appropriate. They should strive to improve teacher training for autistic children and class supports for general and special units. This increases chances of autistic children to access a broad range of teaching approaches and learning styles or disabilities. To reduce high suspension and drop out rates of autistic children and improve inclusion rates there is need for government through the districts coordinators to provide state assistance to provide technical assistance in teaching children with complex autistic conditions. Schools should ensure that most appropriate practices for teaching children with a variety of autistic conditions are available to parents and special units in schools to adequately serve the education of autistic children.

For any successful learning strategy teachers play the most crucial role. Teaching of autistic children depends on how well teachers can maintain the autistic classrooms to deliver the set goals and objectives. As already mentioned above, autistic children vary in severity of their conditions and so putting them in a single classroom presents a more extra job for teachers especially in attending to, and, meeting individual needs in a class. Teachers need to have a good understanding of the autism spectrum to be able to address students’ needs and learning contexts before applying interventions models. It is equally important to make adjustments to the learning environments. They have to learn on tips of motivating the children to learn. Motivation has been identified as an enabling factor in helping autistic children to appropriately learn social and environmental stimulation. Research shows that lack of motivation, these children experience failure that lead to depression, poor performance and task and social avoidance (Madrona et al., 2010; Kohler &Strain, 1997; Hoyson et al., 1984). This is further exposed by explosive behaviors towards learning opportunities. They become destructive to themselves and even others, and can as well destroy property. Due to this, teachers are presented with a challenge on how to assess these students. A provision should be made to make sure that the assessment provides them with an opportunity to learn something new rather than examining what they already know. Wrong evaluation will be detrimental to the holistic development of the same children (Hoyson et al., 1984). Teachers are also required to be flexible enough when teaching autistic children with a mix of abilities and learning styles in a special unit. This allows the classrooms to be calm and learning centered which effectively serves the needs of the learners. Teachers are required as a strategy to understand disabilities of the autistic children in the special unit. This requires teachers to get a thorough understanding of autism. They may need to have records of each and every autistic student in the special unit. Parents might be involved in getting to know the history of the condition and the level of severity. Teachers are also required to carry out a thorough inspection of the special unit to advice the school management on what is required to maximize the learning in these units. These paraprofessionals will allow meaningful learning hence improved outcomes. They will also be required to have fresher courses to update themselves with the demands of autism of the time. Teaching of autistic children requires teamwork from parents, teachers and autistic specialists which require extra patience. Due their ability to learn concepts slowly, it is important to be given additional time to grasp the concepts, and where possible teachers should teach each concept in several ways for the students to have greater understanding.

In general, strategies that can be put in place to maximize the use of special units in a school include: more challenging and motivating courses and materials to be introduced in schools to motivate these disadvantaged children to learn more, advocate training of more regular teachers in special education to assist in provision of adequate learning to the autistic learners, advocacy groups to be involved in sensitizing parents and community on importance of providing educational opportunities to autistic children in mainstreaming schools and not, at their residential homes. This will revise the trends where many parents are putting their affected children in lone classes with some professionals. Although the initiative caters for the special needs of these children their social skills are always affected and the side effects which are detrimental experienced in the later lives of the children.


In conclusion, the paper has exposed a number of issues concerning provision of quality and relevant educational opportunities to autistic children. Research has shown that use of special units reduce drop out rates of autistic children. They ensure adequate learning and participation of autistic children in education. Special units prepare autistic children for the highest degree of independence possible in their later lives through provision of expertise services that ensure adequate learning. Special units in normal school give better social and emotional training. Early and quality programs should be put in place for identifying children in autism for early intervention. Educators are not concerned on the need of education for autistic children but on how best the education opportunities can be planned and provided to meet their needs. It is clear that education changes the lifestyles of autistic children: they learn and sharpen the available social skills required to fit into the society, they are well prepared to live an independent life. It is worthy noting that autistic children are already in a state of disadvantage which can only be corrected by providing a well thought out education to enhance self independency. They need some level of confidence that can easily be built through competencies they acquire as students. These efforts cannot be realized unless special units that are created in schools are maximally utilized. The strategies for such efforts are given a consideration and discussed in light of the school, teachers and students. The strategies underscore the importance of fostering collaborative efforts between special education teachers, regular teachers, parents and autistic children in achieving a quality education to these minorities in our society.

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