The number of students with ASD attending mainstream schools has increased dramatically over the past decade. Teachers are reporting they often feel ill-equipped and anxious about meeting the needs of students with ASD in their classroom (Emam & Farrell, 2009). In addition, parents are increasingly expressing frustration with the quantity and quality of support their children with ASD are receiving in school settings and are increasingly resorting to home schooling and other alternative options to meet the needs of their children (Parsons, Lewis, & Ellins, 2009). Finally, school principals have also reported they lack training and information on how to lead school programs that meet the needs of students with ASD (Horrocks, White, & Roberts, 2008). These findings suggest that systematic approaches that provide key stakeholders with training and a workable model is necessary for all stakeholders to feel confident in implementing effective educational programs for students with ASD.
Researchers have identified key features of successful education programs that enable individuals with ASD to achieve good outcomes in schools and particular emphasis has been placed on the importance for schools and educators of utilising evidence-based practices when working with students with ASD. For example, flexibility of programs and ongoing and positive communication with parents and families has been cited by researchers as critical for effective programs for students with ASD (Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2012; Simpson, deBoer-Ott, & Smith-Myles, 2003). Additionally researchers have stressed the importance of transition planning, individualised supports and planning, structured environments and specialised curriculum for students with ASD to achieve outcomes in school programs (Ivannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003). Lastly Bays and Crockett (2007) have stressed that leadership of school principals in establish positive school cultures and modelling of student-centred processes is essential for successful inclusive school programs.
Similarly research also stressed the importance of utilising whole school strategies to develop inclusive school cultures and ethos that cater to the needs of all students including those with disabilities and other diverse needs (Crosland & Dunlap, 2012). Approaches based on Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design for Learning are pedagogies that are considered essential parts of school programs for all students, but particularly for those with autism and other disabilities. In addition, approaches such as Response To Intervention (RTI) and School-wide Positive Behaviour Support (SWPBS) stress that a 3-tiered system of intervention (e.g. school, class and individual) is a critical model for schools effectively catering for students with disabilities.
While there is research on individual elements of evidence-based practice for students with ASD, research is needed to investigate ways of constructing whole school environments that incorporate evidence-based practice and the meaningful inclusion and achievement of students with ASD. Understanding this holistic approach is critical to the creation of effective inclusive programs for students with ASD. In addition, the role of school leaders in guiding and implementing this process requires further investigation.
This paper reports on the outcomes of a pilot project conducted by Griffith University’s Autism Centre of Excellence in collaboration with the Far North Queensland Region of Education Queensland during the 2012 and 2013 school years. The primary aim of the pilot project was to trial a school-wide approach to build the capacity of schools to meet the needs of students with ASD and to enable these students to achieve quality academic and personal outcomes. Specifically the project was conducted to address the following goals:
1. Engagement of school leaders in implementation of systematic change across school and individual student processes to facilitate achievement and outcomes for students with ASD.
2. Utilisation of whole school model to build capacity of schools to cater for and achieve outcomes for students with ASD.
3. Fidelity of implementation of practices by all stakeholders (school leaders, teachers, students, and parents)
4. Increased positive engagement of students with ASD, demonstrated by significant positive change on criterion based measures and improved school attendance.
5. An improved sense of confidence and capacity in teachers working with students with ASD.