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Autism in Schools: What Do Parents Want?

School environments may pose unique challenges for kids on the spectrum.

Key points

  • Many parents of kids on the autism spectrum feel pressure for their kids to fit into a neurotypical, mainstream learning model.
  • Guidelines of Disability Standards for Education advocate openness to consultation and making reasonable adjustments.
  • Even small environmental adjustments can translate into greater well-being gains for children on the spectrum.

There is research consensus that parents of young persons on the autism spectrum experience a greater amount of stress than parents of typically developing children (Hayes & Watson, 2013). In turn, as the intensity of children’s externalizing behaviors increases, so do carers’ levels of stress and depression (Wang et al., 2022).

Young persons on the autism spectrum can relate to the world in ways that deviate from the expected age norms. They can exhibit differences in cognitive processing (i.e., exhibiting a detail-focused cognitive style), attention style, the filtering of sensory input, and social engagement.

Challenges at School

School environments may pose unique challenges for children on the autism spectrum, for whom focusing attention on nonpreferred tasks and reading people’s social cues may be more mentally effortful than is the case for their neurotypically developing peers (Hemmers et al., 2022).

Many parents and carers of young persons on the autism spectrum experience pressure for their loved ones to fit into a neurotypical, mainstream model of learning (Bashir et al., 2014).

Many parents of school-aged children on the autism spectrum believe that increasing teacher education about autism may lead to greater acceptance and accommodating of their children’s needs, including their unique learning styles, as opposed to judging them according to mainstream standards (Clark & Adams, 2020) or attributing their characteristics and behaviors to poor discipline or a lack of effort.

In practice, however, research shows that some schools fail to follow through with the recommendations of specialist therapists (either due to lack of time or specialist knowledge; Roy, 2016).

In extreme cases, some schools cope with their special needs students by restricting their access to enrollment or their time at school (either through enforcing suspensions or limiting their class time; Roy, 2016).

The general guidelines of Disability Standards for Education advocate “openness to consultation” and “making reasonable adjustments” when accommodating students’ special needs. They are founded on the human rights perspective on disability that evolved over time with a rise in advocacy and civil rights movements, highlighting the importance of acknowledging individuals’ experiences and rights, as well as the consideration of the impact of the environment in adjusting to an individual’s ability (Berghs et al., 2016).

Enabling Environments

Berghs et al. (2016) flagged the importance of going beyond thinking about an individual’s rights on an intrapersonal level, also remembering the importance of fostering “enabling environments.”

I associate enabling environments with the coming together of two paths—the adjustment of the young person to meeting the demands of their environment and the adjustment of their environment to support the way of neurodiversity, both working toward minimizing the discrepancy between the demands of the environment and individuals’ abilities and resources.

One research example of a positive environmental adjustment for supporting the needs of young persons on the autism spectrum is a recent study by ASPECT. It found that making allocations for meeting the sensory needs of students with an autism diagnosis (e.g., allowing breaks that include physical activities such as squashing a bean bag) tends to enhance their self-regulatory abilities and reduce their levels of stress (Mills & Chapparo, 2014).

What do parents of children on the autism spectrum want from schools? Research suggests a greater understanding of autism and how it affects social communication and the learning style of young persons on the autism spectrum, and openness to conversations about ways of modifying the environment to consider their well-being and unique learning styles (Clark & Adams. 2020).

Even small environmental adjustments (whether in physical environments or attitudes and expectations) can translate into great well-being gains for young persons on the autism spectrum (Mills & Chapparo, 2014).


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Berghs M, Atkin K, Graham H, Hatton C, Thomas C. Implications for public health research of models and theories of disability: a scoping study and evidence synthesis. Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2016 Jul. PMID: 27512753.

Clark M, Adams D. Listening to parents to understand their priorities for autism research. PLoS One. 2020 Aug 13;15(8):e0237376. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0237376. PMID: 32790720; PMCID: PMC7425861. Conference Report,… (accessed August 18, 2022).

Cologon, K. (2020). Building inclusive communities. In A. Kilderry & B. Raban (Eds.), Strong Foundations: Evidence informing practice in early childhood education and care (pp. 38-49). ACER Press.

Ebadi M, Samadi SA, Mardani-Hamooleh M, Seyedfatemi N. Living under psychosocial pressure: Perception of mothers of children with autism spectrum disorders. J Child Adolesc Psychiatr Nurs. 2021 Aug;34(3):212-218. doi: 10.1111/jcap.12310. Epub 2021 Mar 18. PMID: 33734525.

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Hemmers J, Baethge C, Vogeley K, Falter-Wagner CM. Are Executive Dysfunctions Relevant for the Autism-Specific Cognitive Profile? Front Psychiatry. 2022 Jul 18;13:886588. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.886588. PMID: 35923452; PMCID: PMC9342604.

Mills, C., Chapparo, C. (2014) “Classroom based sensory intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD): A pilot study using single system design” Inaugural National

Roy, D., 2016. Children with disability are being excluded from education. [Blog] The Conversation, Available at: <…; [Accessed 17 August 2022].

Wang H, Wang Q, Hu X, Han ZR. Mindfulness and Stress Among Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in China. J Autism Dev Disord. 2022 May;52(5):2035-2045. doi: 10.1007/s10803-021-05011-x. Epub 2021 May 29. PMID: 34050845.

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