Autism in the Classroom

A Research Essay by Caroline Mitchell

Early childhood education is crucial in building the foundation of academic success and the social skills that are necessary for a fulfilling life, yet many Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students are not included in the American education system to the degree that they should be. While life skills can be challenging to learn for many elementary-age students, students on the autism spectrum have additional difficulty with these developments. ASD is a developmental disability that can cause “significant social, communication and behavioral challenges” (CDC). While each person with ASD is affected differently, they share many of the same difficulties, such as challenges with communication, expressing feelings, and overstimulation. 

Overstimulation is the result of excessive external stimuli, something that can be difficult for children with ASD to process. It is important to note that ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that individuals with ASD can range from low- to high functioning, and that the degree of their disorder can affect their learning, leading us to wonder whether students affected by ASD should be included in the general education classroom. Many argue that these students are not capable of learning in such environments or believe that the presence of students with ASD will affect the other students. While the reasoning supporting separated classrooms is fair to consider, many students with ASD, as well as their teachers and peers, exemplify the positive effects of including ASD students in the general education classroom. Many educators have proposed inclusive classrooms as a potential solution that will enable students with and without learning disabilities to have the opportunity to learn together. Building on these ideas, I argue that students with Autism Spectrum Disorder should have the opportunity to learn in general education classrooms. Inclusive learning leads to significant improvements in both academic and social skills for students and encourages values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that are the cornerstones of civic education. 

The main challenges for students with ASD are “social understanding and behavior, problems in understanding abstract language…from visual support in learning new material, interfering behaviors, … and/or relatively rigid adherence to a narrow set of routines and behaviors” (Ferraioli and Harris 19). These challenges are some of the most difficult to overcome for students with ASD. However, socially engaging environments have proved beneficial for students with ASD in their development of social skills and overcoming other classroom challenges. Many agree that social skills are one of the most important developments of early childhood education. In fact, a lack of social skills or the ability to develop them is one of the primary indicators of ASD. Multiple studies have concluded that students with ASD are positively impacted by learning in inclusive classrooms, and these studies considered different ends of the spectrum. The research covering inclusive classrooms and students on the autism spectrum states that various types of educational engagement can support more positive behavior and improved social skills in students with ASD (Harrower and Dunlap 769). These strategies include auditory engagement, responsiveness, and communication, all of which are critical in developing social skills.

Unfortunately, recent data shows that 90% of students with ASD are isolated from their general education peers (Ferraioli, Harris 20). This has resulted in loneliness and further difficulties in social situations. This isolation creates additional challenges with social interaction because isolated ASD students are not accustomed to interacting with children of their age or even unfamiliar adults. In many cases, ASD students will only interact with one or two teachers a day, which means the only adults in their lives are their parents and special education teachers. Similarly, they are only exposed to children who have similar learning disabilities. Over time, these limited interactions will make it much more difficult for students with ASD to feel comfortable around other individuals. Limiting their exposure to different people and environments can lead to increased fear of new interactions or stimuli, including meeting new people, trying new experiences, or being without their trusted adult. 

The current general education classrooms are ableist, excluding students who experience learning disabilities. These “normative” classrooms imagine students who do not experience any form of disability, directly affecting the education rights of students who do have these disabilities. Alternatively, inclusive classrooms improve the academic performance of students with ASD while offering learning opportunities to students with and without learning disabilities. Thanks to adaptive and inclusive education strategies developed by teachers, schools have found ways to include ASD students with their general education peers during most lessons. Teachers have developed visual engagement strategies, such as picture-word association that positively impact attention skills. Visual engagement is meant to improve these skills, as many students with ASD are challenged by visual distractions. These strategies are vital to developing a useful foundation of academics in students with ASD, as proven in multiple research studies, including the Dugan experiments. In these experiments, “Dugan et al. (1995) evaluated cooperative learning groups during fourth-grade social studies activities, where the group activities consisted of [visual engagement opportunities]. This resulted in improvements in test scores and academic engagement and increased duration of student interaction between children with autism and their nondisabled classmates” (Harrower and Dunlap 771). Dugan’s work provides additional evidence that inclusive classroom settings can work for ASD students.

Students who had access to inclusive classrooms also experienced emotional benefits. The isolation that comes with special education classrooms prevents these students from creating relationships with their peers, often leading to increased loneliness and feeling unaccepted by the general student population. According to numerous studies, such as “Involvement or Isolation and Interventions for Increasing the Academic Engagement of Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders in Inclusive Classrooms,” when ASD students are included in general education classrooms, they have a positive reaction in terms of emotions and relationships. In the “Involvement or Isolation” study, students with ASD were asked to report on their experiences after being moved into a general education classroom. This study showed that “Children reported on friendship qualities, peer acceptance, loneliness, and classroom social networks. Despite involvement in networks, children with autism experienced lower centrality, acceptance, companionship, and reciprocity; yet they did not report greater loneliness” (Chamberlain, Kasari, Rotheram-Fuller 230). Centrality refers to one’s position within their social network, in this case, an individual’s standing in the classroom. It observes and analyzes how a person’s relative importance in their environment, which has proven to be essential in researching inclusive education. While this study concluded that additional evidence was needed to understand the friendships between ASD and general education students, they did find an overwhelming decrease in feelings of loneliness. An integral part of the inclusive classroom is that they aim to provide a safe and welcoming environment for students of all types. This study, among others, has shown that when ASD students are included in the classroom, they sense an increased feeling of belonging, and in time can develop even stronger relationships. It is crucial to keep in mind that these studies have, so far, only shown the short-term benefits of inclusive learning; the extension of this inclusivity will most likely influence ASD students far beyond their educational careers. 

While the emotional aspect of inclusion is important for a child’s development, another study found social improvements within the friendships formed between ASD students and “peer buddies” who were general education students. The study, “Peer Buddies in the Classroom: The Effects on Spontaneous Conversations in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was used to evaluate the ability of ASD students to converse and connect with their peers, along with the effects these conversations had on their emotions and feelings towards inclusivity. According to Dr. Fiorenzo Laghi, author of “Peer Buddies in the Classroom,”

Study 2 aimed at verifying which kinds of social behaviors were engaged by students with ASD when they interacted with other classmates during break sessions. In general terms, it was found that the most social behaviors engaged by adolescents with ASD were positive, thus meaning that they were actively and spontaneously involved in social interactions with other classmates. (Laghi 530)

Similar to the “Involvement or Isolation” study, students reported on social interactions and relationships, and the study concluded that the peer buddy relationships impacted the wellbeing of students with ASD. The buddy system also led to an increased display of happiness. When analyzing the effects of mixed peer buddy groups, researchers found that “among positive social interaction behaviors, adolescents with ASD engaged more frequently in smiling, looking at and combining smile and eye contact. Moreover, adolescents with ASD demonstrated their affection for classmates either verbally or non-verbally” (Laghi 531). 

Students with ASD are not the only ones who have seen improvements from inclusive classrooms: teachers, parents of ASD children, and other general education students have also reported benefits. In Kelly Chandler-Olcott and Paula Kluth’s extensive research, they focus on a real-life situation in which they take the elementary teachers’ opinions into perspective. The researchers found that the presence of autistic students improved instruction for all of their students. This research revealed that meeting the needs of students with autism has been impactful on the teachers, forcing them to look at the way they educate their classes. Researchers argue that the inclusion of these students will benefit each group affected by the inclusive classroom, citing literacy and special education teachers such as Belle Gardner. In particular, Gardner discovered that “Having to meet the needs of students with autism has forced teachers in my building to be more reflective about their teaching, and more explicit with their literacy instruction. It’s really made all of us look at how kids learn differently” (Gardner, qtd. in Chandler-Olcott and Kluth 548). Out of 240 students at Gardner’s school, 8 are diagnosed with ASD, all of whom are required to take certain classes in a general education setting. Gardner explains, “formal assessments like standardized tests or unit tests from the reading series don’t measure what those students know. Teachers are keeping better notes while working, and they’re doing a better job of analyzing those notes because they often reflect student learning much better than the testing data” (Gardner, qtd. in Chandler-Olcott and Kluth 548). These first-hand accounts from teachers are some of the best evidence supporting inclusive classrooms. As Gardner states, the benefits of inclusivity far outweigh any of the difficulties teachers may face. 

The effect inclusive classrooms have on social and academic outcomes poses a concern to many teachers and parents who suspect that students with ASD would negatively affect the general education classroom environment. Some argue that the extra support needed to educate children with disabilities takes away teacher attention and decreases learning for “typical” students. Typical children may also have difficulty adjusting to the inclusive classrooms, especially the atypical behaviors of ASD students. While these concerns indicate a need for additional research, existing studies show that the inclusion of students with autism does not negatively impact peers in regular classrooms. 

These concerns are refuted by many students and teachers who have experienced inclusive classrooms firsthand. In a study conducted by Pam Hunt and Lori Goetz (“Research on Inclusive Educational Programs, Practices, and Outcomes for Students with Severe Disabilities”), they concluded that the inclusion of ASD and disabled students was beneficial to the classroom environment. According to their study of classroom peers in nineteen inclusive education programs, 

The peers in those programs reported feeling comfortable with the target children and demonstrated positive social-emotional growth. Parents and teachers of the peers also reported mostly positive interactions among the students. The authors compared this group of students with typical children in [non-inclusive] classrooms; participation in an included environment did not interfere with academic gains. Children in both groups progressed on target objectives and demonstrated increases in academic engagement. (Hunt and Goetz, qtd. in Ferraioli and Harris 21) 

The social benefits of participating in inclusive classrooms are clear based on both studies and first-hand accounts from ASD students and their parents, teachers, and peers. The results show that typical students who interact with differently-abled students in educational settings have reflected more positive attitudes towards their peers and people with disabilities in general. A great benefit of inclusive classrooms is that over time they could lead towards a more positive attitude towards disabilities for the younger generations as a whole. 

Putting aside the social and emotional benefits of inclusive classrooms, learning is a civil right for all students, including those with ASD and other disabilities. Disregarding whether a student chooses to learn in the special or general education classroom, access to a proper, quality education is a human right. In a democratic society, every person is to be afforded equal opportunities; segregated settings and marginalization from mainstreamed experiences symbolize our society’s rejection of a population segment. Participation in inclusive schools and communities provides students with and without disabilities the experience of a society that values and includes all its citizens. This falls within equality acts, stating that students with disabilities cannot legally be discriminated against, i.e., forcing them to learn in isolated environments, such as the special education classroom. 

Ashley Cowger, Director of Special Education for Indianapolis Public Schools, spoke out on discrimination, saying, “I consider advocating for our students’ rights to full, equitable access to an education a huge part of my job. To me, it’s a matter of civil rights that we do all we can to create inclusive learning communities that celebrate student differences and strive to provide the support students with disabilities need to be successful” (Cowger). In democratic societies, we are all equal. This equality should not stop based on an individual’s abilities, whether mental or physical. In ASD students, the inequalities between “typical” and ASD/disabled students lead to feelings of neglect and loneliness for students with disabilities. Cowger prides herself on upholding the most demanding learning environment for her ASD students, hoping that by creating a level playing field, she will continue to see the benefits of inclusive learning. 

This means providing kids with special needs access to rigorous content and holding them to high standards, as well as thinking creatively about how to give them opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities, AP classes, college and career coaching, and arts classes… It’s our responsibility, morally and ethically, to give all our students what they need to be successful—and of course, success, and the steps it takes to get there, look different for each kid. (Cowger)

The right for students with disabilities to learn in inclusive environments is vital for their success since it can make monumental differences in the way they live their lives. Inclusive classrooms have proven to create positive change for students with ASD and other disabilities, both socially and academically, and it is extremely important that these students are recognized as equals in the general education system and that everyone is provided the opportunity of fair education. While the difficulties for this transition and furthered inclusivity are recognized, the benefits that ASD students, “typical” peers, teachers, and parents find with inclusivity far outweigh any initial difficulties that a school system may face.

Works Cited

Chandler-Olcott, Kelly, and Paula Kluth. “Why Everyone Benefits from Including Students with Autism in Literacy Classrooms.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 62, no. 7, 2009, pp. 548-557. ProQuest,

Chamberlain, Brandt, et al. “Involvement or Isolation? The Social Networks of Children with Autism in Regular Classrooms.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, vol. 37, no. 2, Feb. 2007, pp. 230–242. Academic Search Complete, doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0164-4.

Cowger, Ashley. “Why Special Education Is a Civil Right.” TNTP, 11 Apr. 2017, 

Ferraioli, Suzannah J., and Sandra L. Harris. “Effective Educational Inclusion of Students on the Autism Spectrum.” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, vol. 41, no. 1, 2011, pp. 19-28. ProQuest,, 

Harrower, Joshua K., and Glen Dunlap. “Including Children with Autism in General Education Classrooms.” Behavior Modification Journal, vol. 25, no. 5, 2001, pp. 762-784. ProQuest, doi: 10.1177/0145445501255006

Laghi, Fiorenzo, et al. “Peer Buddies in the Classroom: The Effects on Spontaneous Conversations in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Child & Youth Care Forum, vol. 47, no. 4, Aug. 2018, pp. 517–536. Academic Search Complete, doi:10.1007/s10566-018-9449-y

Author Interview – Caroline Mitchell

Q: Why did you choose to write about your particular topic for the project? 

A: I primarily chose this topic because of my involvement with unified volleyball and as a special education volunteer in high school where I had great experiences and made many friends who have physical and learning disabilities. Part of my experience was witnessing firsthand the struggles and discrimination that students with disabilities face daily. Even though they faced hardships while at school, it was one of the best parts of their day, and they really looked forward to going to class. It was because of these individuals and my experiences with them that I decided to write about autism in school systems, hoping that it could bring light to a topic that doesn’t cross most people’s minds. 

Q: With this contest, we want to feature pieces that challenge and discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. How do you feel your piece accomplishes that goal? 

A: My piece focused on the discrimination against students with learning disabilities, specifically autism spectrum disorder. Students who experience learning disabilities are subject to discrimination within the classroom setting daily, often leading to difficulty receiving a proper education and social skills. My paper introduces the concept of inclusive classrooms, which have been proven to benefit students with and without learning disabilities. These classrooms are vital to the development of students with learning disabilities, as they reject the discriminatory ideals that many school districts support. An inclusive environment can provide students with an increased level of understanding, empathy, and respect toward their peers with autism. I hope that this piece brings attention to how an inclusive environment provides a better education while decreasing discrimination.

Q: How do you feel the genre of the project helped you effectively communicate to your audience? What were the advantages of this genre in particular? 

A: I think that by writing a research paper, I was able to combat some of the misconceptions about learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorder. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what learning disabilities are, and many people fail to realize that these disabilities truly are on a spectrum. By providing research-based evidence and personal experiences from parents and teachers of students with learning disabilities, I hope that the piece provides some credibility for those who question the merits of inclusive education. 

Q: What did you learn through the process of research and completing this project, and/or the experience of preparing it for publication? 

A: Through the different programs I did in high school, I made the casual observation that everyone was having fun and growing from their experiences. When I played unified sports, everyone loved being a part of a team, and when I volunteered in the special education classroom, everyone was super excited to learn. Writing this paper made me realize that quite a bit of research has gone on in this area, and it was satisfying to see how many professionals work behind the scenes to improve the educational opportunities for all students. 

Q: How has your writing process changed throughout your time at Elon? How do you feel ENG 1100 fostered that change?  

A: During my first year at Elon, I noticed some major changes in the way I write. I was exposed to different types of writing and research, and my professors really pushed me to think deeper about what I was writing. I noticed that my writing began going further than surface-level explanations and that I was learning how to write professionally. I am now much more confident in my writing and have even found myself helping my peers with their own work. It truly has become something I enjoy doing since starting at Elon.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix

A: I would advise students to go for it! I was hesitant when my professor suggested that I submit my research paper since I would never have expected to have my work published so early in my college career. This so far has been a gratifying experience, and I’m very grateful that my professor pushed me to challenge myself when I couldn’t do it myself.

ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Marc Keith

What is your overall approach to teaching ENG 1100?

When teaching ENG 1100, I try to create a collaborative atmosphere in which students share and discuss their ideas with each other. I typically design my courses around a theme so that we have a set of common texts to work with but still give students the freedom to pursue their interests and passions. By challenging students to engage with the class theme, they broaden their horizons and develop their critical thinking skills, while the open-ended prompts give them the opportunity to connect these ideas to their own lives.

What do you hope students get out of completing this particular project? 

This project is designed to help students gain a deeper appreciation for the diversity of views and experiences we all have. Rather than focusing solely on proving their case or winning the argument, I encourage students to try and listen to, empathize with, and understand where other people are coming from. This approach often results in more nuanced and thorough arguments that are collaborative rather than adversarial.

In completing this project, did your student face any particular challenges? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?

One of the greatest challenges Caroline faced with this project was correctly citing and integrating sources. While citation and formatting can feel tedious, being able to adapt our writing to different audiences and their expectations is an important rhetorical skill. To help, Caroline and I looked at several drafts together while utilizing resources such as the Purdue OWL website’s MLA Style Guide.   

What was the most rewarding part of working with your student on this project?

The most rewarding part of working on this project was seeing Caroline develop confidence and pride in her writing. One of the things I love about the Phoenix Rhetorix contest is how it reminds students that their writing has life beyond the classroom. Once Caroline realized this, I could see her actively applying the concepts and skills we discussed in class to improve her essay, not just to get a good grade, but because she cared about what she was saying.

What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

Revise, revise, revise! Writing itself is a learning process, and as you put words on the page, you are actively thinking about the project and making new connections. The more you write, the more refined and developed your ideas become.