Understanding the Needs of Secondary Students With High-Functioning Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder Students in Inclusive Classroom Settings
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a multifaceted neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by unusual patterns of behavior as well as deficits in social and communication skills. Autism is commonly referred to as a "spectrum" disorder because people with ASD can have a range of symptoms.1 Evidence suggests that the prevalence of school-aged children in the United States with ASD may be increasing, and there may be cultural, ethnic and gender differences which may lead to students being undiagnosed or underdiagnosed with ASD.2
Traditionally, individuals on the lower end of the spectrum have more obvious communication and/or social-behavioral needs and require intensive supports. In the same respect, individuals on the higher end of the spectrum may have the intellectual ability to meet academic expectations, but communication and social skill deficits can adversely impact progress in traditionally inclusive classroom settings.
The term high-functioning autism (HFA) is not a formal diagnosis, but it is often used to describe individuals on the higher end of the spectrum who possess at least average intelligence and/or are served in general education.3 Unfortunately, students with HFA in general education often struggle to achieve their full potential in secondary inclusive classroom settings.4 5
Challenges of Secondary Settings
Students with HFA in secondary settings often experience difficulty with academic and social success in school because general education teachers may not be familiar with the characteristics and/or best practices associated with teaching students with ASD.6 A contributing factor is that scientific research is limited as to effective instructional and behavior management practices for older students in general education.7
Educators and other key stakeholders in the student's life must understand how characteristics of HFA may be manifested in inclusive classroom settings, in order to design and implement instruction to maximize student success.
An additional consideration is the reduced special education support available to students with HFA because of the need to take classes associated with graduation requirements and preparing for high-stakes testing. In most cases, secondary settings do not have enough special education teachers available to support students in all classes (in comparison to elementary settings). Knowledge of the evidence-based practices (EBPs) recommended for students with HFA can help Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams make informed decisions about instruction, behavior management and support needed for students with HFA.8
General education teachers may be unprepared to meet their social needs, or understand the connection between social skills and functional academic skills needed for students to succeed in real-life situations at home, school, work and in the community. Frequently referenced concerns among students and families of individuals with HFA include how easily their needs are overlooked and/or dismissed by school teams because there is not an obvious impact on what is often considered educational progress. Teachers may believe the behaviors are "typical" and should not be taken too seriously because the student will likely "outgrow" these behaviors. School teams must recognize that communication and/or social skills are vital components of functional academics.9 3
Characteristics of HFA
Often, individuals with HFA have expressive and receptive language deficits and may have difficulty organizing ideas, understanding what is being said and/or putting thoughts into words.10 Navigating the social, "hidden curriculum" is a challenge because they may have difficulty considering other perspectives and connecting responses with social context (e.g., speaking to peer, teacher and administrator).
Age-appropriate social communication skills help adolescents learn to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving aptitude.6 Students with HFA may not understand the nuances of communication skills and "fitting-in." Deficits in communication are associated with difficulties in reading comprehension (authors' purpose, perspective taking and figurative language) and writing (identifying the purpose of writing, organizing thoughts, sufficiently elaborating on ideas, editing/proofreading their work, etc.). Students with HFA who experience success in one class (e.g., science or math), but find tasks in another class (e.g., language arts or physical education) challenging may be especially frustrating. They may not even understand why they do not understand.
Students with HFA may not understand that the manner in which they interact with others can adversely affect others' opinions of them as well as their relationships with them. Helping students with HFA see connections between personal goals/benefit and meeting stated expectations can be a motivating factor that is often overlooked by educators.
These students may have difficulty accepting constructive criticism. They may interrupt anyone (peers/adults) when they are trying to teach or redirect him. They may not understand or respect social boundaries. For example, they may argue with a teacher in front of the class if they think he/she is not teaching something correctly. They may ask an adult they do not know an inappropriate question such as, "How much money do you make?" They may use the same voice tone and causal mannerisms to speak to peers and adults (even the principal). They may appear to accept constructive feedback from adults who redirect them, but they will not often follow up with the desired behavior unless they are specifically taught what they are expected to do and understand why it is a relevant skill needed later in life.
Students with HFA may have problems with executive functioning issues (cognitive flexibility/flexible thinking) and inhibitory control (being able to ignore distractions and resist temptation). Teachers may observe that students with HFA have difficulty waiting for their turn for help, blurting out answers, regulating emotions and acting impulsively. They may be very rigid about how to do things, and refuse to be hurried through the process (e.g., "It's not about getting it done quickly, it is about doing it right.").
Students with HFA may not learn incidentally, and they need direct instruction in academics, communication and social-behavioral skills. For example, if a student says something that a teacher thinks is rude, the teacher might make a disapproving face or comment that indicates the comment was inappropriate.11 Most students might use the emotional "tone" such as the comments and body language of the teacher or other students to reflect on the response to their comment and understand/learn that the comment was not appropriate.10 12 They might think about it in the future before making another similar comment. Students with HFA may not automatically do this. Teaching them exactly what they said and did that was wrong and specifically why it was wrong will help to correct inaccurate thinking or reshape negative thinking.6
Students with HFA must learn the academic, communication and social skills via EBPs to maximize the learner's potential to develop skills needed to graduate and become independent adults. Research consistently notes the importance of early intervention using EBPs to maximize student learning and the potential for long-term success in school and life.4 Individuals with HFA are often expected to transition into adulthood without the skills needed to live independently and achieve their full potential as contributing members of society.6 12
EBPs are so important for learners with HFA because they are strategies that have been proven by professionals across multiple fields through extensive research to be effective for our students. We should not waste time and resources on fad or pseudoscience interventions---or interventions dressed up as scientific with no scientific evidence---that probably won't work.
Join Pioneers of Autism Education
The online graduate programs at the University of Kansas are led by leaders of research and educational strategies for students with ASD. Explore our online master's in autism spectrum disorder (ASD)* and the online graduate certificate in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), both of which prepare you to positively impact the lives of people with ASD and their families.
*This program is a Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) in special education with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
1 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders
(DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
2 Travers, J. C., Krezmien, M. P., Mulcahy, C., & Tincani, M. (2014). Racial disparity in
administrative autism identification across the United States during 2000 and 2007. The Journal of Special Education, 48, 155-166
3Mckeithan, G. K., & Sabornie, E. J. (2019). Interventions for secondary students with high functioning autism in general education settings: A descriptive review. Exceptionality, 27, 81-100.
4 Clark, M. L. E., Vinen, Z., Barbaro, J., & Dissanayake, C. (2018). School age outcomes of children diagnosed early and later with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 48, 92-102.
5 LePage, P., & Courey, S. (2014). Teaching children with high-level autism: Evidence from families. Routledge.
6 Simpson, R. L., & McGinnis-Smith. (2019). Social skill success for students with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Corwin.
7 Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., ... & Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 1951-1966.
8 McIntyre, N. S., Solari, E. J., Grimm, R. P., Lerro, L. E., Gonzales, J. E., & Mundy, P. C. (2017). A comprehensive examination of reading heterogeneity in students with high functioning autism: Distinct reading profiles and their relation to autism symptom severity. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 1086-1101.
9 Fleury, V. P., Hedges, S., Hume, K., Browder, D. M., Thompson, J. L., Fallin, K., ... & Vaughn, S. (2014). Addressing the academic needs of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder in secondary education. Remedial and Special Education, 35, 68-79.
10 Thomeer, M. L., McDonald, C. A., Rodgers, J. D., & Lopata, C. (2019). High-functioning autism spectrum disorder: A framework for evidence-based practice. School Mental Health, 11, 29-39.
11 Sturrock, A., Yau, N., Freed, J., & Adams, C. (2019). Speaking the same language? A preliminary investigation, comparing the language and communication skills of females and males with high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-18.
12 Simpson, R. L., & Myles, B. S. (Eds.). (2016). Educating children and youth with autism: Strategies for effective practice. (2nd ed.). Pro-ed.