The spread of misinformation about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has rapidly increased amongst the general public in recent years. Special education professionals are expected to have expertise in the use of evidence-based practices (EBPs) to best meet the needs of students with autism and are trusted by caregivers to provide this support. By preparing professionals to be critical of information about ASD and effective practices, we can address and mitigate the spread of misinformation. —Taryn McBrayne
Evidence-Based Practices and Autism in the Classroom
With an increase in public awareness campaigns hitting social media platforms, misinformation about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has largely increased over the past decade. In fact, research suggests that “the general public is more familiar with unsubstantiated practices for ASD than with evidence-based practices (EBPs).” The psychological phenomenon, “the mere-exposure effect,” proposes that even reading one inaccurate headline can have a long-lasting impact on the way that one thinks about certain topics, including Autism.4 Thus, authors Fleury & Kemper seek to examine education professionals’ knowledge about ASD and treatment options to assess how the dissemination of misinformation may have influenced ASD practices.
As with all educators, special educators have a responsibility to make instructional decisions that will best serve the needs of their students. The use of EBPs is often “emphasized in most states’ teaching licensure standards.” However, recent research has shown that only “12% to 55% of education professionals serving students with ASD were directly taught how to use EBPs for students with ASD during their preservice training.”2 Therefore, educators may resort to alternative forms of information, increasing the chance that non-EBPs will be used in the classroom given that “autism remains a ‘fad magnet,’”3 potentially causing harm to the individual with ASD as well as the organizations that do promote EBPs.
Fleury & Kemper also emphasize that “the public’s general misunderstanding of correlation versus causation”1 combined with difficulties distinguishing between credible and non-credible sources, creates an environment where misinformation can be easily spread and given credence.
In their study, the authors surveyed 72 education professionals from a 2-day professional development seminar. The results are as follows:
Beliefs about Causal Attributes of ASD
- “Education professionals were most confident that neurobiological factors were a causal attribute of ASD.”
Familiarity with Practices
- “Participants were more familiar with EBP compared with unsubstantiated practices for individuals with ASD.”
Likelihood to Use or Recommend Practices
- Educational professionals reported that “they are more likely to use or recommend EBPs than non-EBPs.” According to the authors, “this contrasted with [our] previous research with members of the general public, who proved to be more familiar with unsubstantiated practices compared with EBPs.” However, the survey results did reveal that “special education professionals did not engage in sourcing as would be expected of experts.”
The authors acknowledge that the participants in this study were already “attending a professional development training and, as such, represent a biased sample of professionals who are interested in expanding their knowledge and expertise about EBPs for this population.” Therefore, a wider research sample is needed in order to apply these findings to the general special educator population.
Overall, Fleury & Kemper note that while the results of this survey are encouraging, it is important to continue efforts to combat the spread of misinformation about ASD and EBPs by cross-checking information with reputable sources, addressing deficits in knowledge, and working towards publishing research in a manner that is easily accessible for a general population. Ultimately, “by preparing professionals to be critical consumers of information, we may be able to mitigate the spread of misinformation about autism and limit widespread use of non-EBPs.”
Fleury, V. P., & Kemper, T. (2022). An Examination of Education Professionals’ Beliefs About Causes of Autism and Their Perceptions of Practices. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. https://doi.org/10.1177/10883576211073685
Summary by: Taryn McBrayne — Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.
- Bergstrom, C. T., & West, J. D. (2020). Calling bullshit: The art of skepticism in a data driven world. Random House.
- Hsiao, Y. J., & Petersen, S. (2018). Evidence-based practices provided in teacher education and in-service training programs for special education teachers of students with autism spectrum disorders. Teacher Education and Special Education, 42, 193–208. https://doi.org/10.1177/0888406418758464
- Metz, B., Mulik, J. A., & Butter, E. M. (2016). Autism: A twenty-first century fad magnet. In R. M. Foxx & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Controversial therapies for autism and intellectual disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (pp. 169–195). Routledge.
- Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1865–1880. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000465
As special educators, we likely spend a lot of energy seeking the best inclusive practices within the school setting, but what happens after our students transition to other educational or work settings? Young people face significant barriers when attempting to transition from school due to low expectations, employer discrimination, and a lack of opportunities and support to develop key skills. In order to address this issue, the development of an inclusive alumni network could enhance social inclusion of people with learning disabilities and guide current students with disabilities the right path to their future. —Michael Ho
Blake, Hanson, and Clark (2021) examined the effectiveness of including young people with learning disabilities as alumni, with reference to Law’s (1981) community interaction theory,1 and considered how educational settings could create alumni networks that are socially inclusive of people with learning disabilities.
Blake et al. (2021) quotes Martin et al. (2011),2 “Young people with learning disabilities face complex barriers when attempting to transition from school which include low expectations, a lack of opportunities and support to develop key skills, and employer discrimination.” Currently, there is a lack of evidence showing alumni networks include young people with learning disabilities.
The Potential Solution
Blake et al. (2021) refer to Simplican et al. (2015)3 that social inclusion consists of two domains—interpersonal relationships and community participation. It is hypothesized that having an inclusive alumni network will boost both interpersonal relationships and community participation.
The rationale for the awareness of an inclusive alumni network is based on the community interaction theory, which states that “communities do not just mediate or moderate structural influences on individuals, they also directly influence them through five different modes: expectations, feedback, support, modeling, and information.”1 Engaging alumni with current students with disabilities will enhance each mode.
Focus Group Study
Six focus groups were used to generate discussion between participants around the topic of alumni networks. Staff from a mixture of mainstream and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities secondary schools and colleges that were members of the Leeds City Region SEND Careers Hub participated in the focus groups. Each focus group lasted for approximately 30 to 45 minutes.
The following research questions were addressed:
- What would be the value and nature of an alumni network for young people with learning disabilities?
- How viable is such a network; what might the enablers and barriers be?
- How might alumni networks be established and made purposeful?
What would be the value and nature of such a network?
In response to the first research question, the value and nature of an alumni network for young people with learning disabilities are as follows:
- The focus groups identified increased confidence in young people with disabilities, as well as for them to recognise their own abilities.
- A value could be to explain to both students with learning disabilities and their parents who gives them support should they need it and where it can be accessed.
- “The young people with learning disabilities were also aware of how they could be helped by alumni visiting their setting.”
- Participants understood how an alumni network could improve self-confidence by giving them the courage to acknowledge they can explore employment, training, or further education.
Is this viable?
In response to the second research question, the enablers and barriers of setting up an alumni network of young people with disabilities are as follows:
- The two main enablers include the enthusiasm and engagement from the staff participants and the availability of the resources to develop an alumni network.
- The main barriers include the alumni’s relationship with family members; sensitivity issues around singling out alumni with learning disabilities; and the lack of knowledge, time, and organizational culture among support staff.
How might this be established?
In response to the third research question, alumni networks can be established and made purposeful by the following:
- Engagement with businesses should focus on “realizing the worth in the young people.”
- Educators should not be the only ones making the push for inclusive alumni networks, but so should the wider community, including businesses, workplaces, and colleges.
- “The most important thing that needs to take place is raising expectations of the young people with learning disabilities by their community, including their parents, peers, teachers and businesses.”
The sample in this study was limited to the research for Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership. Additionally, a sample of only six educational institutions was due to the restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and to the feasibility of schools/colleges accessing the relevant technology in order to take part in the research.
Blake, H., Hanson, J., & Clark, L. (2021). The importance of an inclusive alumni network for ensuring effective transitions into employment and future destinations for people with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49, 445–455. https://doi.org/10.1111/bld.12429
Summary by: Michael Ho—Michael supports the MARIO Framework because it empowers learners to take full control of their personalized learning journey, ensuring an impactful and meaningful experience.
- Law, B. (1981). Community interaction: A ‘mid-range’ focus for theories of career development in young adults. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 9(2), 142–158.
- Martin, K., Hart, R., White, R., & Sharp, C. (2011). Young people with special educational needs/learning difficulties and disabilities: Research into planning for adult life and services. (LG Group Research Report). NFER.
- Simplican, S. C., Leader, G., Kosciulek, J., & Leahy, M. (2015). Defining social inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities: An ecological model of social networks and community participation. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 18–29. https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2014.10.008