04 SES 02 B, The Role Of Neurodiversity In Teacher Education: Potentials And Prospects
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction and communication, repetitive and stereotyped interests and behaviours (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) affecting as many as 1 in every 59 children (Baio et al., 2018). One aspect that is less researched in autism is core attention skills (i.e., sustained attention, selective spatial attention, executive control), although attention is often atypical in people with autism and is closely linked to academic attainment in this population (Muller Spaniol et al., 2017). The importance of attention in the context of classroom and academic attainment is of particular interest. Research highlights the importance of attention in supporting learning in the classroom since early infancy (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Erickson et al., 2015). Similar links between attention and academic performance have been documented in the context of autism (May et al., 2015). Improvement of these attention skills in autism is therefore of crucial importance in promoting successful learning for children with autism in a school environment.
Teachers across the globe tend to undergo very limited training in Special Educational Needs (SEN) and specifically autism as part of their studies in order to get a teacher status. This is why they often feel insufficiently prepared to work with pupils with autism (Ravet, 2018) whereas there are strong recommendations to include autism in teacher training courses (APPGA report, 2017). It is interesting to note here though that lack of staff training has been reported in research as a key barrier to good outcomes for children and young people with autism (Wittemeyer et al., 2011).
The main objective of the Teacher Training and Attention in Autism (TTAA) project (Erasmus+ Programme, KA2: 2019-1-UK01-KA201-061560) is to provide resources on the topic of attention in autism for teachers and other education professionals working with children with autism. More specifically, the project will generate three outputs:
1. A report on best practice of attention in autism in the 4 participating countries,
2. A freely available cross-platform version of CPAT, a successful attention intervention programme (Shalev et al., 2007), together with a detailed implementation protocol that could be immediately used by teachers and practitioners across Europe, and
3. A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) targeted at teacher professional development in the topic of attention in autism (in 4 languages).
Nine partners comprising 4 universities, 4 schools and a professional development body, from 4 countries (Greece, Israel, Spain and the UK) have assembled to carry out the TTAA project. The researchers from the four universities provide complementary expertise in attention, intervention and development of educational technology in autism. The participating schools have extensive experience with children with autism and with experimental approaches to teaching, and the professional body has extensive experience in fostering professional development in the field of SEN.
The TTAA project is expected to have a considerable impact on the way children with autism are trained in attention skills. It will also influence the way teachers perceive the concept of attention and its impact on autism with the potential of improving academic attainment and inclusion for this population. TTAA aims to provide a number of training events during and after the end of the project. Due to the travel restriction resulting from the pandemic outbreak only one webinar on ‘Autism and the importance of attention’ has been delivered so far which was attended by 280 people live and it is also available for free view (https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/psychology/ttaa/webinars.aspx).
This paper will focus on presenting the results of a questionnaire completed by education professionals in the four participating countries. This is part of the first output of TTAA.
As part of the report on best practice of attention in autism in the 4 participating countries, a questionnaire was developed to collect evidence on attention and autism in schools. For the development of the questionnaire a participatory research design (Kossyvaki, 2017) was followed. Teachers, other education professionals, people with autism and academics contributed to its development in a thorough and collaborative process. The questionnaire explored how attention is assessed by education professionals in the 4 countries and the type of interventions they use when they identify that pupils have attention difficulties. Among other topics, questions focused on the importance education professionals place on attention, the extent to which they work on the specific skill, the relevant training they receive while at pre-service but also in-service training. The questionnaire combined close and open-ended questions and it was hosted on the online platform Qualtrics. The quantitative data were analysed using IBM SPSS (V21) whereas the qualitative data were analysed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The questionnaire consisted of 2 sections: (i) Section A on ‘Demographic Characteristics and other Information’ (12 questions) and (ii) Section B on ‘Academic Performance and Behavioural Patterns in Autism’ (14 questions). The average time to complete the questionnaire was 20 minutes and it stayed live from mid-April to the end of June 2020.
Preliminary findings 674 education professionals (Spain: 113, Israel: 148, Greece: 204, UK: 209) completed the questionnaire (accepted missing value=20%). The majority of the respondents came from urban settings (from 65.1% to 84.1%), were female (from 85.9% to 94.6%) and worked as a teacher at the time they filled in the questionnaire (from 54.6% to 78%). Participants from the UK and Israel rated attention difficulties as the second most common difficulties in children with autism after communication and social difficulties whereas for respondents in Greece and Spain attention difficulties appeared as the third most common area of difficulty for children with autism after communication and social difficulties and delayed or no speech. In terms of how teaching staff in the four countries assess attention, the majority of the respondents answered that they discuss the pupils' behaviors with other colleagues or parents and observe the pupils’ behavior and keep free notes. Greek and Israeli respondents reported to use structured assessment tools more often than their colleagues from Spain and the UK. Teaching staff in the four countries reported that they use similar strategies to train attention in children with autism in the classroom. Very few participants stated that they feel very confident in their knowledge on attention and autism (12.9% to 1.8%) and the vast majority of them answered that they would find training in attention and autism beneficial (87.1% to 98%). In terms of the resources used in order to improve their knowledge on attention, respondents from the UK, Greece and Spain reported that they tend to rely on the internet and articles whereas respondents in Israel primarily turn to health professionals and school counselors for advice.
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