| Abstract|| |
Context: In the wake of increasing prevalence of autism globally, with a substantial change in understanding of the disorder, it is essential to update knowledge of the healthcare professionals involved in the intervention of children with autism. Special educators are important team members in the rehabilitation of children with autism. There are only a few studies addressing knowledge and training of special educators in the rehabilitation of children with autism, particularly in the Indian context.
Aim: The present study investigated knowledge and training on autism among special educators in a southern state of India, Karnataka.
Settings and Design: A descriptive cross-sectional study design was adopted for this study.
Materials and Methods: Data were collected from 47 special educators, who answered questions related to general knowledge, knowledge of educational programming, knowledge about classroom behaviors, and professional development needs regarding autism.
Statistical Analysis: Statistical analysis of the data was performed using Statistical Package for Social Sciences (version 16).
Results: Results of the study indicated that special educators had an overall reduced level of understanding about autism and poor knowledge on educational programming and classroom behaviors in children with autism. Further, their knowledge regarding autism varied with educational qualification and years of work experience.
Conclusions: Findings of the study, thus, emphasize the need for increasing awareness by providing knowledge and training to special educators working with children with autism in India.
Keywords: Autism, India, knowledge, special educators
|How to cite this article:|
Tiwari S, John J. Special educators' knowledge and training on autism in Karnataka: A cross-sectional study. Indian J Psychiatry 2017;59:359-65
| Introduction|| |
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a child's perception of the world and how the child learns from his or her experiences. The Autism Society of America  defines autism as a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first 3 years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, influencing development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.
Autism results from a variety of biological causes including genetic, several birth-related, and environmental factors that cause atypical brain development early in the life. Autism does not arise from a single cause; it is instead a complex disorder with a set of core aspects having distinct causes. Children with autism exhibit a range of deficits, primarily in the areas of reciprocal social interaction, communication, and stereotypic repetitive behavior patterns. Many of these kids with autism also present with sensory issues, rigid behavior patterns, hyperactivity, attention, mood, anxiety, and seizures.
While the understanding of autism has evolved over the years, so is the prevalence of the condition. According to a recent report, about 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In India, the prevalence of ASD was reported to be 0.9/1000 in children between 1 and 10 years of age, in a northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh.
The alarming increase in the prevalence of autism has caused not only an increase in the number of cases of autism but also an increased need for better awareness and understanding of the condition, its assessment, and management among professionals involved in providing services to these children.
Special educators or special education teachers are professionals who work for children with disabilities (including autism) on a day-to-day basis. Children with autism present with unique learning characteristics that differ widely from typical learning children as well as children with other types of disabilities. It is, thus, crucial for special educators to update their knowledge regarding identification and management of children with autism. The present study was therefore aimed to investigate knowledge, training, and needs for educational practices among special educators serving children with autism in India.
| Materials and Methods|| |
The study used a survey design that was distributed in the form of a questionnaire to collect data (response) from a sample, which is a descriptive survey research design. Convenience sampling method was used, and the study population (N = 47) consisted of special educators in and around Udupi, Mangalore, and Bangalore regions of Karnataka.
The “knowledge and training in ASDs among special education administrators” developed by Hughes, was adapted with permission for use in the current study. The original survey consisted of 54 items provided under five sections. The modifications included an addition of an extra-section on classroom behaviors (taken from autism inclusion questionnaire by Kabot et al.). Furthermore, one item from the section on knowledge of educational programming was removed. Both the tools were validated and showed reliable results. The modified questionnaire used for the present study thus consisted of six sections with a total of 67 items. Sections I and II consisted of questions related to participants' demographic details (e.g., gender, education level, teaching experience, experience in dealing with children with autism) and professional background and training, sought to determine training experiences of participants, their exposure to children with autism, and their knowledge in the major areas. Section III of the questionnaire, understanding regarding autism, consisted of 24 true/false questions to assess the general knowledge of special educators regarding autism. This section targeted information concerning eligibility criteria, characteristics of children with autism, current myths regarding autism, instructional strategies, evidence-based practices, and false claims surrounding issues of autism. Section IV, knowledge of educational programming, investigated participants' expertise related to the required educational considerations for learners with autism using 12 multiple-choice questions. Section V, classroom behaviors also checked participants' knowledge on a range of behaviors in children with autism using a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from “not at all disruptive” to “highly disruptive” in the order of 1–5. Moreover, Section VI of the questionnaire was to assess professional development needs. This section required participants to rate individual needs for professional development using 11 statements on a 3-point rating scale, where each statement was rated as “L” if there is a “limited” or no need for information, “M” if there is a “moderate” (some) need for information, or “S” if there is a “significant” (great) need for information.
Initially, the administrators of special schools were contacted to obtain permission for collecting data from educators working in their schools. The special educators were then explained about the study and requested for participation. The special educators who consented to participate were asked to complete the “knowledge and training on autism among special educators” questionnaire. All the filled in responses were collected from the participants on the same day. The data were collected over a period of 3 months.
Scoring and analysis
For the purpose of this study, “knowledge” regarding autism was measured based on participants' responses to items in Sections III and IV against a discrete set of criteria, for which there was only one correct answer. Questions in Section III were based on a general body of knowledge regarding autism that was validated in previous research.,,,, All correct responses were scored as one and incorrect, and no responses were scored as zero. Responses on Section V of the questionnaire were rated on a 5-point Likert scale (1–5) with higher scores indicating responses rated as “highly disruptive,” and zero for no replies. The response in Section VI of the questionnaire was not scored but discussed descriptively regarding the percentage of participants' ratings as limited, moderate, or significant need for information.
All correct responses were analyzed using SPSS (version 16 for Windows, IBM). The responses of participants were descriptively provided for each section of the questionnaire. Further, to examine the responses of participants across the variables of interest, i.e., educational qualification and years of work experience a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used.
| Results|| |
Special educator participants included students, diploma holders, and those with bachelors' qualifications. Participants ranged from <5 years to more than 10 years of work experience. The majority of the participants were females and had previous experience in handling children with autism. [Table 1],[Table 2],[Table 3],[Table 4] show the participants' responses on various sections of the questionnaire, as their understanding regarding autism, knowledge of educational programming, classroom behaviors of children with autism, and professional development needs. Many participants did not respond to several items for different sections of the questionnaire as depicted in [Table 1],[Table 2],[Table 3],[Table 4]. These observations indicate that the special educators had a poor knowledge regarding autism, its educational programming, and classroom behaviors. The perceived professional development needs were high, suggesting a need for improvement.
|Table 1: Mean (standard deviation) scores on understanding regarding autism|
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|Table 2: Mean (standard deviation) scores on knowledge of educational programming|
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|Table 3: Mean (standard deviation) scores on knowledge about the classroom behaviors|
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|Table 4: Special educators' mean (standard deviation) responses on perceived professional development needs|
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[Table 1] shows number and percentage of the correct responses that special educators received on the understanding regarding autism section in ASD questionnaire. Participants' scores on all items were below 50% except on items nos. 22 and 23. Mean scores ranged from (0 to 0.7), and the mean value of total level of knowledge that special educators had about autism was 6.77 out of total score of 24.
Section IV of the questionnaire investigated special educators' knowledge of educational programming for children with ASD [Table 2]. Participants' correct responses in this section ranged from 4% to 79%. A few special educators knew that peer-reviewed, research-based practices for children with autism include applied behavioral analysis. Still, fewer participants knew that parent/family training and support for children with autism must be provided by qualified personnel with experience in ASD. Besides, the special educators appeared to have less knowledge regarding the purpose of in-home and community-based training for children with autism, in determining the staff-to-student ratio for children with autism, and relating to the purpose of professional educator/staff support for children with autism. Participants' response varied for items such as communication strategies that teachers should use, in the management of children with autism, and positive behavior support strategies.
[Table 3] displays the results of special educators' responses on Section V of the questionnaire, i.e., knowledge about the classroom behaviors. A few of the highly disruptive behaviors observed by special educators included difficulty in reciprocal conversation, high levels of activity, lack of peer relations, preoccupation with touching, smelling, or tasting objects or people, resistance and adverse reaction to changes in the schedule, rudeness in making requests, screaming crying and tantrums, and strange or unusual body movements such as finger flicking, spinning, or rocking. Participants' response rate for highly disruptive behaviors ranged between 32% and 45%.
Special educators rated individual needs for professional development (Section VI) in ten areas related to educating children with autism using a 3-point Likert scale [Table 4]. Assessing children with autism and eligibility determination, best practices for children with autism, characteristics of autism, professional development for school staff serving children with autism, preschool programming for children with autism, and quality program indicators for helping children with autism were perceived as having the greatest need by special educators. Special educators' response for items of limited need ranged between 6% and 32%. Although moderate to significant needs were reported by at least one-third of the participants across all professional development topics. The response rate for items of moderate and significant need ranged between 4%–34% and 6%–53%, respectively.
A one-way ANOVA results revealed significant differences in participants' knowledge of educational programming and knowledge of classroom behaviors in terms of educational qualifications (F(2, 26) = 6.44, p = 0.004; F(2,8984) = 5.17, p = 0.01) as well as years of work experience (F(2, 19) = 4.33, p = 0.019; F(2, 10411) = 6.22, p = 0.004). However, the comparisons of participant responses on understanding regarding autism and perceived professional development needs did not reach significance.
| Discussion|| |
The purpose of this study was to investigate autism knowledge, autism educational programming knowledge, and classroom behaviors as a function of educational qualification and years of work experiences in special educators, who are trained and working in the Indian setup. Results of the study revealed that the special educators have an overall weak and limited knowledge regarding autism, educational practices, and professional needs. In particular, participants' knowledge of educational programming and knowledge of classroom behaviors varied as a function of educational qualification and years of work experience. The results under each section of the survey are discussed below.
General understanding regarding autism
Special educators were less knowledgeable regarding the general characteristics of autism. Results indicated that special educators varied in their general knowledge of ASD eligibility criteria, characteristics, myths, instructional strategies, evidence-based practices, and false claims surrounding issues of autism. Although impairment in social interaction is a fundamental feature for autism eligibility, none of the participants answered correctly to this item. A possible explanation is that special educators are not directly involved in the assessment process and therefore possess more general than explicit knowledge.
The general understanding regarding autism in the special educators did not vary as a function of qualification and years of work experience. This along with low-response rate could have been the probable reasons for the lack of difference in the understanding regarding autism in participants.
Knowledge of educational programming
Results in this section indicated that, in general, special educators are somewhat knowledgeable regarding most of the strategies that must be considered as part of the educational programming for children with autism. Special educators appeared to have specifically less knowledge relating to the purpose of in-home and community-based training for children with autism and in determining the teacher-to-student ratio for children with autism.
Participants' knowledge of educational programming varied as functions of educational qualification and years of work experience where participants with better qualification and more years of experience had superior knowledge of educational programming. The knowledge of educational programming is further dependent on clinical/practical exposure to children with autism, thus supporting the findings of this study. Furthermore, the high no response rate observed in this section highlights the poor knowledge base in special educators regarding the educational programming of children with autism. It further points to the need for curricular modification and training of special educators in educational programming of children with autism keeping in mind their special needs and requirements in the Indian context.
Knowledge of classroom behaviors
A few of the highly disruptive behaviors as observed by special educators included difficulty in reciprocal conversation, high levels of activity, lack of peer relations, preoccupation with touching, smelling, or tasting objects or people, resistance. Furthermore, adverse reaction to changes in the schedule, rudeness in making requests, screaming crying, tantrums, and strange or unusual body movements such as finger flicking, spinning, or rocking were also marked as highly disruptive behaviors by the participants. In this section of the questionnaire, only highly disruptive behaviors were taken into consideration for analysis. This was mainly to point out the behavioral areas that a special educator should provide more assistance for children with autism, such as high levels of activity. Further, highly disruptive behaviors were considered to understand an underlying result of the child's disability. Charles  suggested that teachers employ a procedure of “diagnostic thinking” when faced with incidents of child misbehavior. These methods include forming a first hunch, gathering facts, exploring unknown factors, taking action, and remaining flexible. While such a task is not easy, having a knowledge base of the general characteristics (e.g., academic, behavioral, social/emotional, learning, physical) of children with disabilities and the associated causes can be helpful.
Overall, the results obtained from this section of the questionnaire showed higher no response rate, thereby indicating a lack of awareness in special educators' knowledge of classroom behaviors in children with autism. Further, the results showed that the participants' knowledge of classroom behaviors varied significantly as functions of educational qualification and years of work experience. In particular, results of the study showed lower knowledge among special educators with necessary educational qualification in comparison to special educators with higher qualification and more years of work experience. This finding is also in agreement with a previous study  that found numerous occupational characteristics (one of them as the educational level) had a relationship with the degree of knowledge about autism.
Professional development needs
Items, including best practices for children with autism, characteristics of autism, professional development for school staff serving children with autism, preschool programming for children with autism, and quality program indicators for helping children with autism were perceived by special educators as having the greatest need. The general response trend was observed to be toward items rated as having significant need. Furthermore, the results of the study showed that participants' perceived professional development needs did not vary as functions of educational qualification and years of work experience.
To sum up, the findings of the study revealed that special educators trained and working in India have relatively less knowledge about autism and its educational programming. This finding thus supports the importance of professional development and training of educators in nature and needs of students with autism. The results of this study, therefore, provide a preliminary step toward the broader understanding of knowledge and needs of special educators in the management of children with autism in the Indian context.
However, a few limitations exist within the design of the current study and must be considered when interpreting the results. The present study included a relatively smaller sample size with a total of 47 participants, who varied in terms of educational qualification, years of experience, and contact with children with autism, which might have influenced the power of the study.
| Conclusions|| |
Results of the study showed that the special educators working in India, in general, possessed a lower level of knowledge about autism, its educational practices, and professional needs. The factors influencing their knowledge of autism and its educational programming included educational qualification and years of work experience. The results of this study, therefore, signify the need for educating and training the special educators in identification and management of children with ASD.
We would like to acknowledge the special education teachers and students for their participation and support. We would also like to thank the author for providing the permission to adapt and use their questionnaire on assessment of knowledge about autism in special educators.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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Department of Speech and Hearing, School of Allied Health Sciences, Manipal University, Manipal - 576 104, Karnataka
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
[Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4]