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Understanding How Independent High Schools Support Students on the Autism Spectrum


Understanding what independent schools do to support students with learning differences is critical given that they serve more than 580,000 students across the country and have no legal requirement to report their processes or outcomes. Over the last 15 years, overall enrollment in independent schools has been declining, while at the same time there has been an increase in the admission and retention of students in the fastest growing disability category, students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Students with ASD demonstrate impairments in social communication skills, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Co-occurring conditions— including anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and specific learning disabilities—can also affect school success for students with ASD. The current literature exposes a dearth of published research on the practices of independent schools in supporting students with ASD. This study aimed to address the questions: (a) How do independent high schools create, implement, and evaluate support plans for students on the autism spectrum and how are the supports and strategies chosen? and (b) Are independent school personnel aware if their practices of support are based on current research?

Based on a review of the available literature, interview protocols were created to investigate the research questions as they pertain to administrators, learning specialists, teachers, and parents in independent high schools. Three schools were selected from the eight that agreed to participate from the greater Southern California region, representing three different models of student support. Analysis of the data collected suggest that, overall, administrators identify teachers as being responsible for implementing and evaluating learning plans. However, teachers typically report they are not aware that they are the responsible party and lack the professional training to carry out the designated task. Chosen support strategies are based on common practice, but are not rooted in current evidence or research. However, due to declining enrollment, some independent schools are admitting students that they are unprepared to support appropriately. If independent schools are going to continue to admit and retain students with diverse learning needs, they must invest in professional development specific to the needs of neurodiverse students. Furthermore, learning specialists and other special education professionals must take the lead in creating and evaluating support programs in independent schools.

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