Background: An international focus on the inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream schools and the increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has contributed to increasing numbers of students with ASD enrolling in mainstream schools. The school participation restrictions of adolescent students with ASD is widely researched, but less is known about the challenges faced by primary school students with ASD and how early in their schooling these challenges arise. Methods: Focus groups were used to explore the perspectives of parents and educators on the school participation of primary school students with ASD. Focus group data were analysed thematically. Results: Four themes were derived from the data: (1) more than just being there; (2) meeting in the middle; (3) consistency of supports; and (4) embrace difference. Conclusions: Findings from this study highlight that students aged between 6 and 11 years experience school participation restrictions due to a range of intrinsic (e.g., sense of self and school belonging) and extrinsic factors (e.g., school culture, educator knowledge and skills). It is imperative school based interventions are developed and implemented in the early primary years, that not only target students’ skills, but the range of environmental enablers and barriers impacting student school participation.
An international focus on the inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream school and the increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has contributed to increasing numbers of students with ASD enrolling in mainstream schools (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016; Frederickson, Simmonds, Evans, & Soulsby, 2007). While there has been positive change in the last decade toward the inclusion and provision of supports for students with ASD in mainstream settings, international and Australian research suggests students with ASD continue to encounter a range of barriers to their participation in mainstream schools (Batten, Corbett, Rosenblatt, Withers, & Yuille, 2006; Lilley, 2012; McDonald, 2010). According to the family of participation related constructs (fPRC), developed by Imms et al. (2016), participation is comprised of two essential components: “attendance, defined as ‘being there’ and measured as frequency of attending, and/or the range or diversity of activities; and involvement, the experience of participation while attending” (Imms et al., 2016, p. 18). In the context of education, this means being actively engaged in activities, tasks and routines that are typical for students of that age in a given education system, as well as a subjective feeling of belonging to, and being active in the school environment (Libbey, 2004). Merely being present in a mainstream classroom does not lead to participation and is not indicative of successful inclusion (Symes & Humphrey, 2012). Frederickson et al. (2007) found primary school students with special educational needs (SEN), including ASD, to be more likely to experience bullying and social exclusion from peers. This study highlighted that without structured supports such as peer preparation in the early years, inclusion cannot be achieved. Despite legislation that requires education systems to make reasonable adjustments to ensure students with ASD are included in mainstream settings (UNESCO, 1994), there is growing concern about the education experiences of students with ASD (Chen & Schwartz, 2012; Hebron & Humphrey, 2012; Zablotsky, Bradshaw, & Andersen, 2013). Future research is required that goes beyond the numbers of students included, but that explores the experiences of students with ASD in mainstream classrooms to better understand their social and affective outcomes (Frederickson et al., 2007). Many studies have explored the participation experiences of adolescent students with ASD in mainstream schools (Hedges et al., 2014; Saggers, Hwang, & Mercer, 2011). Many adolescent students with ASD under achieve relative to their cognitive abilities (Ashburner, Ziviani, & Rodger, 2008); have higher rates of absenteeism, suspension and exclusion from school (Barnard, Prior, & Potter, 2000; Osler & Osler, 2002); spend less time interacting and have lower quality of interactions with peers (Sigman et al., 1999); and require a higher level of one to one assistance from aides than peers (Bauminger & Kasari, 2000). These challenges make students with ASD more vulnerable to bullying compared to typically developing peers (Jones & Frederickson, 2010), resulting in disruption to educational progress (Batten et al., 2006), reduced self-esteem (Batten et al., 2006) and mental health difficulties (Batten et al., 2006; Cappadocia, Wiess, & Pepler, 2012; Hebron & Humphrey, 2012; Penney, 2013; Zablotsky et al., 2013).