Background on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects approximately <1% of the world’s population (Newschaffer et al., 2007), and is primarily found in boys. The word “autism” derives from the Greek word autos, which means “self” (Longman Dictionary). The terminology of the word is primarily grounded in the ability of human beings to have a Theory of Mind (ToM), a notion referring to the skill of someone to understand and recognize other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. ToM is one of the most important conceptions to describe the way individuals with ASD encounter the world, and is something all autistic children lack to varying degrees (Foudon et al., 2008). When examining whether or not a person has ToM, the ability to anticipate what will happen next in various scenarios, as well as the ability to anticipate what other people think and feel is tested. Individuals with ASD, who lack aspects of ToM, are perceived as being isolated, and in some cases even as egocentric. This is primarily due to the fact that they have difficulties in perceiving other people’s viewpoints, thoughts, and needs, and instead mainly understand the world from their own perspectives (Callesen, Cour & Christensen, 2010). The disorder has a wide range of forms, with various features. ASD can emerge in either a mild or a severe form where the affected person may or may not have other handicaps or a reduced mental capacity (Frith & Happé, 1994). ASD usually co-occurs with disabilities such as visual and hearing impairment, epilepsy and other developmental disorders (Autism & Aspergerförbundet, 2017). This means that children who are severely autistic usually do not acquire the ability to speak (Foudon et al., 2008). Individuals who are able to develop a language nevertheless maintain limited ability as regards expressions and comprehension (Autism & Aspergerförbundet, 2017). Some individuals that have ASD are able to understand and use spoken language, while others are not able to do so, and instead more accurately imitate sentences without possessing the ability to use them when communicating (Autism & Aspergerförbundet, 2017). Throughout this thesis, the primary focus will be on High Functioning ASD, a term which implies that the individual has an IQ that is considered at least average and that he or she has the ability to successfully finish high school, regardless of the educational support received (Zeedyk, Tipton & Blacher, 2016). These are individuals who acquire a language later than TD children, but eventually learn to communicate with other people (Foudon et al., 2008). Children with High Functioning ASD are still limited in the level of language proficiency they are able to reach, primarily since their development progresses more slowly than that of TD children. In other words, “they never catch up: in adulthood, High Functioning autistic people (with normal IQ) do not reach the language level of normal adult people” (Foudon et al., 2008, p.47).
ASD and language acquisition
There are various indications when a child is affected by ASD, and the main one is when the child has not developed an appropriate language for his or her age. Autistic children are usually diagnosed by the age of 30 to 36 months, which is when a delay in language acquisition becomes evident in comparison to a TD child’s language acquisition (Foudon et al., 2008). To put this in perspective, TD children generally produce their first words by the age of 11 months, while children with ASD usually utter their first words by the age of 38 months, which is the first indication that the language acquisition of children with ASD is different from TD children (Foudon et al., 2008). In addition, the language acquisition of children with ASD and TD children differs since TD children acquire a language through immersion, while children with ASD generally need extensive speech therapy support in order to be able to speak (Foudon et al., 2008). Even though each individual has to be evaluated separately, since one cannot make general claims in the tendencies of ASD children, individuals with ASD, usually, have a limited ability to communicate, especially in terms of drawing conclusions, describing things and discussing various topics (Foudon et al., 2007). Additionally, language acquisition in TD children differs from ASD children in that the Mean Length of Utterance (MLU) increases very slowly or stabilizes during their early age development, which indicates that it is limited in comparison to TD children’s whose MLU increases over time (Foudon et al., 2007). MLU measures the morphemes an individual uses per utterance and is used to assess his or her grammatical development. It therefore provides evidence for the relationship between language impairments and language development (Sandbank & Yoder, 2016):
Although MLU does not directly measure the grammatical complexity of an utterance, there is much evidence to suggest that these two aspects of language development are closely related [in] children who are typically developing and some evidence to support this relation in children with language impairments or delays (Sandbank & Yonder, 2016, p.241).
TD children’s vocabulary is larger than that of ASD children, whose vocabulary is limited, which results in their linguistic expression and ability to communicate being restricted. However, by increasing the ASD children’s referential vocabulary, which means that the child is taught what specific words relate to, for example, by making the child understand that the word car is that four wheeled vehicle that the parents use to get to work every morning, there is a possibility that syntactic development is activated. Thereby the individual will eventually become better at understanding the grammatical rules of the language (Foudon et al., 2007).
Throughout this thesis, I primarily focus on Second Language Acquisition (SLA), more specifically, on how children with High Functioning ASD acquire and develop their communicative skills in a second language (L2), in this case, English. SLA is a process of learning an additional language, or a so-called second language, although it might in reality actually be the third or fourth language that the individual acquires (Saville-Troike, 2006). SLA is a process of high complexity, primarily since numerous factors and circumstances of social, cultural and economic nature come into play. Social interaction is, according to Hamers & Blanc (2000), one of the most important approaches to learning a new language, primarily since it facilitates the SLA process. The reason is that social interaction encourages communication and helps the learner to notice existent information gaps while receiving input and producing output (Muho & Kurani, 2011). Social interaction refers to a process and the mutual influence between two or more people that occurs in various contexts (Bardis, 1979). To demonstrate, “[a] stranger, for instance, may ask where the nearest hotel is, and another person may supply the needed information. The question, in this case, is the stimulus and the information given is the response” (Bardis, 1979, p.148). However, since these two individuals are mutually able to act towards each other in uncountable ways, the response in this situation may as well create a new stimulus and thereby lead to more answers and so forth. In other words, the speakers are socially interacting.
As mentioned previously, social interaction is an ability that is regarded as being negatively affected in children with ASD. Nevertheless, Wire (2005) suggests that even though individuals with ASD find it difficult to interact socially with other people, social interaction plays an important role in SLA and in life in general. “Social interaction is a crucial part of foreign languages work and the pupil with ASD can potentially derive enormous benefit from interaction with others, which may enhance the quality of his whole future” (Wire, 2005, p.5).
Communication and communicative skills
Based on the triad of impairments related to ASD, children with High Functioning ASD primarily have difficulties with three aspects: social interaction, social communication and imagination (Wire, 2005). Therefore, language development is not the only factor that is assessed when trying to determine if a child has ASD. Indications regarding the ability for social interaction, social communication and the ability to imagine, which affect the child’s playfulness, interests, behavior, and imagination, are also reviewed before he or she is diagnosed with ASD. In connection to this, it is important to note that ASD children’s communicative limitations are not caused by inadequate language proficiency. Instead, they result from a lack of competence in social interaction and in understanding the purpose of communication, which in turn is a result of their lack of reciprocity (Autism & Aspergerförbundet, 2017).
Communication is a social process where one produces and gives value to information. The process forms relationships between people by exchanging knowledge, emotions, and thoughts (Çimen, 2016). Based on this definition, communication is a psychosocial process. In connection with communication, communicative skills consist of learned behaviors that simplify the living in a society and is yet also built upon relationships, emotions, and thoughts (Çimen, 2016). This definition states that communicative skills should be regarded as important for every individual, regardless of disability and profession since it has a major importance in how an individual functions within a society. In addition, studies have shown that a teacher’s communicative skills have a direct impact on his or her pupils’ success in school (Çimen, 2016).
In further relevance to the school environment, the aim of the curriculum for English teaching in upper secondary school in Sweden is to help and motivate students to improve their knowledge of the language, their overall communicative skills in English, their confidence, ability, and desire to use English in various contexts and purposes (Skolverket, 2011). In order to achieve this aim, the teacher should adapt the education to the students and focus on the immediate learning environment. This builds upon motives, such as the impact of the teacher, the curriculum, the classmates, and the experience of success. Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009) propose that one component that affects the learner’s intrinsic motivation is the L2 learning experience. Therefore, by adapting the education to the students and presenting them with activities that are perceived as meaningful, the teacher will be able to help students become more intrinsically motivated to acquire a second language. This would probably be the ultimate goal for every teacher since intrinsic motivation focuses on the learner’s personal interest to learn a second language. In contrast, extrinsic motivation focuses more on the results and external motivation factors, such as a grade or a reward for example (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009).
The communicative skills mentioned primarily refer to reception, production, and interaction (Skolverket, 2011). In other words, the student should be given an opportunity to develop his or her ability to understand and use language both verbally and in writing, but also be able to interact with other people in various contexts and with complexity, variation, and precision (Skolverket, 2011). As mentioned previously, based on the triad of impairments, interaction and production are characteristics related to, and affected negatively by the ASD students’ disorder and may, therefore, create controversies in terms of assessment. Despite this, English class in Sweden has its benefits. The curriculum and its focus on communication allows the teacher to create an environment where both TD and ASD students are given the opportunity to interact and engage in conversations with each other, which is essential for the development of their social skills, but also their language proficiency (Wire, 2005). In other words, even though social interaction is part of the disadvantages of ASD, as teacher one should not neglect it in the education of children with ASD.
ASD in Swedish schools
Given that the assessment of ASD children’s communicative skills may create problems, there is an exceptions agreement in the school law (SFS, 2010:800, chapter 15, §26), allowing the teacher to disregard specific parts of the curriculum when assessing a student with special needs, needs that are not of temporary nature. Another condition for using the exceptions agreement is that the disability has to affect the student to a degree that makes it impossible for him or her to pass a particular knowledge requirement. However, a teacher must consider each student as an individual rather than making decisions based on the characteristic features of a disability in general (Skolverket, 2017). In other words, every case is considered different, and each individual is evaluated separately. Therefore, applying the exceptions agreement is not an option for every individual student with High Functioning ASD.
Also, according to the school law: Teaching should be adapted to each pupil’s circumstances and needs. It should promote the pupils’ further learning and acquisition of knowledge based on pupils’ backgrounds, earlier experience, language and knowledge. The Education Act stipulates that the education provided in each school form and in the recreation center should be equivalent, regardless of where in the country it is provided (Skolverket, 2011, p.5).
Even though many teachers may have different ideas as to what the actual definition of equitability is, a general definition of equitability in a school environment is that the education provides equal access to and equal quality of teaching to every student, but also that the school compensates and gives support in adverse circumstances that might occur (Lindblom, 2015).
However, equitability in school is a complex concept that in reality does not have a determined measure. Therefore, it is close to impossible to state whether the education offered in different schools is equal or not. One of the main reasons for this has to do with the social relationships that occur in the school environments (Lindblom, 2015).
Nonetheless: The school should promote understanding of other people and the ability to empathise. No one in school should be subjected to discrimination on the grounds of […] functional impairment, or to other forms of degrading treatment. All tendencies to discrimination or degrading treatment should be actively combated. (Skolverket, 2011, p.4).
In other words, even though every school in Sweden has to offer an equitable education in terms of access, quality and compensation for adverse circumstances, it is close to impossible to measure, and thereby confirm, whether this is achieved or not. Thus, since no one shall be exposed to discrimination, it is, from a teacher’s perspective, important to at least do what is possible in terms of adapting the education and giving every student the same opportunities. Since children with High Functioning ASD find it challenging to get accustomed to new things, such as schools, teachers, and subjects, it might create some obstacles if the teacher one day decides to change some of the routines. However, by creating a good relationship where the teacher and the student have mutual respect for one another, he or she will be able to retain the relationship and avoid the complications that might occur (Wire, 2005).
I chose a qualitative research design for my data collection, in this case, semi-structured interviews with a predetermined set of questions (provided in appendix 1). In comparison to a quantitative research method, this approach permits the respondents to express themselves more freely, but also more in depth, which in turn allows me to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter and the more experienced teachers’ perspectives, which will be valuable in my future profession (Trost, 2010).
Nevertheless, the chosen method and the small number of respondents had a few limitations. Since it is a small study it will prevent any generalization of the results as well as any claims made. However, areas of interest that are found might be studied in further research (Bryman, 2012). Also, what is presented throughout this research paper is what the teachers reported about their practices, but not something that I personally observed. It is well-known that self-reported data are not always very reliable (Bryman, 2012). “Two issues that threaten the credibility of self-reported data stand out: social desirability bias and halo error” (Gonyea, 2005, p. 82). Therefore, it would be good to have interviewed some of the ASD students as well, which would allow me to regard the matter from their personal experiences. Also, to make this study more reliable, I could have used various sources of data to compare the results with, or triangulation instead of, as in this case, solely relying on self-reported data (Gonyea, 2005).
In addition, I have informed all of the respondents about their rights, chosen locations where I hope they feel comfortable, and simply done my best to abide by the presented ethical policy. In spite of this, according to Trost (2010), there is a risk that my previous relationship to the respondents (see 3.2) may have contributed to them trying to provide me with answers that they believe I want to get, which additionally may have had a negative impact on the reliability of this study.
Sample and Respondents
Throughout this research, I used a convenience sampling, where I through personal connections approached six respondents based on their profession, gender, experiences, age and location. Unfortunately, two female respondents were not able to participate in this study, which resulted in a study consisting of four male respondents. In particular, the respondents needed to be English teachers in upper secondary school with some experience in teaching students with High Functioning ASD in their second language, English. Therefore, I chose to interview four individuals, two of whom currently teach only High Functioning ASD students. The other two respondents are primarily English teachers of TD students, with one of them currently also teaching a small number of students with High Functioning ASD, and the other one having had some prior experience of teaching ASD students.
The first respondent was a male English teacher who currently exclusively teaches students with High Functioning ASD in a regional city in the western parts of Sweden (C1), and has more than twelve years of experience in this particular field. Since he has been teaching English as a second language to both TD students and ASD students, he was able to share his views from both experiences. This teacher will hereafter be referred to as TASD1.
The second individual I chose to interview was a male who currently also exclusively teaches ASD students, yet has several years of experience in teaching English to TD students. He works at the same school as TASD1, which therefore also is located in C1. He was chosen for the same reasons as TASD1, because of his experience and wide perspective on the matter. This teacher will hereafter be referred to as TASD2.
The third English teacher that I interviewed was a male who primarily teaches TD students in a regional city in the eastern parts of Sweden (C2). This individual does not share TASD1’s or TASD2’s extensive experience of teaching, even though he teaches a couple of students with ASD. I chose to interview him in order to be able to take advantage of a perspective from someone who is not used to adapting his education as frequently as the others. Also, since the respondent works in another city, there might be other policies and methods to address students with ASD in their statement of intent for students with the need for individual support. This teacher will hereafter be referred to as TTD1.
The fourth and final respondent I chose to interview was a male who exclusively teaches TD students in another regional city in the western parts of Sweden (C3), which is a suburb to C1 and therefore shares the same policies. He does not have any major experience in teaching English as a second language to ASD students. Nevertheless, he has some experience as a substitute teacher for ASD students. The reason for choosing him was because he is not as used to adapt his education as regularly as TASD1 or TASD2, nor does he have the working experience that they have, which might show in his answers. He will hereafter be referred to as TTD2.
I decided to look at the matter from two different perspectives, the perspective of those with experience of teaching ASD students on the one hand, and those without that same extent of experience on the other hand. By doing this, I am eventually able to make a comparison, and thereby see if the teachers teach social interaction and communicative skills differently.
Interview guide and procedure
Three of the interviews were performed at the respondents’ working places. As TTD1 lives in another city (see Table 1), I was able to interview him while he was visiting the local university. That particular interview took place in a group room. It was essential that the interviews took place in an environment that the respondents found relaxing and comforting so that they were put at ease and so that I could get the most out of the interviews. The interviews took approximately 25-30 minutes each and were conducted in Swedish, since it is all of the respondents’ mother tongue. By conducting the interviews in Swedish, the respondents were able to express themselves more naturally and relaxed.
I began each interview by greeting them, and informing them about the purpose of the study. I did this to make the respondents more comfortable. Afterwards, I told them how long I estimated the interview would be, that their identity would remain confidential and that the information shared by them would only be passed on in anonymized form, and that they had the right to cancel the interview at any time or to skip specific questions. Before I began asking my questions, I asked the respondents if I had their permission to record the interviews with my phone since I needed to keep the material for transcriptions, which I had in all cases.
During the interviews, it was important to remain focused on the purpose of the study and to obtain extensive information. In order to do so, I used an interview guide (see Appendix 1), and followed up on my questions by using a method called probing, which means that I avoided using terms such as, ‘why?’ or ‘how come?’ instead using expressions such as, ‘tell me more’, and ‘please elaborate’. By doing so, I was able to turn short answers into more developed ones, and thereby have a deeper conversation, which led to more data (Egidius, 2008). Also, it was important to always keep eye contact and not to interrupt the respondents, as well as providing time for reflection.
At the end of the interviews, the respondents were asked if they wanted to add anything, and told that, if something came up afterwards, they could contact me any time. Finally, I asked them if they wanted to receive a copy of the work when it was done, which they wanted, and thanked them for their participation and for taking their time.
Method of Analysis
I chose to analyze the material by using a method called ‘grounded theory with open coding’ (Bryman, 2012). I began by executing and transcribing the interviews. Thereafter I used a process called open coding, where the data were examined, broken down, conceptualized, compared and eventually gathered into five (plus one) categories or themes (see chapter 4) (Bryman, 2012). This process was performed until a theoretical saturation was met. Theoretical saturation implies that a point is reached where there is no further need to review the data to understand how suitable they are for the presented categories or themes (Bryman, 2012). This resulted in a flexible compilation since I found it easy to find patterns and draw conclusions thereof, but it also allowed me to obtain as much as possible from the data.
All of the respondents were aware and informed of their rights (Trost, 2010). The respondents were allowed to cancel the interview at any time or skip specific questions. Also, they were aware that everything they said would be passed on in an anonymized form, and that the data was only going to be used for this study and this research purpose. Therefore, it was important that the data was confidentially stored. In order to prevent unexpected problems, the audio files were anonymized before they were stored and transmitted to a USB stick with a password that only I had access to, and these files were erased as soon as the transcriptions had been done (Trost, 2010). It was important for me to be carefully prepared for any situation where there might have been a risk for me to insult their integrity, for example, when dealing with uncomfortable situations, or how I was preserving the material (Trost, 2010).
Table of contents :
2. Literature review
2.1 Background on ASD
2.2 ASD and Language Acquisition
2.3 Communication and Communicative Skills
2.4 ASD in Swedish Schools
3.2 Sample and Respondents…
3.3 Interview Guide and Procedure
3.4 Method of Analysis
3.5 Ethical Considerations
4.1 The Importance of Building Good Relationships
4.2 ASD Students’ Communicative Competence
4.3 English teachers’ experiences of using social interaction to help students develop their communicative skills
4.4 Teachers’ Attempt to Create a Fair Assessment and an Equitable Education
4.5 The Need to Show Additional Consideration When Educating Students With ASD
4.6 Better Performance of ASD Students in English Than in Swedish
5. Discussion of Results
6. Conclusion and Outlook