Elementary School Students’ Spontaneous Definitions of Autism

Saturday, May 13, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
S. Kerwin, K. A. Scheil and J. M. Campbell, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Background:  Inclusive education is thought to yield social benefits for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), in part, by facilitating social acceptance. Successful inclusion strategies are important as students with ASD experience less social acceptance and peer companionship than their peers. In order to facilitate acceptance and enhance peer education, it is important to identify what typical children know, think and believe about autism. Magiati et al. (2002) reported that no elementary school children had heard the word “autism;” more recent studies reported that 77% of elementary school students have heard of autism (Silton et al., 2011). Despite being aware of the term autism, most elementary school students report limited knowledge about defining features and associated difficulties for students with autism. For example, only 22% of students report that students with autism show social difficulties.

Objectives:  In the present investigation, we update knowledge about elementary school students’ conceptions of autism. Overall, we aim to further understand elementary school students’ conceptions of autism to identify curricular targets for peer education interventions.

Methods: Participants were 220 students (110 boys, 110 girls), ages 9 to 12 enrolled in 4th or 5th grade in public elementary school. Investigators asked students if they had ever heard of autism and, if so, to provide a written definition of autism. Definitions were coded for accuracy and content with a revised version of Campbell et al.’s (2010) “What is Autism?” coding manual.

Results:  A total of 109 (49.5%; M age = 10.11; SD = 0.76) of the participants reported having heard of the word autism; two students reported not hearing of autism, but provided a definition nonetheless. Within our sample, girls (58.7%; n = 64) were marginally more likely to have heard of autism when compared to boys (41.3%; n = 45), χ2(1, N = 109) = 2.97, p= .08. Accuracy coding decisions proved to be reliable with κ = .93 and 1.0 for two pairs of coders. Content coding was also reliable with κ ranging from .73 to 1.0 for one pair of coders and κ = .65 and 1.0 for a second pair. Most (73.6%) responses were judged to be accurate and a majority of respondents (67.3%) reported that autism was a disability; however, few identified social or communication difficulties (10.0%) or restrictive/repetitive behaviors or interests (0.9%) as characteristic of autism (see Table 1).

Conclusions:  Roughly half of elementary school students in our sample reported having heard of autism and most reported understanding that autism is a disability; however, students reported little understanding about social, communicative, and behavioral difficulties characteristic of students with autism. Peers’ definitions were remarkably similar to prior work with elementary schoolers. Peer education efforts should target improving students’ basic understanding of autism to facilitate greater awareness and acceptance. For example, educational messages targeted to elementary school students should identify behaviors likely encountered within educational settings to understand and interpret autism symptomatology accurately. Improved and accurate interpretation of social, communicative, and behavioral symptoms may reduce misattribution and social distancing.