Middle school is a socially challenging time for most students, especially those with autism. With about 35 percent of middle school students with autism educated in general education settings, typically developing peers should have some knowledge of this disability.
In their research study, “Middle School Students’ Knowledge of Autism,” Jonathan M. Campbell, PhD and Brian D. Barger, PhD from the University of Georgia surveyed 1,015 middle school students about their knowledge of autism. Dr. Campbell is one of the newest members of OAR’s Scientific Council and Dr. Barger is a Graduate Grant recipient. The research for this study was funded in part by OAR.
The researchers surveyed knowledge of autism with a 10-item true or false survey. The students surveyed were from three middle schools in Georgia comprised of low socioeconomic groups. Of the students surveyed, 46 percent reported having heard of autism. Despite some knowledge of this disability, they still had little knowledge of the cause of autism and its characteristics. Five percent of those with some knowledge believed autism to be contagious. Of those with no prior familiarity with autism, nearly 8 percent believed autism to be contagious.
Though most students knew that autism is a disability that lasts longer than a week, they were unfamiliar with deficits associated with the disability, such as communication and social skill challenges.
When students are not knowledgeable about a disability, they have a tendency to associate negative traits with individual choice rather than disability. For example, a classmate may interpret avoidance of eye contact as rude and a choice of the peer with autism instead of as a characteristic of autism. As students learn more about a disability, they are more willing to accept their classmate and the deficits associated with the disability.
Campbell, J. & Barger, B. (2011). Middle School Students’ Knowledge of Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41 (6), 732-740.