In a recently published article with my colleague Ingrid Olsson as lead author (see link below), an analysis of research reviews on educationg students with autism is presented. The study is an overview, i.e. a review of reviews.
Studies of methods or other aspects of educating students with autism are compiled in research reviews. In the overview discussed here, 80 such reviews were analyzed, each of which compiled research on some aspect of the education of students with autism.
The reviews were chosen based on the criterion that they are seen as significant in the research field. In this case, it meant that they were the most highly cited reviews (in Web of Science) of research about education pupils with autism at the time of our study.
As usual in contexts like this, it is illustrative with examples. Three examples of titles of reviews included in the overview are: a) Intervention and Instruction with Video for Students with Autism: A Review of the Literature b) Telehealth as a Model for Providing Behavior Analytic Interventions to Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review c) Use Of Computer-Assisted Technologies (Cat) to Enhance Social, Communicative, and Language Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
In the mapping and analysis of the research reviews, the SMART (Systematic Mapping and Analysis of Research Topographies) approach was used (see link below). The analysis of the reviews focused in particular on how research on the education of students with autism can contribute to create more inclusive schools. It should be pointed out that SMART can be used both to do overviews but also reviews (that is, compilations of original research).
Questions asked in the study
In the following, we will focus on three of the research questions (slightly modified here) that guided the mapping and analysis of the 80 research reviews:
Question 1: Which research perspective dominates the reviews?
Here we distinguished between three perspectives, one functionalist, one hermeneutical and one critical. The functionalist perspective assumes that objective knowledge is possible and focuses on relationships between variables (e g the method x is effective in improving y). Hermeneutical perspectives have a more subjectivist starting point and analysis of interpretations of phenomena and conditions for such interpretations are at the center. Critical perspectives, finally focus on marginalization and injustice, for example through norm-critical analyzes of how norms around able-bodiedness marginalize people with autism.
Question 2: Do the reviews explicitly address the issue of inclusion?
This question followed from the point of departure of the SMART analysis which was to examine whether the mainstay of research on educating students with autism (as it appears in influential research reviews in the Web of Science) is at all oriented towards the question of inclusion of students with autism (it is of course possible, for example, to explicitly address the issue of inclusion and state that it does not work for a larger or smaller part of these students).
Question 3: What knowledge is generated which can contribute to creating a more inclusive education?
Ingrid developed a model in the article which she calls IEM (the Inclusion Education Model). Based on the model, knowledge contributions from research can be systematically arranged based on how they can contribute to create knowledge about different aspects of inclusion. The model also provides an opportunity to identify the type of research that needs to be developed.
In IEM, four types of knowledge contributions that can be made regarding the inclusion of students with autism are distinguished: 1) how more students with autism should have access to the regular education 2) what factors are required for it to work for students with autism in the regular education 3) what factors improve the situation for all students including students with autism and 4) what can contribute to creating communities in schools and classrooms that include all students.
The outcome of the analyzes
It was an expected outcome that functionalist points of departure would dominate in the reviews, but still somewhat surprising that only two of the reviews had hermeneutical points of departure and none had critical points of departure.
Even though about half of the overviews deal with regular education, it is rare that the issue of inclusion is dealt with explicitly and when this is done, inclusion is interpreted in a limited way.
The majority of studies are about reducing the symptoms of autism and developing social and communicative skills. Most reviews report positive outcomes of researched methods, but research needs to be developed regarding more specific issues such as which methods work for which students in which situations. It is important to remember that the autism diagnosis contains a wide range of students, which of course is a warning against too far-reaching generalizations. There is also a great lack of data on how methods should be implemented in ordinary education and be able to contribute to sustainable change.
As far as the model is concerned, it is therefore primarily with regard to 1) and 2) that the research provides useful knowledge contributions.
Most of the overviews are well or very well conducted. However, three critical points are raised in the overview when the research field is seen from an inclusion perspective: 1) More overviews should more explicitly address the issue of inclusive education, 2) More research is needed on how communities can be built in schools and classrooms where everyone, including students with autism, have a natural affiliation. 3) There is a need for increased knowledge about how the methods that have been shown to promote students with autism can be adapted to specific contexts.
The strength of SMART is evident from the important results generated. SMART enables an overview of a knowledge area, which is also analyzed on the basis of explicit points of departure, in this case the idea of inclusion. In a similar way, SMART has previously been used to critically analyze research on teaching methods and inclusion (see references).
A weakness with SMART is that the quality of the underlying studies is not subject to scrutiny. But it is important to understand that SMART is intended to supplement and not replace other ways of conducting research overviews/reviews. But even without analyzing the quality of the underlying studies, it has been shown that SMART can generate very important implications for how research areas can be developed to contribute to a more democratic school.
The article presented in the blog:
Ingrid Olsson & Claes Nilholm (2022): Inclusion of pupils with autism – a research overview, European Journal of Special Needs Education.
Link to information about SMART:
(see also: Nilholm, Claes. (2017) SMART – ett sätt att genomföra forskningsöversikter. Lund: Studentlitteratur.) Only available in Swedish. /SMART – a way to do research reviews/
Román, H., Sundberg, D., Hirsh, Å,. Forsberg, E. och Nilholm, C. (2021) "Mapping and analysing reviews of research on teaching, 1980-2018, in Web of Science: An overview of a second-order research topography". Review and Education.
Articles using SMART critically:
Nilholm, C., Sundberg, D, Forsberg. E., Hirsh, Å. och Román, H. (2021) The aims and meaning of teaching as reflected in high-impact reviews of teaching research. Teaching and teacher education, 107. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X21002134
Hirsh, Å., Nilholm, C., Roman, H., Sundberg, D. och Forsberg, E. (2020) Reviews of teaching methods – which fundamental issues are identified? Educational Inquiry.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20004508.2020.1839232
Nilholm, C., and K. Göransson. 2017. “What Is Meant by Inclusion? – An Analysis of High Impact Research in North America and Europe.” European Journal of Special Needs Education 32 (3): 437–451.