Constructions and reconstructions of autism: Teachers' perspectives at selected American and South Korean inclusive education sites

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Dean Douglas P. Biklen


Cross-cultural studies, Inclusive education, Communication, Qualitative research, Undesirable behaviors, Autism

Subject Categories

Education | International and Comparative Education | Special Education and Teaching


This dissertation is a cross-cultural qualitative study of educators in selected inclusive education classrooms at selected sites in the United States and South Korea. It examines how educators construct the meaning of autism, how they construct communication with students labeled with autism, and how they interpret unconventional or undesirable behaviors through interactions with students labeled with autism. The social requirements for, and interpretation of communication and behaviors differ between the individualist--oriented culture of the U.S. and a more collectivist--oriented culture of South Korea.

The study is based on 70 interviews with educators who have experience with students labeled with autism in inclusive classrooms and a few observations of students labeled with autism at preschool and elementary levels in both countries. The data analysis uses the constant comparative method; derived major themes consisted of constructed meanings related to inclusive education, acts of communication/expression, and classroom behaviors.

Many teachers interviewed in both countries suggested that they find inclusive classrooms effective because they are similar to the "real world." Many of the American teachers interviewed stressed providing appropriate educational materials, whereas many of the Korean teachers interviewed indicated students labeled with autism came to be like other students through their participation in classroom groups.

Many of the American teachers indicated that students labeled with autism can express themselves if provided with appropriate communication modes (e.g., facilitated communication), but it is still important to educate them in non-verbal communication conventions (e.g., making eye contact). Most of the Korean teachers interviewed stated that forming bonds with students labeled with autism enhanced communication, and they found social competence in the form of noonchi in students labeled with autism.

Most of the American teachers interviewed managed undesirable behaviors of students labeled with autism by providing aids for their perceived sensory needs. Many Korean teachers interviewed assigned significant meaning to students' being able to stay in their seats during class, such as a readiness to learn and competence. The study reveals that the meaning of autism is not absolute but is instead a matter of interpretation, related to cultural norms.


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