Leadership is an important facet of all organisations, but it is a particularly complex and critical component in schools, which can be seen as microcosms of the societies and communities they represent. School leaders are faced with ever more daunting tasks as the expectations for improved student outcomes place increasing pressure on school staff. In addition, with the advent of the inclusion of increasingly diverse populations in schools, encompassing students with a range of educational, physical, and behavioural needs, school leaders are having to play an expanded role in guiding staff, facilitating collaboration with parents, and forming relationships with and mentoring individual students.
Amongst students with identified disabilities, the number diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased, placing demands on both teachers and school leaders to address the specific needs of these individuals in areas such as social skills, adaptive behaviours, communication, and academic skills. Researchers have suggested that few principals or school leaders have received any training in special education (Praisner CL, Except Children 69(2):135–145, 2003), and yet they are increasingly being called upon to fulfil leadership roles related to educational programs for students with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Needless to say, this mismatch between knowledge and roles has been found to create tension and stress for all stakeholders (Emam MM, Farrell P, Eur J Spec Needs Educ 24(4):407–422, 2009). In addition, parents and educators have pushed for schools to develop better whole-school processes to enable teachers to set high expectations for students with ASD (Starr EM, Foy JB, Remedial Spec Educ 33(4):207–216, 2012) and to support these students to achieve quality outcomes and life goals commensurate with their neurotypical peers. The role of principals in developing and leading these processes is an important point of consideration, and has been highlighted as crucial to the successful development of inclusive cultures in schools (Kugelmass J, Ainscow M, J Res Spec Educ Needs 4(3):133–141, 2004). In addition, researchers have stressed that principals are most successful if they lead their school communities in systematic steps to develop a positive school ethos which promotes the learning of students with a range of needs, including those with ASD (Humphrey N, Lewis S, J Res Spec Educ Needs 8(3):132–140, 2008). Despite these findings, little research has examined how principals and school leaders can combine the research on promoting inclusive schools and student outcomes, with the research on best practice for students with ASD.