Autism is a nonprogressive neurologically based developmental disorder that typically appears before the age of 3. There are five disorders under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) also known as the autism spectrum: Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Rett Disorder which affects only females, and PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability with an estimated statistic of 1 in 88 people having an ASD according to the new figures released in 2012 from the Center for Disease Control in the USA.
ASD often presents with other conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Hyperactivity Disorder, dysgraphia (difficulty putting thoughts into writing), dyslexia (difficulty decoding single words), nonverbal learning disorder (disorders that don’t affect speech), Tourette Syndrome (characterized by vocal, motor, unusual noises tics or involuntary sayings) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Although students with an ASD will vary widely in ability and behavior, there are four main points they share: impaired social interaction, communication difficulties, lack of imagination, and sensory issues. So what do these students look like in the classroom?
Socially, you will see these students do not fit in. They don't understand that other people have thoughts, ideas, and ways of thinking that are different from theirs. Interaction with others is often one-sided and inappropriate. The ASD child will often be absorbed in certain subjects and will only want to talk about those subjects. Reciprocal play is absent such as turn taking or adding on ideas to play scenarios. You may see the child engaging in parallel play rather than direct interaction with other children; they don't know how to join in.
These children often lack empathy because they do not interpret the emotions of other accurately. Children with Asperger Syndrome (AS) are known for their honesty and will tell you exactly what they think and can be perceived as rude. They are rule-based and are quick to point out who isn’t following the rules. Breaking the rules can cause them anxiety. These traits make them susceptible to bullying and teasing from other students. The ASD student often doesn’t get the joke or becomes highly anxious when routines are changed. They often prefer to be alone. They do not follow the social customs of society that most of us learn simply through observation. Some great resources to learn more about AS in the classroom are Asperger Syndrome - Practical Strategies for the Classroom: A Teacher's Guide, and Asperger Syndrome - What Teachers Need to Know.
Communication difficulties present in a variety of ways. Some students are echolalic, repeating what others have said. Some may quote lines from movies or computer games or repeat certain sentences over and over again, especially when anxious. Speech often lacks a flow, rhythm and varied intonation and can sound flat. The use of pronouns may be absent or used incorrectly like inanimate objects may be referred to as he/she rather than “it”. The child may refer to himself in the third person, using their own name. They are not responsive to verbal cues and may appear deaf or in another world. A child may demonstrate good reading skills but poor comprehension. Expressive language (speaking) may not be as strong as receptive language (understanding language).
An ASD child may lack imagination for pretend play and creative writing. They will struggle to write a story that is not based on a re-telling of true events. There is difficulty sequencing events. They may engage in sustained odd play, use an object in an unusual way or become fixated on an attribute of an object.
The ASD student experiences sensory dysfunction which is the inability to differentiate among and between stimuli. The central nervous system inaccurately processes sensations therefore this information cannot be used to make purposeful, adaptive responses. These children may be overreactive (hypersensitive) to sensory input. They may avoid art, science, music or gym because of loud noises, certain smells like paint or glue, or touching certain textures like clay. Some children are underreactive (hyposensitive) and will seek out sensory input. This child may jump off playground equipment from dizzying heights. They may alert themselves by falling or crashing into objects. Some children are a combination of these two. It is important to use an appropriate sensory checklist to discover what aspect of sensory dysfunction a child is experiencing and to make the necessary accommodations for success. If you are able to request a consult from an occupational therapist, do so.
The child with an ASD will present challenges in the classroom. They will require modifications to the curriculum and to the learning environment, but with the proper understanding, adaptations and patience these children can thrive in the school setting. For more information about students with autism and how you can best help them, have a look at the School Community Toolkit (Autism Speaks). This kit provides helpful information about students with autism and tools and strategies to achieve positive interactions and increase learning for all members of the school community.
Free image courtesy of digitalart | FreeDigitalPhotos.net