Striving and Thriving Through Autism
April is Autism Awareness Month, and I, like many other teachers, have a student with autism/Asperger's in my classroom. This week I would like to introduce you to a guest writer from my school, Kristy Mall, who teaches autistic children and has an autistic son. My hope is that she will help you better understand how to work with this growing population.
Photo: From this post, you can link to a video interview with Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, which deals with autism.
From Guest Writer and Teaching Peer Kristy Mall
April is Autism Awareness Month. Are you aware that one in every 110 children, and one in every 70 boys, will be diagnosed with autism according to the CDC? That is more than the number of children that will be diagnosed with childhood cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined! The scary thing is, no one knows what causes it. We only know that it is reaching epidemic proportions.
When I first began teaching 18 years ago, I would work with an autistic child in my classroom every few years, and I found them both challenging and fascinating. I began to learn more about autism so that I could teach them effectively. Then, as fate would have it, I was blessed with my own little autistic bundle of joy eight years ago. Because I had learned to recognize the traits of autism in my students, I was able to intervene very early and get the help he so desperately needed.
My son could be the poster child for what good teachers, therapists, support groups, and families can do to promote a child's success. My experiences raising a child with autism have helped me become a better teacher, parent, and advocate than I ever would have foreseen. I am now encountering autistic kids in my classroom quite often, as the number of cases increases. So, in honor of Autism Awareness Month, I would like to draw from my unique perspective as a teacher of autistic children and the mother of an autistic son to share what you can do to help your autistic students.
What Is Autism?
- Autism is a spectrum disorder. That means that autistic people can range from low-functioning and nonverbal to very high-functioning, with barely discernible signs of autism.
- In order to be on the autism spectrum, a child has to demonstrate at least two areas of social and developmental (language, speech, or imaginative play) problems, and have restrictive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.
- Autism affects the neurological pathways in the brain. We don’t know what causes it — whether it is genes, the environment, or both — but we do know that early intervention leads to the greatest success.
- High-functioning autism is like Asperger’s syndrome, but has a language delay that may not be present with a child with the Asperger’s diagnosis. However, high-functioning autistic people typically have an average to high IQ.
- "Twice-exceptional" is the name given to autistic or learning disabled individuals who are on the gifted spectrum.
Important Things You Should Know
•Every autistic child is different. Like people, they have different interests and moods, and different issues to overcome. What works for one may not work for another.
•Autistic children often have difficulty with eye contact. Don’t assume that they do not see you or are not listening because they do not make eye contact. Some people believe that it is overwhelming for them to make regular eye contact, and that they are viewing the world in the way that they can. Work them into eye contact at a pace that they are comfortable with.
•Only about 10% of all autistic children are savants (and have extraordinary ability in math, art, etc.). Very few are like “Rain Man.”
•Every autistic child wants to be liked. That is human nature. It is simply harder for them to achieve that because of their limitations.
•They do NOT pick up on social cues easily, if at all. Facial expressions are lost on them. So, for instance, they simply don’t understand that as they go into great detail about a subject they are fascinated by, you have lost interest.
•They become obsessed or perseverate on things. It can be about anything, from trains and pirates to video games. That is their nature. Taking those things away can cause meltdowns. Finding ways to control the time they spend on those obsessions while using them as motivational tools can be very effective.
For example, I use video games as rewards for my son, and also to promote reading and math skills. He will read any book on video games that I put in front of him. I spark his imagination by encouraging him to design his own characters and games. We work on social issues through his characters, complementing the help he gets from his speech teacher and regular classroom teacher. We practice looking at how characters are drawn to infer the characters' emotions. He is transferring that knowledge to reading people's expressions.
•Autistic children tend to be very literal about things. If you tell them to stand on second, they will stand literally on second, even if it happens that the coach is using a helmet to represent second (yes, my son did this!). If you tell them not to go out the door, they may be afraid to go out for recess because you haven’t changed the rule.
•Sensory issues are very common with autistic kids. This can mean sensitivity to a range of things, including food, clothing, sounds, light, touch, and interaction. I have learned to keep headphones in the car for events that may be loud. (Assemblies can be excruciating: I always make a point to watch our autistic students in assemblies to make sure that they are coping with the noise.) Even a faint buzzing noise may cause behavior problems or outbursts. Bright light can also be very distressing.
•Autistic children like routine. It is challenging for them to adjust to your schedule, and a student teacher or schedule change can cause regression. Don’t worry! It should be temporary. Just prepare them for the change ahead of time, and talk them through it as they adjust.
•Communication is key. Communicate with parents any questions and concerns. Work together on issues so that there can be follow-through and consistency. Communicate with the student about dealing with social issues or other issues. Don’t assume that they know something is not funny or inappropriate if you haven’t explained that before. DO present alternatives to them that would be more effective.
•Some autistic kids are wanderers/runners. They can slip away quickly and may not have the ability to get help or tell a policeman their name. They now have tracking devices that autistic children can wear. Many families are turning to assist dogs to help both with social skills and to help track them if they wander.
•Autistic kids can range from low risk-takers that are scared to try something new to fearless children that would happily climb to the top of a tree or on top of your shelves.
•We are now finding that devices such as iPads, iPods, and computers can help autistic children with coping and communicating. There are cases where nonverbal children have been able to communicate their feelings via keyboards.
•Come up with a list of reasonable expectations. If your students are upset, discuss how to handle their emotions. Do you have a safe place in your room they could go to in order to cool down? Do you have strategies for outbursts and behavior issues? Making a list for them to see is very helpful.
•Autistic children are great targets for bullying, and will need your help in learning how to deal with it.
The best thing that you can do as a teacher is to get some training on autism, read about it, and stay abreast of the research. The strategies that you would use to make them more successful work for every child. I can honestly say that my son has made me a better teacher. I have learned to think ahead to foresee potential problems, to appreciate and accept every child’s quirks and differences, and to be more patient and understanding.
Photo above: Kristy Mall's son, Christopher.
Books I Highly Recommend for Teachers
Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism by Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin is a fascinating woman who was raised in a time when autistic children were typically institutionalized or given up on. Instead, her mother persevered and made her into a functioning, successful adult. It is very inspiring!
I Am Utterly Unique: Celebrating the Strengths of Children With Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism by Elaine Marie Larson
This book is book to use in broaching the subject of autism to your class and to share with your autistic child. I love that it is a picture book with a clever twist on autism!
Addressing the Challenging Behavior of Children With High-Functioning Autism/Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom: A Guide for Teachers and Parents by Rebecca A. Moyes
This book teaches teachers and parents different ways of modifying challenging behavior, explaining the causes of challenging behavior and offering strategies, support plans, and different motivators and positive reinforcers.
Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew and Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm
These books deal with not only the sensory issues that autistics face, but also with issues such as meltdowns. This is an excellent resource for parents and teachers alike.
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching & Raising Children With Autism or Asperger’s by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk
This easy-to-understand book presents a great deal of handy information, suggestions, and alternatives that will enhance the experience that you have with your autistic student.
Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Other ASDs by Chantal Sicile-Kira and Temple Grandin
This excellent resource helps teachers, assistants, and parents to fully understand autism. Covering everything from diagnoses and causes to treatments and coping strategies, this book helps answer many questions about autism.
The Boy Who Loved Windows: Opening the Heart and Mind of a Child Threatened With Autism by Patricia Stacey
This is the story of one family’s five-year journey in finding help for their autistic son. For teachers, it offers insight into the roller coaster journey that parents of autistic children go on as they desperately search for treatments.
The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Stock Kranowitz
Sensory issues are present, to an extent, in all people. However, some are affected so much that they have difficulty functioning. I have loaned this to numerous colleagues through the years, and find that it really makes me more aware of the issues that people with sensory processing disorders have, as well as the unique sensory needs of all of my students.
To learn more, read "Understanding Asperger's" in the September/October 2008 issue of Instructor magazine.
Visit the List Exchange for classroom books and novels that address autism.
Scholastic's page of all things Cynthia Lord includes a series of video interviews and book guides for the book Rules, which addresses autism.
Feel free to post a comment for Kristy or myself. Kristy has been a great resource for me this year and is extremely knowledgeable.