April is National Autism Awareness Month, but teachers deal with students who are on the spectrum all year long. Students with autism are an important part of the educational landscape, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the number of diagnosed students with an autism spectrum disorder has risen to 1 in 68.
I want to point out from the beginning that my favorite quote about people with autism is, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” I wanted to include that to make sure that every reader understands that I am not providing this post so teachers can diagnose students, but rather to offer a jumping off point to help. I am not an expert, but I do have years of experience teaching students on the autistic spectrum. Please treat this post as a broad overview of autism. I hope that you will follow the links to learn more about this prevalent disorder, as well as some strategies to help students with autism succeed in the classroom.
According to the Autism Society, there are three areas of need that should be present for a diagnosis. They are:
Activities and interest
Communication issues can range from echolalia (automatically repeating phrases that have been previously heard) to trouble with pragmatic language. Pragmatic language, or social language, can range from how we speak differently to both an infant and an adult, to using eye contact when speaking to others. In the classroom, this can be seen in many ways, such as being disorganized when telling a story, to appearing disinterested in a conversation by changing topics rapidly.
It is important for teachers to understand that communication issues may not be a 24/7 problem, but rather may be exhibited only during certain social situations. Understanding a student’s communication struggles allows the teacher to support the student when needed.
For example, if a student tells a story in a disjointed series, the teacher can repeat it back to the student for clarification, also connecting the dots for the other students. You might say, “So you are saying that first …” and the rest of the class hears the story in the logical order, plus the teacher models correct sequencing to the student that struggles with pragmatic language.
The symptoms of autism are generally present before age 3. But from my professional experience, for students with average or above average IQs, if the diagnosis doesn’t occur before kindergarten it often doesn’t happen until around third grade. From my observations, this occurs because the transition from second to third grade is when student social interactions shifts to include more nonverbal cues.
In the classroom, this can present as either the "unattached" or the “rambunctious” child. Most people understand what is meant by an "unattached" child, but when presented with a "rambunctious" child, it is more common for a teacher to focus on the behavior instead of where the behavior is originating.
For example, a group of students are playing. At a certain point, the students realize the activity is bordering on horseplay and draw back. The student with the social interaction impairment continues on the behavioral path that the other students abandoned and ends up getting in trouble. That student is unable to understand why he is in trouble because he doesn’t see the invisible social line that he crossed.
Social Stories by Carol Gray are a great way to help a student who struggles in social situations. On her website, Carol Gray says Social Stories are stories that describes “a situation, skill, or concept in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives, and common responses in a specifically defined style and format. The goal of a Social Story is to share accurate social information in a patient and reassuring manner that is easily understood by its audience.”
The child with autism should read Social Stories often and early. I have had great success with them, although one of my favorite students aggressively refused every time that I asked him to read one. He would, however, do me the favor of “proofreading” it before I gave it to another student to read. This made him feel as if he had assisted me and another student with an important task. It also gave him the social clues to deal with whatever social situation was on the horizon. There are Social Stories for everything, from how to handle a fire drill to how to ride a bus.
Repetitive actions are often calming for students on the spectrum. This is commonly referred to as self-stimulation. The stereotypical actions are rocking back and forth and flapping arms/hands. In the classroom, you may see these movements and others. Preferential seating is often the easiest way to address repetitive actions. By having the student sit where their actions are not distracting to others without isolating them, it is easier for everyone in the classroom. Drawing attention to the movements or asking the student to stop is ineffective and unhelpful. The student is not making the movements to annoy or frustrate you, but rather using them as a device to help them handle sensory issues they may be experiencing.
Intense interest will vary from student to student. I have had students who are very knowledgeable about dolphins, trains, SpongeBob SquarePants, etc. In the classroom, students will interject everything, from random facts that I incorporate into stories or math word problems, to sound effects that I ask them to repeat if I can work them into a lesson. They know a lot about their topics and they have a thirst for more knowledge.
I have always found that certain students, whether officially diagnosed or not, respond positively to adaptations and accommodations that are typically thought of as being used with students with autism. Many times, they don't need the academic rigor lowered for them, but may need the classroom routines structured and your assessment style adapted so that they are able to show you what they know. That is, what I believe the whole point of teaching is: reaching every child, not labeling them.
I can’t wait to see you next week when the topic will be communicating with parents of struggling students.