Children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in the Classroom
Autism is now considered a true spectrum disorder on which students may fall anywhere along a continuum. You may have heard of the term “Asperberger Syndrome” which was once considered a separate disorder but has now been included under the umbrella of autism. It is interesting to note that about 1 in 68 children were identified with ASD in the U.S in 2012 and ASD is 4.5 times more common among boys than among girls.
Students with autism often display impairment in one or more key areas: behavior, social skills, communication, and academics. Children with autism often may exhibit odd emotional behavior that is not easily understood by others. They may laugh at inappropriate times or cry for no known reason. Many children with autism can be compulsive and require routine to be maintained as they transition from one activity to another. They may repeat certain behaviors that serve a self-soothing function. Changes to routine can often result in tantrums and aggression. Aggression is not always directed outward, but sometimes may result in self-injurious behaviors such as hitting their heads or biting their hands.
Students with ASD find social interactions to be quite stressful. The mutual give and take nature of a typical interaction is often quite challenging for them. Rather than welcoming relationships, most children with autism try to avoid them and prefer to take retreat into their own isolated worlds. Some do not reciprocate play and do not engage in normal play activities without prompting. They also avoid meeting other people’s gaze and tend, instead, to fix their eyes on inanimate objects or parts of objects.
Some children with autism have difficulty understanding spoken words. Abstract words are very challenging because they are not linked to something tangible that can be seen and pointed to. For example, the word “here” has no meaning to children with autism. Typical children know when that they are supposed to stand close to a person but not too close when asked to “come here”. Children with autism often lack the social awareness of where to stand when asked to “come here” and often will stand too close or not come at all. As a teacher, it has been helpful to have an X or colored spot on the floor where a child can visually see where to stand. Without concrete visual associations to objects or activities, words can be difficult for children to understand. It is common for children with autism to confuse speech sounds so that words come out in strange ways. I had a student named Bob who had difficulty with recognizing all the sounds in a word. Whenever he didn’t want to do something, he would say, “Not today, Zerd!” He loved the movie “Toy Story” and Zerg is the enemy of Buzz Lightyear. I tried to tell Bob that the bad guy was really Zerg and not Zerd. He had a fit and said, “NO, it’s Zerd!” That was a battle I decided not to fight! This inability to process sounds properly greatly interferes with language development.
Children with autism also have great difficulty understanding nonverbal forms of communication such as facial expressions and body language. I had another student named Lionel who I caught dancing behind his seat instead of sitting down to read as I had asked him. I went up to him, arms crossed, and a disapproving look on my face, and said, “What exactly are you doing?” He turned around and said, “I’m doing the Point!” which was a popular dance at the time. He answered my question with the right answer but totally missed my body language and sarcasm. A neuro-typical peer would have seen the look and crossed arms and would have immediately sat down! Students with ASD can struggle with focus, attention, transitions, organization, memory, and time management. They often have difficulty with visual attention which is necessary to help them learn and concentrate.
Students with ASD might also struggle with what is called “Mind-Blindness” which can lead to a student not being able to distinguish whether another person’s actions are intentional or accidental. “Theory of Mind” deficit can make it difficult in interacting and interpreting the world socially because students have difficulty understanding others’ perspectives may be different from their own. For example, I worked with a general education teacher who had a student in her class who would tear up other students’ papers and hide their belongings. When asked why he did it, he said it was funny and that the other children thought it was funny as well. He wasn’t able to understand that she could feel something different from what he was feeling!
“Executive Dysfunction” can be a problem for a student in the areas of organizing, planning, sustaining attention, and inhibiting inappropriate responses.
Students with ASD are often described in terms of their difficulties, deficits, and challenges. But, students with ASD also have many strengths and abilities that a teacher can build on for learning. They can retain a great amount of accurate knowledge about a preferred topic (ex. know all about dinosaurs, Thomas the Tank Engine, solar system , elevators etc.) They often have good visual skills because children with ASD tend to focus on details rather than the whole. They also have good visual and spatial memory which can be useful for copying or following models of an end product. Students with ASD often have good memorization skills which help them remember rules and follow schedules.
Dr. Nancy Wilson is the founder of the SUCCESS program, a program specifically aimed at inclusion of children with autism at the elementary school level in the Irvine Unified School District. She also has been a hands-on special education teacher in Irvine, California since 2000. Prior to working in Irvine, she taught 3 years in general education elementary education. After receiving her Master’s Degree in special education, she taught in the Orange County autism program. She then retired for twenty years, after which she returned to teaching in 2000 to found the “SUCCESS” program.