Autism, as defined by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), refers to “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” This federal definition then proceeds to name traits commonly related to the condition: “Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in [IDEA].”
IDEA rounds out its definition by noting that a child who shows the characteristics of autism after age three could be diagnosed as having autism if the criteria above are satisfied. This enables a child to receive special education services under this classification if he or she develops signs of autism after his or her third birthday. Typically a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, physician or other highly qualified professional makes the diagnosis. It would not be uncommon for the evaluation team to suspect Autism, then ask the parent to see a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or appropriately trained pediatrician.
Before getting into common traits associated with autism, understanding a little background is helpful. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) acknowledges that the phrase “autism spectrum disorder” is gaining momentum because it better captures the similarities between autism and other conditions that fall under this category. This term applies to five subcategories: autism, Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS).
NICHCY explains that a particular case’s traits determine the exact diagnosis. These characteristics fall into three major areas: social interaction, behavior and communication. Such characteristics might include the following.
- Unusual fixation (for instance, only playing with round toys)
- Inability to focus without first completing a routine
- Disruptive behavior when ordinary schedule is interrupted
- Unusual communication habits (from not talking at all to repeating certain phrases)
- Difficulty understanding social interactions
Due to the aforementioned traits, educating a student with a condition that falls within the autism spectrum proves challenging. Students with autism often face academic barriers such as:
- Trouble following directions
- Hampered ability to communicate
- Disruptive behavioral problems
Tips for Teachers and Parents
Multiple dynamics factor into effectively educating children with autism. Both NICHCY and Oklahoma’s State Department of Education advise giving directions one step at a time, utilizing various cues to reiterate instructions. For example, give directions on how to fold a piece of paper by verbalizing the steps while demonstrating how to do so; do each step individually, followed by the student imitating each step; do not integrate all the steps until each is mastered.
Assistive technology can reduce communication issues. Teachers, to combat disinterest, learn what intrigues your student so that you can grab his or her attention. For instance, if a student is heavily fixated on airplanes but uninterested in math, write word problems that incorporate situations relating to airplanes.
Teachers, getting to know a student can help you avoid disruptive behavior. Find out what calms your student and what riles up him or her. Parents you can assist here by providing such knowledge to your kid’s teachers. After all, who is better suited to help teachers to learn about your child?