What is Autism exactly?
According to CDC (Center for Disease Control) 3.5 million Americans live with autism.
Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the way people communicate and interact with the world. It is “developmental” because it is diagnosed as early as childhood and it persists into adolescence and adulthood. It includes limited interests in things and people, repetitive activities and sometimes involves self-stimulatory repetitive movements like back and forth rocking movements, wiggling of the head, etc. It also affects fine motor skills (holding a pencil, picking up tiny objects, turning pages of a book, etc. and gross motor skills (jumping, running, etc.) The emergence of the symptoms during childhood is variable. While some children are identified earlier on, mostly before age 3, others are only identified much later.
Autism is called a spectrum because it ranges from individuals who are the least affected to those who are the most affected. Medication does not cure autism, it only helps control its manifestations. For instance, some medications address the rocking back and forth, others address self-stimulatory behaviors, others target anxiety, etc.
While autism is better understood now, we still cannot narrow it to a single cause. While genetic factors are the number one suspect, nothing specific has been established by research, so far. Autism occurs along a spectrum of severity spanning from mild deficits to a wide range of complex behavioral and academic challenges. This complexifies the provision of effective behavioral and academic supports by school districts.
Until recently, it was viewed improper to describe individuals as being autistic, it was politically correct to refer to these individuals as “individuals with autism”. Most recently, it has become acceptable to refer to these individuals collectively as “autistic”.
Autism affects communication, behavior and learning. Autistic individuals share the same challenges but rarely to the same degree. This makes the task of educators quite complex. Behavioral treatment proved effective for many using ABA science (Applied Behavior Analysis) however, social and communicative remain a challenge that is still very much resistant to treatment.
Collectively, autism is described to be a diagnosis of “absence” because, unlike typical learners who are described by what they can do, autistic individuals are characterized by what they don’t do. For instance, he or she:
make eye contact.
show interest in others.
interact with toys in the manner he or she should.
show affection towards others.
respond to his or her name, etc.
imitate the action of others
share attention and focus.
orient to socially important stimuli.
transfer knowledge (also called “generalization”) from one setting to another, from one person to another, from one time of day to another, etc.
“I heard about Theory of Mind, what is it and what does it have to do with autism?
Theory of Mind equals to being a mind reader. It is the ability to guess what other people think and how they feel. etc. without any language involved. The lack of Theory of Mind compromises communication with others. It is one of the core features of autism. Without guessing whether people are happy, sad or angry, it is practically impossible to communicate with them. Mind Reading is crucial to social understanding and communication. Theory of Mind is also described as “Mind blindness”. Not understanding that what others think might be different from what we think at a specific time, not detecting angry tones, not understanding other people’s intentions, make interactions exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
Cindy Foster from Lakewood NJ
“What is “Joint Attention”?”
Joint attention is also called “shared attention”. It involves at least 2 people looking at the same object or person. It is also looking at what another person is looking at. In short, “joint attention” is looking at what someone else is looking at. Joint attention is the way children learn the meaning of words and develop their vocabulary without being taught directly what those words are. Joint attentional interactions are the best way to learn language. However, because autistic children do not follow people’s gaze and do not naturally turn towards speech sounds, they need to be taught the words that are in their environment.
Lucy Smith from Teaneck, NJ asked:
“why is my son more interested in objects than he is interested in people?”
This question relates to the question above, from Lucy Smith. Autistic individuals do indeed prefer to play alone because they find it difficult to understand rules and to follow them. They do not understand the turn-taking, role-playing, etc. For this reason, they prefer to engage in activities that are repetitive because an activity that is repetitive is predictable and does not involve problem-solving.
Michael Borden from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma asked
“why his 3-year-old daughter plays with the same object over and over and why her brother (who is also autistic) spends his time spinning the wheels of his toy cars, or toy planes?”
This goes back to the concept of predictability. Objects respond the same way to the way they are handled or manipulated and because they respond the same way objects do not involve any problem-solving. People, on the other hand, are unpredictable because they act and react differently depending on their emotions.
Georges Picas from Trenton, NJ asked
“why autism used to be described to be on a spectrum of severity (e.g. high functioning to low functioning autistic individuals) and why these distinctions no longer exist?”
The distinction no longer exists because no matter the level of functioning, all autistic individuals share the same features and characteristics. All autistic individuals struggle with social interaction, with verbal and nonverbal communication, even if to different degrees, and all have repetitive interests.
Hillary Genova from Trenton, NJ wants to know
“what is Executive Functions?”
Executive Functioning refers to the ability to plan and organize things, ideas, tasks, etc. It also refers to one’s ability to monitor one’s performance, to refrain from acting and reacting in an inappropriate manner. It also refers to the ability to suppress distractive stimuli. Deficits in Executive Functions are the roots of difficulties in accomplishing tasks, self-help tasks and assignments.
Joshua Emerson from Newark, NJ wants to know asked
“why her son struggles with abstract thinking and what is “abstract thinking”?”
Abstract thinking is the ability to understand things or/and concepts that are not visible. Autistic individuals struggle with abstract and metaphorical concepts. For instance, an autistic individual hearing that it is raining cats and dogs will look at the window literally looking for the cats and dogs falling from the sky. This difficulty with abstract concepts makes it difficult for them to predict what will happen next in the next chapter of the book they are reading. To come up with the main idea of a text, to compare and contrast 2 events/situations, to describe someone else’s emotions, all involve abstract thinking autistic individuals struggle with in the classroom.
Madison Geoges from Hoboken, NJ asks
Main Social Characteristics of autistic individuals:
- Not responding to one’s name when called.
- Fleeting or poor eye contact.
- Difficulty with initiating or maintaining a conversation.
- Perseverating on a specific topic of interest.
- Using scripted language.
- Lack of empathy towards others.
- Difficulty in understanding the mental states or thoughts of others
- Challenged in understanding nonverbal communication (smile, eye-rolling, yawning out of boredom, etc.).
- Struggle in empathizing with the feelings of others (feeling sad when others are sad, laughing when others are laughing, etc.).
- Weakness in engaging in pretend play (e.g. barking and pretending to be a dog, using a bowl as pretend hat, snoring to pretend to be sleeping, etc.)
- Difficulty using language to communicate effectively.
- Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities include
- The child may exhibit strong interests in a specific topic or toy.
- Extreme interests (e.g. memorizing the names of the presidents of their country, dates in history, naming all mammals, memorizing all categories of planes and being able to name them, etc.)
- Rigidity about time, daily routines, feeding, specific placements for specific objects, scheduled routines, etc.
- Atypical body movements that are difficult to miss, such as spinning objects or spinning their bodies in circles, rocking back and forth, walking on their toes, flapping their hands or flicking their fingers.
- Over or under-sensitive to temperatures, textures, smell or sound. Reluctance to wear certain fabrics, intolerance to tags, to bedsheets that are not the specific fabric they are used to.
- Unusual play-based behaviors like lining up toys, categorizing them, placing them only in the same position and place. Some children will repetitively drop objects to watch them fall, spinning items (plates, cups, etc.) endlessly, or other objects that are not meant to spin.
- A typical eye gaze whereby the individual may peer at objects from the corner of his or her eye but also may place them directly in his or her field of vision, moving them in and out of that field.
Globally, autism limits verbal and nonverbal communication and is manifested in the following features:
b. Adapting communication methods depending on the audience (adults, friends, strangers, teachers, etc.)
c. Taking turns in conversations, accepting the opinions of others even when/if different from ours, using and/or interpreting the nonverbal language of others
d. Understanding even what is not explicitly obvious and making inferences that are not always verbalized by others.
e. Relate better to objects than they relate to people because of the severity in their social-communication skills.
Autism in the classroom
The first step in the educational system is “identification”. Usually, a teacher expresses a concern about a student’s learning and behavioral profile and makes what is called a “referral” to the school administration.
Concurrently, parents who suspect that something is not quite right with their child, consult the family doctor about their concern. The doctor usually recommends that a neurological evaluation be done to determine what, if anything, is affecting the development of their child.
School districts are often first in identifying the students be behind their peers in their development. When that occurs, the district has the legal obligation to evaluate the child across various areas of learning to include a neurological evaluation, if the parents have done one already. These evaluations are at the district’s expense and do not cost anything to parents.
Autistic students are students first. From preschool (age 3) through 21 they are eligible to receive appropriate services through their public school system, based on the outcomes of the Child Study Team Evaluations, we just mentioned. Once the student is evaluated and assessed to need services, an IEP (Individual Educational Program) reflecting the areas of needs of the student, is developed by the Child Study Team. A Child Study Team is a team of professionals within their own rights, and it includes the parents.
Educational programs for autistic students often gravitate towards the core symptoms of autism, social impairments, communication challenges, restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests, difficulties in staying focused, in processing information, etc. The area of focus of IEP’s are generally, academic skills, communication and social skills, speech and language, the processing of information, functional life skills, play and leisure skills.