April Is Autism Awareness Month

What do we know about “Autism”?

How is it defined?

How can we promote and support the inclusion of Autism in our communities?

“Autism Speaks” defines autism as:

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication.

Research shows that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn to think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

Indicators of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism. If you are an Educator/Director/Centre that has any concerns – it is often best to recommend a paediatric visit or health child check to promote early recognition and intervention in these cases and other areas of development. Does your service use PEDS Forms or similar tools for referrals?

Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviours, children and adults can exhibit any combination of the behaviours in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.

It was in 1943 that Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, created the diagnosis. And he noted then the classic form of autism involves a triad of impairments – in social interaction, in communication and the use of language, and in limited imagination as reflected in restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour and activities

Persons with autism may exhibit some of the following traits.

  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
  • Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Laughing, crying, showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
  • Tantrums
  • Difficulty in mixing with others
  • May not want to cuddle or be cuddled
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spins objects
  • Inappropriate attachments to objects
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
  • No real fears of danger
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills
  • Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range.

What You Can Do

Some quotes around autism include –

“A child with Autism is not ignoring you, they are waiting for you to enter their world” – Anon

“Autism is not a puzzle, nor a disease, Autism is a challenge, but certainly not a devastating one” – Trish Van Berkel

With these thoughts in mind – research into Dr Clarissa Willis’ books include some strategies to assist Educators and Families:

1. Identify What Triggers Strong Reactions or Meltdowns

A small schedule change or being in an unfamiliar situation are just two examples of something that can trigger a strong reaction or meltdown in a child with autism. After a strong reaction or meltdown occurs, it’s important to evaluate the child’s surrounding environment by taking into account any recent changes and keeping track of what was happening when the strong reaction occurred. Keeping notes on each child’s reactions and the possible triggers can help you address those issues and possibly find a pattern in what triggers have the biggest influence on each child.

2. Use Clear and Concise Language

Children with autism interpret language literally, so the use of idioms, metaphors, allusions, or sarcasm in language makes them confused and more likely to misinterpret what you actually mean. Try to be as simple and direct as you can when speaking to children with autism, especially when you are asking them a question or giving them instructions.

3. Keep Rules and Expectations Simple

Vague and abstract rules can be confusing to children with autism. Keep rules and expectations at home and in the classroom simple, consistent, and specific. Too many rules can also overwhelm children with autism. Try to limit the number of rules you have by really considering which rules are the most important and then introducing and enforcing those specific rules.

4. Make consequences consistent and natural

Consequences of breaking the rules should be consistent and natural. If there are inconsistencies, children with autism may become confused. If parents have certain consequences in place at home, it’s important for them to discuss those consequences with educators and caregivers to see if they can implement those same consequences in the classroom. Having a strong home-school connection will help children better cope with autism and can also increase the chances of them being successful.

5. Provide an appropriate physical environment

If children are hypersensitive (over-sensitive) or hyposensitive (under-sensitive), it’s important for you to make sure they do not go into sensory overload:

    • Use indirect lighting or a softer overhead lighting
    • Make sure the noise level in the environment is not too loud
    • Use calming textures and mild, natural scents

It’s also important to have a quiet place for children with autism to go to if the noise level at home or in the classroom becomes so loud that they are unable to function. Be sure to prepare children for any unavoidable noises, such as a vacuum or an announcement on the school speaker system, by giving them headphones or distracting them in another way.

6. Keep objects children find comfortable or reassuring on hand

Try to keep items that help calm and reassure children on hand, especially if children are prone to meltdowns or have sensory integration disorder. Things to chew on, items that vibrate, weighted objects, squeezable items, and items that encourage oral motor activities are all great items to have on hand for children at home or in the classroom.

7. Look for ways children with autism are trying to communicate

Depending on where their communication skills fall on the spectrum, children with autism may talk reasonably well, be nonverbal, or use non-functional speech. Children with autism may simply point at something they want or say something completely irrelevant to the conversation. Body language, withdrawal, and meltdowns are also ways that children with autism communicate.

If children struggle with using or understanding language, use signs, symbols, and language they can understand to communicate with them. Sign language is a great alternative form of communication for many children with autism. Start by teaching them a few basic signs, and be sure to make a list of signs they know so other people can communicate with them.

8. Set appropriate communication goals

Setting appropriate communication goals as children with autism are learning to communicate can help them find ways to overcome their language struggles. Base communication goals on which stage of communication the child is in currently, and remember that the ultimate goal should be for all children to learn to communicate because it is important to them. Try to find a way for children to effectively communicate with others, so they can use meaningful communication as a way of self-expression.

9. Include lots of pictures

We’ve mentioned that sign language is a great alternative way to communicate, but not everyone knows sign language or will take the time to learn it. This is why pictures are so important in communicating with children who have autism. Pictures can communicate choices, preferences, answers, instructions, schedules, and rules. Children with autism are visually oriented, so use pictures as a teaching tool at home and in the classroom. You can find a formal system of communication, such as the Picture Exchange System (PECS), or you can create your own picture communication system. Be sure that parents, educators, and caregivers are all aware of and understand the system to ensure that children are able to communicate with the people they see almost every day.

10. Provide a set daily routine and let children know of any changes

Structure is very important for children with autism. Be sure you provide a set daily routine for kids to follow and to let children know of any changes to the schedule. This could be anything from a teacher being out sick to a surprise activity. Giving children specific tasks to complete in a certain order will also help them feel more comfortable and in control.

11. Repeat or reword instructions and questions

If a child with autism is focused on something else, try to get their attention before you ask them a question or give them instructions. If they don’t hear what you say or look confused, try repeating it or rewording it in a different way to help them better understand what you are trying to communicate.

12. Keep choices clear and limited

Children with autism are more likely to respond if they are given fewer choices. Offering them only two to three choices will lessen the chances of them becoming confused or agitated. Make sure that whatever choices you give are clear and easy to understand.

13. Find ways to teach children life skills

Learning how to take care of their own basic needs can help children with autism socially and can also help make their daily routine more predictable. Parents, teachers, and caregivers should work together to determine which life skills a child with autism should learn first and which methods would be best to teach those skills. Using the same methods to practice the same skills at home and in the classroom can help to make learning easier.

14. Prepare children for new activities or places

Starting preschool or kindergarten and getting used to a new environment will be stressful for children with autism. Be sure to prepare children by helping them know what to expect. Use pictures to show kids the new environment and what may occur while they are there. Spending a few minutes in a new environment and then gradually increasing the time spent there is a creative and memorable way to help children with autism better adjust to new activities and places.

15. Help children interact with others

Children who have autism struggle with knowing what to do and how to act in social situations. Instead of learning by observation, children with autism have to learn techniques to help them interact with their peers and others. One popular way to teach children social techniques is to use stories to help them remember what they should do or say in different situations. Creating social stories or scripts can help children overcome the struggles they have in social situations.

16. Remember that each child with autism is unique

This is one of the most important things to remember when you are trying to help a child with autism. Uniqueness means that what helps one child may not help another, so it can take a while to find the right combination of strategies to help each child. Parents, educators, and caregivers should be patient and should all work together to help each child with autism increase his or her chance of success.

Did you know that the Maori word for autism is “Takiwatanga” – It means “In his/her own time and space”. And to be inclusive in this world of ours perhaps the best thing we can do is allow for time and space.