What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism Spectrum Disorder as defined by the DSM V(Diagnostic Statistical Manual V, 2013) is a group of conditions that includes Pervasive Developmental Disorder(PDD), Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Any or all of these conditions may pose problems for an individual in the areas of communication, social interactions and restrictive or repetitive patterns of behaviour. Autism is considered a lifelong disorder.
Early signs of Autism in Toddlers
The early signs of autism in toddlers may be seen in a lack of communication. The communication milestones of babbling, seeking and maintaining eye gaze may not be present.
As the toddler develops they should be exploring their environment by pointing to things and gesturing while developing single words and putting short phrases together by the age of 2.
If you are observing some early signs of autism or if a teacher has mentioned some developmental differences with your child, you may wish to investigate further.
Some other signs of autism spectrum disorder symptoms may be not seeking the attention of others and a preference to play and interact with objects by themselves.
Some toddlers may have poor sleep patterns and show sensitivity to sounds, materials and foods.
Formal diagnosis of Autism
If you suspect ASD symptoms, then a formal diagnosis may be what you are seeking to gain a better understanding of your child. A formal diagnosis requires a multi-disciplinary team to make a diagnosis of autism. This team includes a paediatrician, psychologist and a speech pathologist. Each team member will have to testing tools required for a diagnosis to be made according to the child’s chronological age.
There is no treatment for autism however, there are many interventions, programs and services specifically targeted to support individuals with an autism spectrum disorder and families.
Prior to or once a diagnosis is made it is important to seek out early intervention services. These services can include, speech therapy, occupational therapy and educational services. Further services that might be required are psychological and social work to support the individual and/or family.
If a diagnosis is not made until a child enters school then supports and curriculum adaptations cam be put in place where required. It is not unusual for some individuals with an ASD not to be diagnosed until secondary school or even in adulthood. Should this occur similar resources, services and programs are available to support the individual in their area of need.
What Causes Autism?
Having considered the question, ‘what is autism or what is ASD?’ it needs to be noted that there is no single cause of autism however, currently researchers indicate that autism is a genetic condition however the specific gene has not yet been identified.
Characteristics of Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a continuum of characteristics that is commonly spoken about in terms of levels of functioning. An individual on the spectrum can have associated difficulties with social interactions, communication, cognition all of which could manifest in non-typical behaviour responses.
High Functioning Autism
Asperger’s is considered by the community as high functioning Autism. This means that an individual’s intellectual functioning(IQ) could possibly range from what is considered normal into the superior range. It could be that an individual has what is called ‘splinter skills’. This means they may have a focused or superior functioning in a particular area, for example music, mathematics, technology etc.
Symptoms of Aspergers
Early signs of Asperger’s may be seen in a young child from their lack of coordination or that may be considered clumsy.
Despite good language skills individuals with Asperger’s may have poor social skills. They may have little interest in interacting with others or in contrast they interact well with others.
Some individuals with Asperger’s may be referred to as having no common sense. This could be attributed to their struggle to generalise experiences and outcomes to another similar event.
Individuals with Asperger’s may have highly competent levels of communication which may be highly tuned to a topic of interest while others may experience delays with speech and struggle to find and understand particular words in context.
Social impediments may occur due to a person with Asperger’s having an obsessional interest in particular objects or subject matter. This can be introduced into a conversation at an inappropriate time and cause social isolation.
Testing for Asperger’s can be obtained by a referral to paediatrician and psychologist for a child and for an adult a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
In diagnosing children this will usually be done by a parent questionnaire and observation of the child. A hearing test could possibly be undertaken to eliminate this as a possible cause of difficulties.
Autism can be affected by an individual’s level intellectual functioning. Individuals with autism can have an intellectual functioning (IQ) that ranges from superior to severely disabled. Recent statistics indicate that one in four individuals with ASD is within the normal range or higher, while three out of four will experience some degree of intellectual disability.
With a range of intellectual functioning an individual’s behaviour responses to their environment can be affected. These particular needs can be supported by many of the resources within this site.
While considering ASD we must remember no two individuals are the same and assessment results often demonstrate areas of strengths and weaknesses. These areas give us great information to assist with opportunities to develop new learning and skill acquisition.
Autism in Children
Autism in children can manifest in many different ways and will be different for each individual child. When you are working with children with autism you may first notice a lack of eye contact, restlessness, unsettled sleep patterns, lack of visual tracking of things in the environment, delayed speech and motor skill development.
When looking at whether a child might be exhibiting symptom of autism many ask ‘is there an autism checklist?’ Rather than a checklist there are a set of key features that occur in the areas of social interactions, communication and behaviours. Some of these key features could be:
- Lack of babbling or cooing noises by 12 months of age
- No use of single words by 16 months of age
- No use of two word spontaneous utterances by 2 years of age(not echolalia- which is repeating back what has been said by another individual)
- Lack of eye contact with you
- No attempt to point or other gesture towards objects by 12 months of age
- May seem disinterested in others and does not seek the attention of others
- A preference to play by themselves and if they do become involved with others they may be passive or play alongside rather than with other children
- If left to themselves they may engage in repetitive behaviour such as lining up objects and become distressed if the objects are disturbed.
Teaching Autistic Children – Early Intervention Autism
Teaching autistic children requires an awareness of the characteristics of each individual. Early intervention for children with autism is encouraged but regardless of the time of diagnosis gaining as much information about the spectrum and how it pertains to your child and what to do is the next step.
Working With Autistic Children
When teaching children on the autism spectrum there are a number of characteristics that teachers need to be aware of. Children’s spoken language may different in several ways. It may be monotonous in a robotic form, it could be echolalia which is where a child speaks back exactly what is said to them. Children could speak at another person to get their specific information out rather that understanding the need for conversational speech.
Due to possible difficulties with processing verbal information students may have a delayed response to teacher questioning or directions. Children may also experience an inability to process other people’s facial expressions and body language thus not responding as their peers would do.
Children with an autism spectrum disorder are generally considered as being visual learners. It is thought that they think in pictures and therefore work best when information is presented visually rather than verbally.
Autism teaching strategies
Particular teaching strategies work for differing abilities of children. There are specific autism teaching strategies that have been found to work well and features that teachers need to be aware of.
Teaching strategies for children with autism
Children with autism may exhibit little change in their facial features, do not interpret this as being disinterested or absent from the learning the process. Similarly, they may not have eye contact with you, this does not mean they are not listening or focusing on what has been said.
When teaching children with autism you need to be aware that they may have a need for personal space. Be aware of classroom positioning for group instruction and paired or individual tasks. Some children can be intolerant to having others in close proximity and many do not like to be touched.
Social interactions can be difficult so be aware that children with autism may not be aware of the need to great of farewell others and hence may appear rude. As a teacher you will need to explicitly teach this, ‘what do we say when Mr. Brown comes to our classroom?’
Children on the autism spectrum have a strong sense of the ‘rules’ and therefore may tend to become over responsible for other children to do the right thing which may put them at odds with their peers.
In play situations they may choose to be by themselves while others will want to be part of a group but don’t understand how to enter or leave a game or friendship group.
Classroom tasks may require further specific direction to clarify the requirements of the task.
The use of task analysis to break an activity task into micro steps will aide learning eg. Step 1, step 2 etc
Children on the autism spectrum like routine. It helps them to predict what will happen and therefore reduce anxiety for what might happen. The use of a schedule will help children in this instance.
Transitions from activity to activity in the classroom and with the school can also cause anxiety for children on the spectrum. The use of a transition schedule and timers can assist with managing this.
The unstructured social aspect of the playground may be difficult for children on the spectrum. School staff need to be aware of this as this can be a time when they become targets for bullies.
Autism in Teenagers
Autism in teenagers can become complex with the onset of puberty. While experiencing changes in their appearance, teenagers also need to navigate the social context of a new world.
Teaching teenagers with autism
When teaching teenagers on the autism spectrum teachers need to remember that their executive function skills work at a much slower pace. They demonstrate difficulty with being flexible, lack organisation skills, show difficulty in initiating the commencement of tasks and commonly have poor working memory.
To assist students on the autism spectrum to be successful they will require a degree of scaffolding to be successful.
They will need assistance with the organisation of their locker, management of materials for each lesson and managing their timetable.
The further challenge of homework will need the same scaffold supports. A diary of when homework and assigment tasks are due can assist with this.
Teacher need to check the teenagers diary to ensure they have recorded the rquirements of homework and assignment task correctly.
In contrast to most teenagers, those on the autism spectrum will still require school-home communication to support the teen on the spectrum.
Teaching strategies for teenagers with autism
- consider colour coding materials/texts according to subject area
- colour code the teens timetable to match
- stick a copy inside the locker door
- place another copy in the teens diary
- place a copy on digital devices
- consider making the same seat available to the teen if locality and sensory sensitivities are an issue
- where possible alert the teen to a change in timetable prior to the change
- where possible alert the teen to a change in staff
- assist to establish a homework and study routine using a diary/calendar
- when whole group instruction is given check in with the teen to ensure comprehension
- provide written and/or visual instruction for work tasks
- provide a warning that assigned task time is about to finish
- consider options for presentation of work tasks eg. video, electronic etc
- hand written tasks may be problematic for the teen, provide technology to assist here
- teens on the autism spectrum may have poor impulse control and you need to be aware of other students who know the ‘ buttons to push’ to get a reaction a trigger a behavioural outburst
- behavioural outbursts can also be triggered by the teens perceived injustice of a situation that you as the teacher have not managed
- be aware that the teen with an autism spectrum disorder can be a target for bullying
- many teens will have a speech and language disorder which could increase their social isolation
- check in with the teen, many teens never see ‘friends’ outside of school and may never be invited to take part in events
- be alert to an increase to increased social withdrawal has teens on the spectrum can be at a higher risk for mental health issues
Autism in Adults
Adults on the autism spectrum can continue their education at university, further education centres and through apprenticeship and traineeships.
Many adults having participated in work experience while school may choose to follow that experience into employment. Many will have had a part-time job that may expand into full time employment.
Those adults on the spectrum who have an associated learning difficulty such as an intellectual may choose a pathway that has combination of study, work and/or leisure options.
These post school pathways other further opportunities to expand social interactions and experiences.
Treatments & Support Services for Autism
When the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder is being sought or you have been given one, there will be a myriad of suggestions and approaches recommended.
It is important to remember that no one approach is correct as each individual is different in their presentation of strengths and deficits.
For example, a young child with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum may benefit from a program focused on language intervention is a specialist setting while another might be best served by having a focus on social development at the local kindergarten or primary school.
In regards to ‘treatments’ for autism spectrum disorder it is best to look at those approaches that have strong evidence to support them.
What needs to be determined is whether the approach of the practice research based or in fact is consider by specialist in the field as ‘a controversial’ practice.
What is important is that what ever practice you may consider, it should be an inclusive practice. Inclusive practice respects an individual’s right to full involvement in all aspects of school and the work environment regardless of individual differences.
Support services are available within the education sectors, and can also be found through local councils, government departments and work support services depending on your locality.
The challenges for the individual with autism, their families, education and work sectors will change over time.
There may be intense periods of time need to support the development of basic skills such as putting a t-shirt on, managing a homework diary, creating a resume or having a conversation in a workplace place.
Other areas for consideration are levels of anxiety and sensory sensitivities that may impede an individual’s ability to function at any given time. If we can assist those on the autism spectrum to identify the triggers for their anxiety or poor impulse control then when teach strategies for management to minimise the effect.
What’s The Next Step in Autism Awareness?
Highlighting autism awareness and supports available is paramount to creating an inclusive society. The first step is to make sure you are informed by gathering as much knowledge as you can to help you understand what you need to support the individual with an autism spectrum disorder.
It is important to have all your paperwork organised. Within the Think Organise Do website there are over 300 articles and resources to assist you.
The information contained within these pages is evidenced based and is being successfully used daily by parents, teachers and individuals to support the education, growth and development of young children, teenagers and adults.
Checklists in two formats, How To and Templates are available to assist you across a number of areas within this site.
The extensive resources within this site can help you get organised and assist in the development of skills for the individual with an autism spectrum disorder.
The How To section provides a step by step process to the achievement of a task. For those individuals with autism who require visual imagery to help them make connections to information, each How To has be created and can be downloaded in a visual format. The written word also appears to aid in language development. For those who require the written word only this is also available in a separate download. If you prefer both versions can be followed on your mobile device.
We have a number of templates that can be used as checklists to help guide an individual with autism through a particular process. Having such a checklist can help the individual focus on the task, thereby reducing anxiety by understanding exactly what the task is. These templates can be downloaded or are readily accessible on a mobile device.
Think Organise Do Pro
Think Organise Do Pro is a professional learning service. It is setup to assist education facilities, community organisations and businesses to be better informed about inclusive practices to support individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. Think Organise Do Pro facilitates seminars and workshops that focuses on the specific needs of each environment. This service can come to your facility with your specific area of need being the focus.