Autism, from Both Educator and Parent Perspectives
Education Associate Professor Dr. Ivor Weiner, Department of Special Education
When my daughter Layla, now 16, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, I did what many parents do: I searched the Internet for a cure. Couldn't someone with my experience and education find answers to this lifelong neurological disorder? Over the years, I have taught hundreds of teacher candidates and interacted with dozens of parents through the CSUN Family Focus Resource Center. All the while I witnessed parents searching for a cure, as teachers desperately sought to fix autism with the perfect intervention or magic bullet.
My students are often disappointed on the first day of class when I tell them this disheartening fact: currently, there is no magic bullet for students with autism. There is nothing to fix regarding autism, except our own neurotypical perspectives. That said, there is information that is helpful. Given my unique perspective as a university professor of special education, the director of the Family Focus Resource Center, a former classroom teacher and behavior specialist, and the parent of a child with autism, I have identified key information and approaches most essential to understanding and working with children who are on the autism spectrum.
- Social skills instruction is essential. I am always amazed on the first day of classes when I ask my students about the social skills curriculum implemented in their classrooms. At the most, two people raise their hands to indicate that they engage in daily social skills building. A major challenge for students with autism is social interaction, but the lack of a social skills curriculum, coupled with a systematic way of teaching it, is tantamount to neglect. Social skills curricula must have the same weight and emphasis that math, language arts, and science curricula have in the classroom. The late Stanley Greenspan, developer of the DIR/Floortime intervention, often said that being able to read and write is not as important as having appropriate social skills. A person can be gifted in writing but not hold a job because he can't interact appropriately with others. With an unemployment rate of between 70-80% for individuals with autism, it is critical that we provide these students with intensive social skills instruction and support. An excellent resource for teachers is the following website, which has ready-made lessons that can be easily incorporated into the hectic school day: http://www.cccoe.net/social/intro3.htm
- Executive functioning, the ability to organize and plan, must also be addressed systematically and intensely. Many students with autism struggle with impaired executive functioning and, as a result, become easily frustrated and overwhelmed. Visual aids such as schedules, checklists and step-by-step directions are helpful tools to assist students. For more information, I suggest the following website: http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/executive-function-disorders/executive-functioning-strategies-success-teaching-students
- Inclusion is vital. Students with autism need ample social interaction practice and opportunities to practice skills they have acquired through direct instruction. They need to practice these skills with typically developing peers who serve as appropriate role models and can be powerful change agents for those with autism. As more individuals are identified with autism (the current number is 1 in 88 children), typically developing peers play a critical role in helping those with social deficits become successful social navigators. My own daughter, Layla, benefitted greatly from her years at the CHIME Institute schools where she had opportunities to learn appropriate behavior from her typically developing peers. For more information on inclusion, see: http://tash.org/. For more information on CHIME, go to: www.chimeinstitute.org.
- Controlling anxiety is a fundamental strategy. Limited communication skills and the inability to interpret both context clues and body language generate considerable anxiety for children with autism. Dr. Temple Grandin, who herself has autism, refers to this situation as constantly feeling like a prey animal. Regardless of the effectiveness of an academic strategy or intervention, a constant state of anxiety precludes this student from learning, as brain functions are impaired under high stress. I have found that individuals with high anxiety respond well to mindfulness, yoga, and breathing exercises. Also, simply having an adult or peer empathize with the individual who has high anxiety helps immensely. For more information on addressing anxiety, see the following resource: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=3616
- Controlling inappropriate behaviors is critical to success. Individuals with autism do not purposely engage in inappropriate actions. Unfortunately, teachers oftentimes take the behavior personally and become upset with these students. We all need to remember that autism is a neurological disorder (their brains are wired differently), so, for example, students with autism can be brutally honest and come across as challenging. For more information, go to: http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/tool-kits/challenging-behaviors-tool-kit
- Embracing neurodiversity helps us understand that autism is basically a pattern of differences. Every person has strengths and challenges, as individuals with autism do. Society must remember that there is nothing wrong with having autism, there is no defect and nothing needs to be changed. Individuals with autism can live productive lives and have full control of their destinies. For more information: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/autism/neurodiversity
- Unconditional understanding is the most effective intervention, according to Tony Attwood, a scholar who studies individuals with Asperger's syndrome. This has been a lesson that has taken me many years to learn. When individuals with autism are heard and understood, they do quite well. In the case of Layla, this has been a life-changing factor. When I am more understanding, empathetic, and willing to see the world from her point of view, she is less anxious and excels at whatever she tries. Reading books by authors with autism—such as Ido in Autismland, by Ido Kedar, and Temple Grandin's book, Thinking in Pictures—provides teachers with firsthand information about what it is like to have autism and how to respond with understanding.
When working with students with autism, I have found the above approaches to be highly effective. More importantly, these ideas have helped my daughter flourish as a person. She is currently in the 10th grade and is progressing similarly to her adolescent peers. She has overcome challenges and has developed incredible talents, which will make her successful in life.
I challenge all educators, parents, and community members to
learn more about autism so that our society can embrace and
more successfully include all of its members.
- Buron, K. D., & Wolfberg, P. (Eds.). (2008). Learners on the autism spectrum: Preparing highly qualified educators. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
- Bellini, S. (2007). Building social relationships: A systematic approach to teaching social interaction skills to children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders and other social difficulties. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder: Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 14 sites, United States. Surveillance Summaries, 61(3), 1-19. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6103a1.htm
- Grandin, T. (2006). Thinking in pictures: My life with autism. New York City, NY: Random House.