Teaching Students with Autism
Autism spectrum disorders is an umbrella term for a family of neuro-developmental conditions characterized by early-onset social and communication disabilities, challenges with imagination, and restrictive behaviors that interests ranging from stereotyped movements to accumulating vast amounts of information on specific topics (Volkmar, Lord, Bailey, Schultz, & Klin, 2004). This article offers a brief history of autism, proposed causes, interventions, and indicators for identifying and diagnosing autism. This article introduces strategies for teaching students diagnosed with autism in a public education environment. Viewpoints from multiple theorists coupled with specific instructional strategies in a general education classroom are also offered. The overall purpose of this article is designed to promote advocacy and understanding for children with autism in general education environments.
Keywords Asperger Syndrome; Autism Disorder; Early Intervention; Perseveration; Positive Behavior Support; Restricted Interests; Theory-of-Mind Deficits
Autism spectrum disorders is an umbrella term for a family of neuro-developmental conditions characterized by early-onset social and communication disabilities, challenges with imagination, and restrictive behaviors that interests ranging from stereotyped movements to accumulating vast amounts of information on specific topics (Volkmar, Lord, Bailey, Schultz, & Klin, 2004). Impairments in social interaction is one of the main factors typical of autism disorders, and these disorders also cause multiple deficits in language, play, eye contact, and gestures (Kanner, 1943). Other characteristics of autism include irregularities in communication, repetitive movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences with the added restriction of the capacity for abstract thought, especially as the individual ages (Hardman, Drew, Egan, & Wolf, 1993). Autistic spectrum disorders have also been described as conditions characterized by strong heritability (Baron-Cohen, 2004, p. 73). Children characterized by disorders on the autistic spectrum range in severity of their cognitive functioning, but their behaviors seem to be underscored by their inability to function appropriately in social settings, including schools.
Multifactorial factors and a shortage of research due to the relative newness of the disorder make it difficult to identify one specific cause for autism, although multiple theories have been developed. Biological factors seemed to play some role in developing the disorder (Baron-Cohen, 2004, pp. 75–76). Wing and Potter (2002) argued, "Genetic factors alone are very unlikely to account for a real rise in rates that appears to have occurred so rapidly and continuously year on year" (p. 158). Based on perspectives of these two researchers, genetics seems to play an important role in the disorder, but other factors seem to play a role as well.
Another explanation linked genetics, environmental factors, and biological factors together. Fuentes (2004) wrote, "Genetics may also play a role in susceptibility" (p. 41). Overall, strong and convincing evidence suggests a strong heritable propensity for developing an autism disorder. However, the identity and number of genes involved are not yet known (Muhle, Trentacoste, & Rapin, 2004, p. 475). Consistent with this theory, additional studies demonstrated a 30 percent to 50 percent increase in serotonin levels of individuals with autism disorders. Despite evidence supporting genetics, environmental factors, and biological factors, investigators have not found a physiological basis for this documented phenomenon (p. 479). Additionally, there is evidence for a genetic relationship because of the over-representation of males with both conditions (Macintosh & Dissanayake, 2004, p. 428).
Overall, present data suggests a dramatic increase in the numbers of individuals being diagnosed with the disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2000, 1 in 150 children aged 8 in the United States were living with Autism Spectrum Disorders. By 2008, 1 in 88 children had been identified (Baio, 2012). This statistic does not account for the numbers of affected individuals in other countries because autism disorders are rapidly occurring on multi-national levels. In 2006 in the United Kingdom, 1 in 200 children were identified with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In 2012, 1 in 125 children were affected (Number of children, 2012). Various advocacy groups attribute multiple impacts, increasing demands, and rising numbers of individuals as a social concern.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
Many times when people first become aware of autism disorders, it is the result of media attention or the movies, such as Rain Man. The character Raymond was an autistic savant. These individuals possess strange mannerisms and stereotypes and are still cut off from normal life, but they possess amazing powers of arithmetic facility, recall, or artwork (Grandin & Sacks, 1995, pp. 11–12). Other characteristics exhibited by savants include the ability to complete complicated calendar calculations, mathematics, art, and memorization of facts and information. The facility with which these abilities are carried out is highly unusual (Klin, Danovich, Merz, & Volkmar, 2007, p. 89). Research has indicated that 1 out of 200 individuals diagnosed with autism might be considered to have genuine savant abilities (NAS, 2006; Ginn, 2007). These characteristics are relatively rare and should not be confused with other types of autism behaviors.
Asperger Syndrome is probably the second most known autism disorder that is prevalent in public school settings. Grandin and Sacks (1995) indicated that individuals with Asperger Syndrome possess high intelligence, understanding, and education. Rather than suffering long-term negative effects, these individuals might actually live eventful and accomplished lives filled with unique insights and courage (p. 12). Tammet (2006) described autism, including Asperger Syndrome, as impairments that affect social interactions, communication, and imagination indicated by problems with abstract or flexible thought and empathy. He further indicated that individuals with Asperger Syndrome often have good language skills and possess high IQs and excel in areas that involve logical or visual thinking (p. 6).
Powers (2002) described Asperger Syndrome as a form of "high functioning autism." However, research still had not clearly determined the connections between austistic disorder and Asperger Syndrome other than the two disorders share severe social impairments such as mindblindness, which means that individuals with Asperger Syndrome may have the inability to see concepts from another person's perspective. Furthermore, individuals with Asperger Syndrome also possess an "innocence" that can be misunderstood by others. Their innocence often places them at risk for being misunderstood or victimized (p. 12). A lack of maturity plays a role in mindblindness. Ozonoff and Miller (1995) referred to the concept as a theory-of-mind deficit. A theory-of-mind deficit was defined as "the inability to infer the mental states of others, such as their knowledge, intentions, beliefs, and desires" (p. 417).
Myles and Southwick (as cited in Barnhill, 2001, p. 264) argued that theory-of-mind deficits often lead to difficulties for the afflicted individual. Difficulties can include:
• An inability to explain their own behaviors,
• Difficulty interpreting emotions,
• Challenges determining the behavior or emotions of others,
• Misunderstanding the perceptions of others,
• Challenges with interpreting the intentions of others,
• A misunderstanding of how behaviors impact how other individuals think or feel,
• Conflicts regarding joint attention and other social niceties, and
• Challenges with differentiating fiction from fact.
Moreover, individuals with Asperger Syndrome possess a level of maturity significantly below what is expected for their chronological age, and adolescents with Asperger Syndrome often possessed the maturity of someone two-thirds their age (Myles & Adreon, 2001, p. 8). Attwood (2003) noted that impairment of the brain's frontal lobes, which handle social reasoning, make it difficult for those with the disorder to understand social cues tied to human interaction (p. 88). Despite causes or symptoms, it is important to possess some understanding of these disorders, potential reasons for why they may occur, and behavioral characteristics attributed to the disorders. Other types of autism disorders possess varying and similar characteristics that impact individuals in multiple ways.
Students with Autism Disorders in School
Students with an autism diagnosis face an uncertain and many times daunting educational future. Several aspects of this experience are not only tied to the academic aspect of school but most often to the social aspect of the school environment. Autism disorders are categorized as socio-communicative disorders. School is a place dependent upon social communications between peers and adults. A recent study revealed that many of the difficulties that students face are tied to bullying and harassment by other students. Link (2007) reported on the experiences of mothers of children with autism disorders. One participant described a situation in which her son was harassed by other students and had been bullied for several years. She reported that her son "had been dealing with a lot of stuff" and "harassment and bullying" were pervasive "throughout the school system" (p. 96). She recalled complaining about the incidents to school officials and being told that the situation would be handled; after she found out that her son was still being bullied, the mother complained to administrators saying, "If you don't take care of it then we are going to take some other steps. My son should not have to feel afraid to go to school" (p. 96). Another participant indicated that other children did not understand her son's behavior. As a result, other kids made fun of him. A third mother indicated, "When another child teases my son, I want to take the names of those children, and I want to call their parents to make them stop their children from teasing him" (p. 96).
These specific statements made by parents of autistic children in public education settings reveal a need for all educational staff to be aware of the special problems encountered by children with autism in order to improve planning for ways to handle these situations....
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