April is Autism Awareness month, a chance to share information on a topic that many have heard of, but may not fully understand.
Autism or ASD, autism spectrum disorder, is a developmental disorder generally characterized by difficulties in communication and social interactions. Autism can be diagnosed in an individual at any age, but generally is first recognized at about the age of 2, when a child’s development appears delayed because certain developmental milestones have not occurred, such as talking, playing appropriately and socially interacting with siblings or friends.
Autism has been described as a neurobiological disorder, and for those diagnosed with having autism, their brains appear to function differently and take in information from the senses and process it differently. This sometimes results in a demonstration of responses that might not appear as what most people expect. Individuals diagnosed with this condition can display a variety of behaviors and characteristics that might negatively impact what is viewed as typical development. These challenges might include trouble communicating with others, difficulty interacting with others and interpreting social cues, heightened sensory awareness, lack of eye contact with others or repetitive behaviors such as lining up objects, spinning objects or flapping hands.
ASD is frequently in the news. Like other conditions, there are multiple theories related to the diagnosis and influencing factors of autism. Trained medical and educational professionals can help guide an evaluation process for a person suspected of having ASD.
Whatever opinion you may hold in relation to the most current issues related to autism, whether it be vaccines, the effects of diet and the immune systems, environment or genetics, it is important to keep in mind that for those individuals and families affected by autism, no one person with this disability is the same. There is no one right solution for working with individuals with autism. It is important to look at the abilities of the individual and use their strengths to work toward desired goals and outcomes that enable that person or family to positively engage in everyday activities. Individuals with autism may work with teachers, speech/language therapists, occupational therapists or physical therapists to work toward their goals of developing the skills needed to talk, play, eat, take care of themselves and interact with the world.
For many families of children with autism, immediate goals set for the child might include increasing eye contact with other people and objects of interest, hopefully leading to an improvement in social skills and improving their ability to communicate their wants and needs. Many times, a lack of effective communication skills can lead to frustration in individuals with autism, resulting in tantrums and challenging behaviors.
For a parent of a child with autism, an every day task such as going to the store can be daunting when you are concerned your child may have a meltdown in the middle of the store. Preparing your child for an outing or activity might be helped by the use of a visual schedule, social story or picture cues.
If your child is struggling to understand verbal directions or explanations, a visual schedule and picture cues show the child a picture of each activity that is planned. As you complete an activity, take the picture off and the child will see what activity is next. You can use a piece of poster board and a fabric fastener to attach pictures you have taken of your daily routine and put them in order, like a list, to help prepare them for the day. A social story is a short story written specifically about a situation, such as going to the store. The story can give a brief explanation of what will occur and gives a very concrete example of what to do or how to act, such as stay with the parent and hold their hand.
In addition to helping a child with autism learn what to expect through the use of a visual schedule, helping to meet the sensory needs of a child with autism may also aid in reducing challenging behaviors. For some children and adults with autism, certain sensory input can be heightened. If loud noises are bothering the child, the use of noise-canceling headphones or headphones playing a music of their choice might be helpful. Eating certain types of food or wearing a chew necklace may be calming or help a child fill a sensory need; you can even try to substitute a more socially appropriate behavior, such as chewing beef jerky or licorice, instead of biting another child. Some children may be bothered by too much or too little activity around them and may need sensory input, such as jumping or swinging, to help their bodies feel balanced and ready to take on everyday challenges.
Support a family or individual with autism through your patience, kindness and understanding that we are all unique individuals to be celebrated.
Kerri Morris is a specialized instructor at the Special Learning Center, where she has worked for 20 years. Morris has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in special education from the University of Missouri. Morris and her husband have four children, and she coaches track and cross country at Calvary Lutheran High School.