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Virginia Journal of Education

Seeing the Child Within

by Linda M. Gulyn

I vividly remember the school evaluation meeting at which my husband and I met with a team of teachers, therapists, psychologists, specialists and administrators, and verified that our five-year-old son, Danny, has autism. I was prepared for the news, but surprised myself when I asked the team, "What about the physical education teacher, the art teacher and substitute teachers? What will they think about Danny?"

It's impossible to know the strengths, weaknesses, quirks and needs of any child before you meet him. This takes time! My concern was that one adjective would define the way Danny's educators perceive him: autistic.

The prevalence of children in regular education settings who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) appears to be increasing. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently that autism appears in 1 in 150 births. But unlike many physical disabilities, autism is a disorder without clear information on what to expect from the person affected. While many of us have had little exposure to individuals with autism, teachers are finding more and more children with ASD on their rosters.

Social psychologists say that when we have limited direct experience with a particular group of people, we tend to apply a stereotype, or a set of beliefs, about the characteristics of all members of the group. For example, we might believe that the person from a repair service scheduled to come to our home to fix the dishwasher will be a middle-aged, slightly chubby man with a tool belt, dressed in scruffy work clothes. We apply this automatic stereotype because it's quick, efficient and useful; we are, therefore, not surprised when a person more or less fitting this description arrives at the front door. It would be slightly unsettling and awkward if, instead, a polished, beautiful, 20-year-old woman with a tool belt arrived to repair the dishwasher.

Automatic processing guides our expectations about people we haven't met. Automatic processing about people who belong to a specific social category is normal, and usually more or less accurate. But sometimes it leads to persistent beliefs that are difficult to change.

Perceptions of Autism
"I had a boy with autism in my second grade class two years ago, but this boy is really different." Even teachers with experience might automatically invoke the characteristics of another child who holds the ASD label. Indeed, there are some traits that are consistent across all individuals diagnosed with ASD: "The autistic child in that kindergarten class always seems to play by herself." However, there are traits that appear in some children, but not others: "When I think of autism, I think of Rain Man and his ability to memorize the phone book!" And there are serious misconceptions about people with autism: "That boy talks to himself a lot; he's crazy." How can we get around such pitfalls when it's natural to engage in automatic processing of a child we know has autism?

The following overview provides very general information about what to expect from a child with ASD.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder of the brain, characterized by lack of normal social interaction, impaired communication and imagination, and obsessive, repetitive behaviors. Children who have IQs around the normal range are considered to have "high functioning autism." These are the children, like my son, whom you are most likely to meet in your regular education setting. Autism manifests itself differently in each person, and this makes it difficult to know what to expect out of any individual child you might meet in your class.

Here are eleven common traits that appear in most individuals with autism. These traits can be more or less intense in some people with autism, and some may not exist at all.

1. Preference for being alone.

2. Problems with abstract and conceptual thinking ("How was school today?").

3. Narrow and intense interests (knows everything about cats, but no interest in other animals).

4. Repetitive speech or behavior (lines up school supplies in the same order everyday; variations bring anxiety).

5. Preference for visual over auditory information.

6. Insistence on sameness and very resistant to change (My son eats the same meal for dinner every evening.).

7. Sensory difficulties. They may be over-sensitive to sensory input, such as a fire truck siren, or under-sensitive to pain, or lack the ability to integrate the senses (Watching television is extremely difficult for Danny.). Some children are unable to cope with large crowds or events (For example, a shopping mall might be overwhelming.).

8. Impairment in the person's ability to "read" the intentions or perspectives of another child, including difficulty recognizing facial expressions. I've often found myself pleading with my son, saying, "Danny, can't you tell Jonathan doesn't feel like being silly right now?"

9. Might act as if they are ignoring you, or they cannot hear you. ("Hey, Rachel - want to play with us? Rachel! Rachel, want to play?").

10. Some children are very verbal, while some have difficulty with speech development (as does my son); others are non-verbal.

11. Difficulty sustaining attention and attending to what is relevant. (Teacher at story time: "What happened when the dinosaur walked down the street? Danny: "This is page 17!" True, but not relevant.)

Tips for Working with Students with ASD
One teacher reports, "I'm trying the same strategies that worked with the boy in my class two years ago, but I'm not having much success!" As I've described above, it's important to avoid "automatically" processing individuals who belong to a certain social category. So, keeping in mind the characteristics of autism, here are some suggestions:

- Read the IEP carefully before you meet your student.

- Parent-teacher collaboration is essential in the success of children with autism.

- Consult with specialists, like occupational or speech/language pathologists, about your concerns.

- Respect the child's need for structure.

- Develop strengths. My son has always enjoyed drawing and has a delightful illustration style. Some children with autism are strong with computer work. Some children diagnosed with autism are hyperlexic; they have an intense interest in letters, words and numbers, as does Danny. He loves to count, write and add numbers, and spends much of his time studying calendars.

- Use visual aids to prepare the child for new events or significant changes in the school day, which can frustrate someone who is used to the daily routine or who might be distressed by the additional sensory input of a Valentine's Day party with lots of noise and excitement.

- Be concrete. For example, instead of declaring, "We must use good behavior today," be explicit and detailed, and use visual support. Examples: "Please sit quietly while I'm talking." "We put away our supplies when we finish our art assignment." "Wash your hands with soap after you use the toilet."

These children are individuals first and foremost with unique strengths and weaknesses. Be aware that autism does not define them. We're all complex human beings. While categories are essential in the educational setting, try to avoid automatically labeling people by their diagnosis. Instead of saying, "She's autistic," say, "She has autism," or, "She has been diagnosed with autism."

Helping the Whole Class
Studies have shown that peers of children with autism are poorly informed concerning the nature of the disability. Children with autism are aware of being rejected by peers, but not aware of the context or reasons behind this rejection. For example, a boy with autism might talk too loudly and too much about a certain topic, leading another child to walk away and mutter, "Man, he's a weirdo." Because a person with autism has such a difficult time reading social cues, he might have no idea why that child walked away from him. But he still feels rejection.

Research has also shown that when classmates of children with ASD are informed and autism is discussed in the classroom, students with autism tend to be less marginalized and scorned by their peers. Therefore, with the increasing prevalence of schoolchildren diagnosed with this disorder, it is important for classmates to have information and support, so that their perceptions are built upon information that promotes successful interactions.

- Allow your students to express their curiosity about the child with a disability.

- Educate children in very concrete terms about the student's difficulties. For example, children with ASD have a very tough time initiating contact with a peer. So explain to the children that they may have to work hard to include the child with autism in their activity or game.

- Explain that children with autism will have trouble understanding certain expressions -- the non-literal aspects of conversation (e.g., "I'm sick of writing in my journal." "What's up?" ).

- Let them know that they might see odd behaviors, but that does not mean the child is mentally ill. I overheard a girl who was my son's classmate in kindergarten remark to her sister on the first day of summer camp, "That's Danny; he's crazy."

- Make sure you and your classroom aides take time to get to know the child with ASD. When your students see how you interact and relate to the child with autism, they learn a great deal about him or her.

- It's encouraging to know that some school systems in Virginia have initiated autism awareness peer training programs (e.g., Arlington, where my family lives.).

As Danny progresses in school, his teachers and I are learning along with him. Children with autism can be successful class participants, and everyone in the class benefits when the teacher looks beyond the stereotype, gets to know the individual child, and helps the other students understand the difficulties that this particular child with autism copes with every day. Understanding fosters compassion, tolerance of those who are different from us, and inclusion - all character-building traits that we want our children to embrace.

Gulyn is an associate professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington.



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