Children on the autism spectrum typically have significant deficits when it comes to participating in social situations and interacting on an age-appropriate level. Even at home, they may not reciprocate verbally or emotionally when a parent or sibling tries to interact with them. Parents may notice that they have excessive interest in certain topics or objects, such as the mechanics of a clock or the wheels on cars. These children exhibit repetitive behaviors like repeating words or phrases or repetitive body movements. (Signs, Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder)
Parents may feel confounded about how to deal with certain emotional reactions that don't make sense or seem far out of proportion to whatever triggered the outburst. For example, an autistic child may throw his plate across the dining room simply because he doesn't like peas if someone serves them for dinner.
Children with autism spectrum disorders have an inability to establish and maintain friendships which may bother parents and other family members who know the importance of such social ties. Those with moderate to severe autism may not recognize that they cannot develop friendships. But children on the autism spectrum with mild deficits may become frustrated and depressed when they realize that they have trouble making friends.
Teaching Children With Autism Comes With Unique Challenges
Teaching children with autism can present quite the challenge, especially if the teacher doesn't have experience working with these kids. Some of the ways symptoms may manifest in children on the autism spectrum in a school setting include:
- Limited ability to carry on a conversation that requires taking turns. Child may give one word answers and speak in a monotone voice or may speak out of turn.
- Difficulty making eye contact when someone speaks to them. He may also get distracted very easily by other things going on around him, pulling his attention away from the speaker.
- Atypical communication style. Child may use repeated phrases and take everything said literally. Frequently, children with autism spectrum disorders use reversed pronouns like saying "You want the car" when he means that he wants the car.
- Problems following instructions. Child may not respond at all to a command or direction, or may simply begin another task. They often have concrete responses to directives. For instance, if the teacher tells the child to color in his room at home, he may believe the teacher wants him to color on his home (i.e. on the walls to color them in).
- Throw tantrums or become irritated for no discernible reason. Child may not have the ability to express why he has become irritated or distressed. This causes great frustration, leading to a tantrum seemingly for no reason. Things that don't bother others may greatly distress children with autism spectrum disorder. Something as trivial as having the wrong seasonal decorations displayed on a bulletin board or rearranging the room can greatly upset them.
- Conflicts with classmates. Child may not understand the concept of sharing and taking turns. He might grab something off of another student's desk or take a toy while another child played with it.
- Medication. Certain medications may cause changes in mood or behavior and impact the child's success in a school setting. (Information on Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder)
Classroom Supports for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Teachers should format their classrooms to accommodate children on the autism spectrum in three primary areas: classroom structure, skill development, and behavioral interventions. Attention to these areas will provide a learning environment that will support the unique needs of these children.
Classroom structure – teachers should give close attention to schedules or transitions from one focus to another, expectations and consequences, and physical and environmental supports.
Skill development – teachers should plan to have supports in place to augment the development of social skills and life skills in children with autism spectrum disorders.
Behavioral interventions – teachers should make close observations and clarify the situation surrounding undesirable behavior, which will help them reinforce desired behaviors and reduce unwanted behaviors.
Parents with children on the autism spectrum need to verify that the school and teachers involved in educating their children understand the unique needs of these students. Teachers should know the characteristic symptoms of autism and how to successfully work with children with autism spectrum disorder.