Advocating for children with Autism is a cause near and dear to Robin Hartman’s heart. As a mother and teacher she has seen enough to give her insight into what Autism is and what it is not. Read her story and the important tips below to find out more about what Autism may look like for the children in your classroom.
What You Should Know About Autism
by Robin Hartman
A little bit about me to start, I am a mom of two amazing boys, a seven year old and nine year old boy with Autism. I am also an educator at the university level but I have returned to school to complete my teaching certification to teach secondary education and receive an endorsement in special education. My husband is a social worker/mental health specialist. He is a resource manager for adults with disabilities, advocating on their behalf. Based on our experiences, we have had many people come to us to ask about Autism. I do not believe I am a specialist but I hope that my insight will help teachers and parents address the needs of students with Autism.
What Autism Looks Like
1. Not everyone on the Autism Spectrum is exactly alike.
2. Not everyone with Autism is a savant, a Rain Man or a Sheldon Copper. There are some people with Autism that are very low functioning.
3. Every child who sorts is not Autistic. Sorting is a fairly common activity for children. Granted, sorting is characteristic of a child with Autism but enjoying a sorting activity should not be the deciding fact when labeling or diagnosing a child with Autism.
4. Do not assume that every child or adult with Autism cannot make-eye contact. In general, do not assume certain characteristics about someone because of the disability.
5. Many people on the Autism spectrum do not have an inability to learn, adapt, or cope with their disability.
6. Interpreting social cues or customs, like any other skill, must be learned because some people with Autism do not pick them up naturally like a typically functioning person.
7. A person with autism is not heartless if they fail to empathize or exchange kindness with someone.
8. A tantrum looks very similar to a meltdown which could be a result of overstimulation.
9. Small touches are not always welcome because for some people with autism, small touches hurt. Do not touch a person unless it is welcomed.
10. And, on the other side of the spectrum, some people with autism want to be touched, massaged, hugged, or pressed. My son loves deep pressure hugs to recharge his nervous system.
11. Rocking or spinning is okay. This is a sign that this particular person with Autism is a sensory seeker. They have found a coping tool. This is a good thing. Do not ask him or her to sit still.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Metal Disorders (DSM-IV), a person is identified as having autism when the behavior fulfills a total of at least six criteria from the following three lists:
1. Impaired Social Interaction
2. Impaired Communication
3. Activities, behaviors, and interests that are repetitive, restricted, and stereotyped
Let’s break down the characteristics in each category. To be diagnosed with Autism, a person must have at least two characteristics of impaired social interaction which include:
1. Deficiency in making eye contact, lacks regulation of facial expression, body posture, and gestures.
This can be a complete failure to make eye contact or the person will not be able to make appropriate body posture like not being able to hold his or her body like a typically functioning person. These characteristics negatively impact his or her ability to blend into the community;
2. Does not make appropriate peer relationships at his/her appropriate developmental level.
Considering many people with Autism struggle with interpreting social cues, it becomes difficult to make friends, and keep those friendships cultivated by understanding needs of others.
3. Does not seek social interaction, achievements, interests or pleasure with others.
Similarly to the above characteristic, having an inability or a lack of desire to engage with others can appear like isolationism, an inability or a lack of desire to socialize in a typical manner.
4. Absence of social or emotional reciprocity
People with autism cannot always interpret when people are sad and what appropriate action to make when someone is sad or when and how to interpret and reciprocate a kindness from another person.
For example, my son learned that his great-grandmother had died. This was a great loss to our family, especially to my husband. While our youngest son consoled his dad, my older son showed he understood the information but did not perceive the information as something sad.
To be diagnosed with Autism, a person must have at least two characteristics of impaired communication which include:
1. Delay or absence of spoken language and does not compensate with gestures on his or her own.
This does not mean that a person with Autism will not or cannot learn sign language. It means that a person with Autism will not seek out communication on his or her own through gestures. Because of the particular verbal delays, it does not mean that a child’s inability to say Mama and Dada means he or she does not know who his or her parents are.
My son did not speak until he was about three and a half. He was hard for us to gauge what he understood for quite some time. He did make sounds, mostly noises. Through constant training, therapy, and help from the school; he learned label words and how to link those words together to form sentences. He is now nine and still stumbles with his language, but he is not nonverbal.
However, there are people with Autism who are complete non-verbal. As I mention earlier, there are various degrees to the spectrum and various degrees of functioning.
2. Deficiency in ability to begin or sustain a conversation.
Like any other skill, the social skills of understanding the format of a conversation must be taught to someone who has an inability to perceive social cues.
For example, I have to remind my son that I asked him a question while we are talking. Even though my son can explain an event or concept, explaining and conversing are very different things. It requires concentration, a break from what you were saying to interpret the question or information that another person has vocalized.
3. Repetitive, stereotype, or idiosyncratic language
I like to call this chatter. Some people with Autism can discuss subjects at great length and in great detail; others will perform certain things they have seen: skits from cartoons, commercials, and movies, while others will speak in a combination of sounds or made up words to create their own language.
4. Lack of social imitative play or spontaneous, make-believe play resulting in a long-term lack of identifying social cues, norms, and customs.
Considering the characteristics link together, it is not surprising that a person who has the inability to interpret customs and social cues will not mimic adult activities like shaving because they do not understand make believe play.
For example, pretend is a foreign concept for my son, almost like lying. When asked to use his spelling list to write a paragraph about what he would do if he was president of the school, he kept replying, “But I’m not.” He is quite the literalist. He’s probably the kid in the class that will always hate the creative option for assessments. Everything is black or white. Answers are either right or wrong. When told, “in a second,” he will count down the second and continue his request. He has learned the concept of figurative language using Amelia Bedilla and adapted but he will still need a reminder at times.
To be diagnosed with Autism, a person must have at least one characteristic in the activities, behaviors, and interests category which include:
1. Abnormal preoccupation with spinning and other sensory seeking behavior.
Spinning or rocking or some type of movement is a great sensory seeking activity, a coping tool used to deal with overstimulation or just their nervous system’s desire for motion.
2. Requires a routine.
Depending on the person, the severity of the need for a routine can differ. For example, for one person, he or she may go into a rage when the routine is altered which would result in more adaptive techniques for the person to cope with changes. Whereas, another person will need to be given advanced notice, a couple minutes before the change, to adapt to the new change but will transition very easily.
Transitional aids like picture schedules or simple verbal cues can help aid with difficulties.
Most importantly though, a person whether they are on the Autism spectrum or not wants to know what to expect from their day. No one wants to be blindly led through the day’s activities.
3. Repetitive motor mannerisms such as hand flapping.
This is another example of sensory seeking activity. A student must never be punished for these activities. Simple accommodations can easily create a better, more conducive class room for everyone like special seat for the student such as: a rocking chair, wiggle cushion, or a ball seat. Sensory swings are also very useful for those sensory seekers. The swing can help with transitions or be used as a reward for completing a task.
4. Persistent absorption with parts of objects. (Fidget)
A fidget could be a bolt on a screw or some object that the person can move with their hand. I think most people could fit in this category. For example, I have a wristlet that I like to spin while I walk. My son likes to fold his ears.
As you can tell by the breakdown of the DSM categories, many of the characteristics may appear to either complement one another or repeat because if a person does not pick up on social cues, he or she may not seek out friendships or understand the format of a conversation. Most importantly, many of the characteristics deal with an outward appearance, having the ability to blend into society. However, who really wants to blend!
Biel, Lindsey and Nancy Peske. (2005). Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for
Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Integration. New York: Penguin Books.
Morrison, James M.D. (2006). Pervasive Developmental Disorders. DSM-IV Made Easy. (pp. 511-514).
New York, NY: Guilford Publications.