Characteristics of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Although autism is like most of the other low-incidence disabilities in that it can exist in many variations, from mild to severe, and cannot be treated as a single disorder with a single set of adaptations, it does have specific characteristics .
Significant difficulty with social relationships is an essential characteristic of individuals with autism. Many students with autism resist human contact and social interactions from a very early age and have difficulty learning the subtleties of social interaction (Denning, 2007). These students often do not make eye contact with others, and they can seem uninterested in developing social relationships. For example, typical young children often ask the teacher to watch them do something ("Look at me!"), and they bring interesting items to share with their teacher and classmates. A young child with autism, however, may not seek out such opportunities for social interactions. Albert, a 13-year-old with autism, discussed his problems in the social domain. He maintained that others viewed him as extremely ugly, but he did not understand why he did not have friends. When an interviewer asked him what he talked about with others, the two topics he mentioned were wind and smells in the environment (Cesaroni & Garber, 1991). He did not take on the perspective of others, and he did not understand that talking about others' interests, so different from his own, also were part of social interaction.
A key reason students with autism spectrum disorder experience difficulty in social relationships is the challenges they face in using and responding to traditional verbal and nonverbal communication (e.g., Ingersoll, Dvortcsak, Whalen, & Sikora, 2005; Toth, Munson, Meltzoff, & Dawson, 2006). These students often have significantly delayed language development, and if they have language skills, they struggle to maintain conversation with another person. In writing about her experiences of being autistic, Temple Grandin, one of the most famous individuals with ASD and a university professor who has designed livestock facilities, provides clear examples of her comunication problems (Grandin, 2002). She explains that when she was young she simply did not have the words to communicate and so frequently resorted to screaming. She also comments that as she grew up, she observed others but did not understand how to fit in. Unlike Grandin, many students with autism spectrum disorders cannot write or otherwise easily communicate about their experiences, and they may use behaviors instead of words to convey many needs. Unless they are taught alternative behaviors, they might hit a peer as a way of saying hello or run from the classroom instead of saying they do not like the assignment just given. Some students with autism have echolalic speech; they repeat what others have said instead of producing original communication. Working to ensure productive communication is a central part of working with students with ASD.
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