Characteristics of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (page 2)
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.
Another characteristic of students with autism is a narrow range of interests. For example, one student may be fascinated with radios to the exclusion of nearly everything else; another might focus on a single period in history and have an expert's understanding of that era. When students with autism have such interests, they can spend literally hours absorbed in a private world of exploration. They might act bored with every topic and every activity unless it relates to their special interest. This behavior sometimes has a negative impact on social relationships with peers and adults, because individuals with ASD do not discern that others are not as interested in their preferred topic as they are. However, researchers now are exploring how students' focused interests can be used as a tool for fostering the development of social and communication skills (Winter-Messiers et al., 2007).
Students with autism have a low threshold for and difficulty in dealing with stress (Myles & Adreon, 2001). A change in classroom seating assignments could be difficult for a student with autism, as could the introduction of a new route from the classroom to the bus or an alternative order for the day's activities. Particular noises or odors or a noisy environment also can be stressful. Many students with autism respond to stress with stereotypic behaviors. They complete the same action or motion again and again. For example, they may rock rapidly in the chair, spin an object repeatedly, or twirl their arms. In other situations, students might develop a ritual to complete a task. They might need 10 minutes to prepare to complete an assignment because they need to arrange paper and pencil on the desk in a precise pattern, check that all the books in the desk are also stored in a specific order, and make sure the desk is aligned precisely at the intersection of tiles on the classroom floor. In your classroom, you should be aware of potentially stressful situations for a student with autism. You can allow time for the student to prepare for the situation, talk about the situation well in advance, assign a peer partner to assist the student, and enlist the assistance of a special educator or paraprofessional. If a student's response to stress is demonstrated with aggressive or disruptive behavior, you should work closely with a special educator, behavior consultant, or other specialist to address the problem. In some instances, the student might need to spend part of the school day in a more structured, less stressful environment, such as the school library or learning center.
© ______ 2009, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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