April is Autism Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness about autism within the community. As autism rates have risen over the years, so has awareness. However, as parents of children with autism know, a lot of myths and misunderstandings still exist. Whether you’re a teacher, a principal, or someone who works in another capacity in the schools, it’s important that you avoid the myths and develop an accurate understanding of what autism is and what it looks like to work with kids with autism.
1. Autism is a Spectrum
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of autism is that kids with autism are on a spectrum. There’s a world of difference between kids with high-functioning autism versus low-functioning autism. Before assuming anything about a child with autism, learn where they are on the spectrum and what particular aspects of autism they demonstrate the most.
- Are they socially awkward?
- Do they have trouble understanding non-literal language?
- Do they lack basic communication skills?
- Do they have tics?
- Is it difficult for them to make eye contact?
- Do they express emotions inappropriately?
Not all children with autism will express all of these traits and some will express all of them and more.
2. Autism does not Signal a Lack of Intelligence
Many parents have sat through IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings where they listened to professionals discuss their child’s lack of intelligence. For example, in a recent initial IEP meeting for a newly-diagnosed child with autism, the Child Study Team leader said, “We’ll give him a series of tests to see where he is, but I’m sure he’ll be low,” simply because the child had been diagnosed with autism. Imagine how surprised she was to learn that not only did he not score low, but he was working above grade-level in multiple subject areas. Kids with autism may struggle academically, but often their struggles do not signal a lack of intelligence. Rather, they signal their struggle to adapt to the educational system. In many cases, kids with autism solve problems and communicate differently than what is expected. Sometimes teachers and other educational professionals think they got the answer wrong, when really they just thought about it differently.
3. Autism Often Confuses Other Kids
Recently Sesame Street introduced its first autistic character, Julia. While Julia represents a character that many children with autism can relate to, she also serves as a tool to help teach other kids how to interact with kids who have autism. Kids don’t always know how to act around kids who are different or who don’t do what’s expected. Teachers can use models like Julia and other activities to help kids understand what autism is and how to interact with their peers who have autism. After all, everyone has differences. Some of those differences are just more noticeable than others.
4. Autism is Unpredictable
One thing about working with kids with autism is that you are never quite sure how they will react. Sometimes, you’ll expect them to react negatively to a loud concert and they’ll be fine. Other times, you will think a certain activity will be easy for them and it will become a major challenge. When you work with kids with autism, you must be flexible. You must also learn to recognize their cues so you can adjust a situation to avoid making it a bigger problem.
5. Autism Requires Predictability
Imagine living every day without knowing what’s going to happen. For kids with autism, that’s often a reality. They are not always in control of their emotions and navigating life can be confusing. Surprises lurk around almost every corner. However, the adults in their lives can help limit those surprises by developing routines for them to follow. For some kids, just knowing the general schedule of the school day will help. For others, parents and teachers will need to develop a thorough schedule that includes the smallest of events, such as brushing their teeth and going to the bathroom. If the schedule is going to change for any reason, adults should also try to take time to warn the child about the change in advance. For example, a child expecting to do math at 10:15 may be upset by the fact that he gets to out for early recess instead. Even though recess is fun, the disruption to his routine could outweigh that fun.
6. Autism Requires Parents and Educators to Work as a Team
Educators have a lot of students to focus on, but when working with a child with autism, it is essential that they take the time to develop a relationship with the child’s parents and work as a team to ensure they are working in that child’s best interests. Educators should respect a parent’s position as an expert on the child, while parents should respect an educator’s professional expertise and observations in the classroom. Educators must also be careful not to criticize parents of autistic children for making decisions related to their child. They must also take into consideration the child’s autism when making observations about the child’s appearance or behavior. For example, a note home saying “Please ensure your child wears socks each day” may seem innocent, but it may not take into consideration the fact that the parent is encouraging the child to become more independent in dressing himself and letting him go to school without socks when he forgets is part of that process.
7. Working with Kids with Autism is not as Difficult as it Seems
Some of the information above may overwhelm educators. “I have 25 students in my class. How can I spend this much time on the needs of one?” At the end of the day, it’s not that hard. Just as you get to know your other students, get to know your students who have autism. Learn their quirks. Get to know their personality. Focus on their diagnosis, but at the same time don’t focus on their diagnosis. Just treat them as human beings.
There are lots of resources available to help educators work with children with autism. One of them is the School Community Tool Kit from Autism Speaks. It contains a wealth of resources, information sheets, worksheets, and activities to help the many different people in a school community understand autism.
For educators looking for help with behavior modification, check out Insights to Behavior, a free resource full of activities to help educators create behavior plans for students, as well as find activities to help with some of the social and emotional challenges kids with autism face.
You can find additional books, videos, toys, and information sheets in the Autism Speaks Resource Library. If you’re looking for more educational resources, you may appreciate Help Teaching’s Life Skills or Study Skills worksheets or use Help Teaching’s Test Maker platform to develop test, quizzes, and worksheets that can meet the needs of your autistic students.
Are you a parent of a child with autism? Is there anything else you want educators to know? If so, please share it with us in the comments.