Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder: Perspectives from a Parent and Teacher

In honor of Autism Awareness Month beginning tomorrow, I wanted to share some information about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), some of the tools that have worked in education for students with autism, and some successes. My hope is to help answer some questions about autism, and give hope for those who have children on the spectrum.

There is a lot of confusion about autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While I am not a neurologist, or a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, I have two children with autism. And, as a teacher, I have worked with many students who have autism and I want to share what I have learned.

Changes in Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder

The growing number of autism diagnoses remains one of the biggest concerns among advocates. Autism Speaks reports a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. While this is partly due to increased awareness, the changes in diagnosis criteria have also impacted the data.

The diagnosis of autism was once designated only to those who had severe outward signs. Now, diagnostic criteria has expanded to include Asperger’s disorder and many other processing disorders. For example, my youngest son, Andrew, has an auditory processing disorder. That means that, while his ears work, sounds get jumbled up in his brain. This, in part, makes it difficult for Andrew to act appropriately in public places. If Andrew went to the neurologist two years ago, he might have been diagnosed with social anxiety and auditory processing disorder. But today he has enough symptoms to put him in the category of autism spectrum disorder.

Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Knowing the background of the diagnosis helps us understand the common phrase, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met ONE child with autism.” How can we as parents and educators possibly address the vast differences that are covered under the umbrella of ASD? I’ve often been overwhelmed by the differences, but I have found that there are some key things that are helpful for children with ASD, and many of these tricks work well with all children:

  1. Having a schedule: This doesn’t need to be a completely strict schedule, but children with ASD work better when they know what is coming up next. One great tool I have seen work is to have a visual chart that shows the activities that are happening. One particularly clever chart that was used in my son’s preschool had pieces that the students turned over. When they came to school, they knew what they would be doing, and they helped with the schedule.
  2. Giving warning of change: This is connected with the first idea. Transitions are very difficult for all young children, and can be made easier if they know in advance. How many times have we heard a child beg for ‘just one more turn?’ I have found that if I try to force a student with ASD to move to the next station it can go well, or it can be a complete disaster. However, if I give them notice that we will be switching when the buzzer goes off, or when the timer reaches the top, or some other visual or auditory cue, things tend to go better. I have also found that cleanup is much smoother when they are given notice.
  3. Try new things: This may seem somewhat contrary to the first item, but being willing to change is essential. When you make changes, you will get some initial push back, but after you consistently try to implement new things, you will find what does and does not work for your individual circumstances.
  4. Reach out for help: There are many people blogging or setting up support groups for ASD. When my wife and I have looked at these sites it was amazing how many people were struggling with similar challenges to what we faced. While many of the specific ideas they shared did not work with our children, it was comforting to know that we were not alone.
  5. Don’t compare children: This is one of the hardest things for me. When my sons’ birthdays come and they are not doing what ‘normal’ children are doing, it is hard. But when I look at all the progress they have made personally I’m thrilled. Focusing on the positive changes they are making, and setting reasonable goals for them is essential. I know that my sons might never talk. Although it is difficult, I try not to compare them to children who can talk. If I did that I would find myself constantly upset with my children and envious of others’.

Success with Autism Spectrum Disorder

When our son, Matthew was almost 3, we were going through a very rough time. We felt like we had visited every kind of doctor all across the state, and gotten very little help. We tried all kinds of things that worked for other people, but they didn’t seem to help him. After we received the diagnosis of ASD, he began having some therapists come to our home. One of those wonderful ladies brought with her a Signing Time video. He enjoyed the videos and started using sign language to communicate his needs. Within a couple of weeks his meltdowns reduced from almost thirty per day down to less than five. He is now 5 years old and goes to a school for deaf and hard of hearing children because American Sign Language is the language he uses to communicate. Sign language has literally been a miracle in our home.

It’s important to remember that each child with ASD is unique. While sign language worked well for Matthew, it did not stick with our youngest son, Andrew. We are still trying new things. With patience, I’m sure we will find the thing that works for him.It’s also important to keep trying different things. If something doesn’t work, ditch it and try something new. Think outside the box. In time,  you will find ways to help your child reach his or her potential. It will be worth it.

Image credit: George Wesley & Bonita Dannells/CC 2.0

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