Introduction to Diverse Learners: Autism Spectrum Disorder

In this installment of the diverse learners series, Becky gets into the complex world of autism—what it is, how it manifests, and how to address challenging behaviors caused by autism. Ultimately, Becky calls teachers to cultivate a classroom environment in which all students can thrive, including those on the autism spectrum, and to model Christlike love and sensitivity toward those with unique challenges.

Perhaps you’ve heard about Temple Grandin. She was one of the first people to give a voice to or speak about what it’s like to have autism. In 1991 was the first time that autism was labeled or identified as its own category in special education. And in the last twenty or thirty years, we have learned so much about autism.

The Continuum

And today each of the different disabilities that are similar to autism are kind of all put together in something called Autism Spectrum Disorders. And in Autism Spectrum Disorders, it’s a spectrum, which means that there is a continuum of ability levels within this spectrum. In the autism spectrum, on one end, you have something known as high functioning autism. And in the middle, you might have something moderate autism, and then severe or profound autism on this side.

The autism spectrum could look something like this. And on one side, like, when you have high functioning autism, there’s just a little bit of weakness with communication skills, and then that communication, the ability to communicate well with others gradually gets worse as you go down the spectrum.

So the autism spectrum could be thought about in just a single line like this. But autism, the spectrum could also be thought about more like this, where we have all the different components of an individual, and so their IQ, their social-emotional interaction, communication, motor skills, fine motor, and sensory—all these different components fall on the spectrum. And so a child could (like as far as their IQ) they could have a severe low IQ, or they could be gifted and have a high IQ. In the area of social emotional interaction, a child with autism could be more in the aloof category, but they could also on the other end of the spectrum then, a child autism could be active, very involved. We just have some of those may be social tendencies that may seem a little bit unique or different than what we would typically expect.


Author Lynda Young, in her book Hope for Families of Children on the Autism Spectrum, states, “If you’ve met one child on the spectrum, you’ve met one child on the spectrum. They’re all different.” And I think it’s important for us to keep that in mind.

Every child with autism is different, and there are still some general things that in general these individuals struggle with. This would be things like difficulty reading social cues and making eye contact when they’re talking with someone. Also, a child with autism might struggle with repetitive behaviors, things like hand flapping or eye twitching. But sometimes a child with autism doesn’t have that at all. And so, again, there’s these different things that all fit into the autism spectrum category, but you won’t always see them.

Another thing that a child of autism can often struggle with is sensory overload, or they will just like something that sounds that I don’t even hear. They will hear these tapping or these sounds that can be very overwhelming. And listed in the description is a link for a video that shows what it can be like for a child that is struggling with sensory overload, like just when they go out into public, what are all these things that might be coming at them that I would never think about? Or in the classroom even, if there’s a little noise of something buzzing that could sound like an obnoxious noise to a child that’s struggling with the sensory piece of things.

Children with autism also often have very intense interests and something specific, like maybe in outer space or a specific part of math. They can just have these intense interests that really can be a strength of theirs. Their ability to remember lots of information and share it. Those are just some general things that we can think about when we are working with a child with autism.

Applied Behavior Analysis

When a child has been diagnosed with autism, one of the methods of therapy that is very common (it’s very accepted by professionals today) is something called ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis. And this is like the systematic method where the professionals would teach skills to individuals with autism. They kind of pick specific behaviors or skills that they want to learn and systematically train the child to learn how to do these behaviors.

And there’s a book that I found really helpful. It’s called A Parent’s Guide to Autism. So it’s for parents, but I found it very helpful for teachers as well. By Ron Sanderson. And this would go into a lot of details explaining what this ABA therapy is all about and how it works. But I think for teachers, it’s helpful to understand how they analyze behaviors. I think that understanding a little bit about that is helpful for us as we’re working with these (maybe perhaps) challenging behaviors in our classroom.

So what happens when… Or the first step when we’re looking at these challenging behaviors is kind of to analyze them and to ask ourselves, “So when is this challenging behavior happening? Is there something that is setting this child off that’s making this behavior occur?”

It’s called the predictor or an antecedent. It’s what comes right before the behavior. So, for example, if a student has angry outburst, we might say, “Well, he is showing anger.” Well, the question I would ask is, “When is this happening? Is it happening in a certain place, at a certain time when he’s encountering a certain challenge?” So what they will do is they will look at what comes right before this behavior and then think about, well, what is the result or what is the consequence of this behavior?

Reasons for Challenging Behavior

And there are many different reasons that a child could be exhibiting any kind of challenging behavior. Maybe they tear up their math paper when they don’t want to do it, or maybe they’re being unkind to their peers. And so sometimes, let’s just say for example, a student tears up his assignment and throws it on the floor. And this happens repeatedly. And then he is sent to the office or sent to talk to the principal; that’s the consequence or the result of this behavior. And it turns out that this child continues to do this behavior so that he can avoid this difficult thing that he’s encountering in his work. And so what happens is when he is sent out of the room to become more stable and ready to learn again, he actually is getting what he or is actually reinforcing his behavior. And so what these therapists are doing is saying, “Well, what reinforcements could we give instead that would modify this behavior so that it will improve and or lessen?” A child… There could be many different reasons for a behavior. So a child with autism might be doing their repetitive emotions as a way to calm themselves down so that you might see it happen when they’re getting really uptight about something or really nervous or anxious. You might see that those behaviors show up more often then. Sometimes a child will exhibit a certain behavior because they’re trying to get something, because they’re trying to get attention or they need to stimulate themselves. In this therapy they’re really analyzing behavior. And I think that that’s  something that we can think about as teachers too. What’s leading up to this behavior, what’s the consequence of it, and how can we shift this to help things improve?

There are other approaches that we can have when working with a child with autism. So there’s many different things we could try. You could try teaching social stories, using social stories to teach them. How should we be behaving in this particular setting? I think we can teach students coping methods and ways to work with their differences, and it’s who they are. And it’s not something that we have to necessarily change or get rid of. It’s something we need to use in a way that can work in the environment of the classroom or in life. Students can learn how to cope with the challenges that they are facing. In the classroom I do think that it’s important that I think our task as a teacher of a child with autism is to cultivate a classroom environment where they can thrive. And for a child with autism, things like having a fixed schedule where there’s a lot of routine, we know what’s going to happen. There are not surprises in our day. That helps to bring stability to their lives.

Also, I think it’s important that our classroom environment isn’t too overstimulating. And so if you think about all the things that they have to take in the world, it just looks different than it might to me. And I think we need to be careful that we don’t have too much going on in our classrooms, too many distractions or things that can overstimulate. And this is kind of in general, with disabilities, but I really see that students emulate their teachers. The way the teacher acts toward a child with a difference or a learning disability, they mimic that, and the way that I talk to a child with autism, they will do the same. And so I really think that it’s important as teachers that we’re modeling this love and acceptance and all of these pieces that play into how we want our students to interact with each other.

Those that specialize in the field of autism have many resources that can be of help to you and the families that you serve. I will link below in this video some other resources, some additional books, some other websites that could be a good place to start when you are thinking about looking more into autism spectrum disorders.

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