School is out for many kids in the area that I live in and I know that many teachers are taking a deep breath and are ready to enjoy a more relaxing schedule. The summer months are a good time to reflect back on the last school year and consolidate your understanding of what worked best. With that in mind, I’m going to take a step back in my writing about helping kids with learning challenges and focus for a couple of month on the actual characteristics of students on the autism spectrum.

There has been tremendous amounts of publicity surrounding the Autistic Spectrum in recent years. Autism has been featured in television shows, in magazine articles, and even in feature length movies. This is very helpful in getting public awareness of the needs of this population, but for the sake of time, the issues surrounding autism are often simplified. This can lead to a very basic view of what is actually a very complex and highly individual set of challenges. What you have to remember is that we are in the very beginning stages of understanding this group of disorders.

Autism Spectrum Disorders is the new name for what was previously called Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). This is a recent change and you will still see the older name used. As a classroom teacher I never found it important to know the exact diagnosis – it was much more important to get to know the specific child. I knew I could expect to see challenges around social interactions, communication and patterns of behavior. There may also be problems with sensory processing and cognitive functioning, but both of these areas are extremely individualized. So don’t worry about the label any child has, but pay attention to the areas of strength and weaknesses you identify in your students. Remember, too that any child’s specific medical diagnosis is not public knowledge. If you happen to learn this about a child, you may not share that information with others. Some parents will be very forthcoming and others will be more private about such things. What you will want to share with the other professionals in your building are the strategies that help the child.

Kids who have autism spectrum disorder can be challenging little kids. Their problems are usually evident before age three even though many won’t receive the diagnosis until much later. They can have very uneven presentations, displaying abilities beyond their age in some areas while having significant deficits in other areas. My daughter was evaluated by a psychologist when she was three. He was stunned when she identified every shape he showed her, up to and including trapezoids, but didn’t respond to a simple greeting.

Five areas affect a child with ASD in the classroom – social interactions, communication, patterns of behavior, sensory processing and cognitive functioning. Imagine these as a series of five dimmer switches that can be turned left or right on an hourly basis, depending on what’s occurring in the child’s life. The first area I’d like to talk about is that of social interactions. This major component is a challenge and source of stress for kids on the spectrum.

Social skills are learned from the earliest days of life. Learning these skills is very similar to learning to speak our native language. We watch others and then do what they do. Appropriate behavior is positively reinforced and so we repeat it. For some reason, this process is impaired with children with autistic spectrum disorders. Your students on the spectrum may appear very self-centered, not in a conceited way, but like a small child. Adults may handle this well as we are used to accommodating little kids, but other children will not be as accepting of this. Understand too, that children with ASD can be very oblivious to the social aspects of their environment. What can look like the blatant rudeness of letting a door slam in someone’s face may in fact be the result of a student not realizing that someone was behind him. Sharing and thinking of others is a trait that is not easily learned by many of our children so you must continually teach and reinforce appropriate sharing and consideration for others.

A key component of any relationship is the ability to think from the other person’s perspective. This is an area of difficulty for many of our students. Sometimes the inability is referred to as “mind blindness.” It means that the student really doesn’t know what others think and feel and can’t imagine what effect his or her actions may have on others. This attribute has a large impact on reading comprehension as it affects predicting outcomes, understanding characters, making sense of foreshadowing and understanding the implications of setting.

Social skills can be taught. This is a long-term process and must be accompanied by the teaching of the thinking that drives the social action. You will find that the student may not know how to start a conversation or ask to join a game. They may always want to go first or have a specific role in a game. Don’t ignore the teaching of basic good manners, as this skill set will serve all children throughout their lives. Addressing issues of poor hygiene is also necessary, as some kids seem oblivious to the need for it. Be aware that students with autism spectrum disorder may have trouble generalizing an experience from one setting to another, so every event has to be thought out and appropriate social behaviors explained. Socially competent adults mentally rehearse new situations – we have to help our students do the same.

Many kids on the spectrum have very specific interests that they like to talk about all the time. If there is no other person around with that interest it becomes very difficult as it becomes a major turn-off for the other children. The students on the spectrum need to be supported in finding other children with whom to form friendships. This makes the social skills lessons more relevant to them as peer relationships are concrete things that they are experiencing.

These are very cool kids to work with and get to know. Remember for every challenge that I share; there is another side that is very positive. My friends and relatives with ASD are kind, honest, non-manipulative people who are very passionate about the things that interest them. Don’t get so bogged down in the areas that they need help with that you fail to appreciate the many joys you will find teaching these students.