Maybe this year you had John in your classroom, and he has autism. John struggled to express his emotions, screamed when the class schedule changed, flapped his hands when he was excited or nervous, and only ate fruit snacks at lunch. Next year you might meet Sally, a little girl who has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Sally loves all the Toy Story movies and often repeats dialogue verbatim. When other students come up to Sally she only talks to them about Toy Story and ignores them when they bring up other topics. When you go up to help Sally she does not look you in the eyes and when you touched her hand she quickly drew it in and screamed “that hurt!” Thinking back into your childhood your remember David who came in during reading class but never spoke, and he often rocked back and forth in his chair. David always had a toy car with him. He often spun the wheels over and over next to his eyes.
From reading this you can probably tell that all three students struggle with social skills, sensory input, communication, repetitive movements or restricted interests. However, the way these similar characteristics are displayed varied greatly between John, Sally, and David. This is why it is referred for as a spectrum.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, is used to diagnose several conditions, including Autism Spectrum. The DSM-5 notes that individuals with autism spectrum will have deficits in social communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors and/or restricted interests. The definition expands on specific ways these deficits can present in an individual. For example, an individual with autism may have repetitive motor movements, difficulty with changes in routine, fixated areas of interest, or over or under reactions to sensory stimuli. BUT someone with autism does not have to display all of those weaknesses.
We can see this by remembering John, Sally, and David. All three struggled with communicating but both John and Sally could use words while David only had nonverbal communication abilities. Sally is fixed on Toy Story while David rocks back and forth and enjoys repetitively spinning his car’s wheels. John is experiencing difficulty with sensory input causing him to only eat fruit snacks at lunch while Sally is very sensitive to touch.
Many signs of autism are present between 2 and 3 years of age, and early identification and intervention are vital. The CDC has estimated that around 1 in 68 children have autism with males being more affected than females. Since it is on a spectrum some individuals with autism are nonverbal or have an intellectual disability. However, some individuals on the autism spectrum after an average or higher IQ and can verbally communicate with a vast vocabulary.
The exact cause of autism is unknown, but research indicates there are genetic and environmental factors. It does run in families indicating genetics can increase a risk. Some environmental factors include older parents, pregnancy or birth complications, or pregnancies that are within a year of each other. The majority of scientific research does not support that vaccines are linked with causing autism. Sometimes when a child is diagnosed with autism they also received vaccinations around the same time.
It is important for all people who are around children to know early warning signs. Around 6 months of age if your child is not smiling or displaying positive expressions towards others. They should also be making eye contact with others. Around 12 months of age a child who is not babbling, does not attempt to use gestures to communicate, and does not respond to their name is showing indicators. Around 24 months if your child does not use at least two-word phrases or has lost any speech, social skills, or communication abilities they are exhibiting possible signs of autism. Even though there are many early warning signs sometimes children enter school who have not been diagnosed or even evaluated for autism. This is why it is important for educators to continue to look for warning signs to be advocates for children.
If you are working with a child who you think may have autism spectrum please follow your schools referral process for identification of students who may have a disability. Often this means reaching out to the school psychologist, a special education teacher, or a school administrator. If a child you are working with already has a diagnosis make sure you work with their parents and school team members to ensure they are receiving appropriate interventions and accommodations as necessary. Since autism is on a spectrum the amount of support and intervention will vary for each student as it should be individualized.
There is still so much more to learn about the characteristics and strengths and weaknesses related to autism. This post is meant to raise awareness and inspire readers to learn more about autism. John, Sally, and David are meant to help bring an actual child’s life to mind and not to offend or upset anyone.