The Misunderstood Child on the Autism Spectrum

Students with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's (AS) often display advanced abilities for their age in language, reading, mathematics, spatial skills, and music – sometimes into the "gifted" range. But this may be offset by significant delays in other developmental areas. This combination of characteristics can lead to problems with educators and other authority-figures.

Misunderstanding #1—

HFA and AS students are often regarded by educators as a "problem child" or a "poor performer." The student’s low tolerance for what he perceives to be boring and mundane tasks (e.g., typical homework assignments) can easily become frustrating for the child, resulting in his refusal to complete certain tasks. Consequently, a teacher may well consider the  student on the autism spectrum to be arrogant, spiteful, and insubordinate. This “misunderstanding” often results in a “power-struggle” between teacher and student, and in combination with the youngster's anxieties, can result in problematic behaviors (e.g., severe tantrums, violent and angry outbursts, withdrawal, school refusal, etc.).

Misunderstanding #2—

Two traits often found in children with the disorder are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the child’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by teachers and other students as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Misunderstanding #3—

An issue related to alexithymia involves the inability to identify and control strong emotions (e.g., sadness, anger). This leaves the child prone to sudden emotional outbursts (e.g., crying, rage). The inability to express feelings using words may also predispose the "special needs" child to use physical acts (sometime violent in nature) to articulate his mood and release “emotional energy.” All of these traits may give teachers the impression that the child is simply “defiant” and “rebellious.”

Misunderstanding #4—

Children and teens on the spectrum often report a feeling of being “unwillingly detached” from the school/classroom environment. They often have difficulty making friends due to poor social skills. The complexity and inconsistency of the social world can pose an extreme challenge for these students. Accordingly, feeling incapable of winning and keeping friends, they prefer to engage in solitary activities. As a result, peers and teachers often view the HFA or AS child as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” – another unfair label.

Misunderstanding #5—

These kids may be overly literal and may have difficulty interpreting and responding to sarcasm, banter, or metaphorical speech. Difficulties with social interaction may also be manifest in a lack of play with peers. These problems can be severe or mild depending on the child. Due to their idiosyncratic behavior, precise language, unusual interests, and impaired ability to perceive and respond in socially expected ways to nonverbal cues – particularly in interpersonal conflict – HFA and AS students are often the target of bullying at school and branded as "odd," both by peers and by adults who don't understand the neurological deficit involved.

But here’s the good news...

There's an increase in how sensitive teachers and clinicians are to developmental learning styles. There are a lot of children that have social and communication problems and learning problems. They aren't retarded. There's been an effort to figure out if there are clusters of these children that fit together into diagnostic patterns.

Here are a few basic steps a teacher and parent can take to ensure the best possible educational experience for a child on the autism spectrum:

• Develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for the child. The parent, teacher, principal and the school's special education teachers should all be involved in the IEP’s development.

• Educate yourself on the many behavior modification resources that exist to help teach self-help and socialization skills to the student with HFA or AS.

• Have the student evaluated by his/her school's special education specialists.

• Make sure all adults working with the child know about his/her special needs.

• Read the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that guarantees a right to an appropriate education for all children with disabilities.

• Understand the placement options available. A student with the disorder may do better in a regular classroom or in a special education environment.

These "special needs" students should have as many opportunities to interact as possible, such as speech therapy and socialization therapy. The ‘key’ that parents should keep in mind is this: Don't let anybody flatter you out of services. Don't let them say, “He's so smart! He doesn't need that!” If you think your child needs services, you can find them. The first place to go is your school district. And some parents will have to fight.

Parents need to think about where they want their youngster to be in 5 to 10 years. Parents should make sure that their child can set the table, fold his/her clothes, shower independently, make a can of soup, and so on. Often times, students on the spectrum are so smart that they never cross paths with teachers who would be focused on things like daily living and vocational skills – and these kids really suffer because of that.

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