A Practical Guide to Autism-Part 1 of 3
By Kathy Williams

The last two articles in our Autism series is an overview of my presentation from this year’s CDEA conference that was held in February in Jacksonville, Florida. Autism is close to my heart, as my grandson was diagnosed when he was three. I don’t claim to have all the answers for Autism, I mean, who does? What I do claim is to have firsthand knowledge and the heart to help others walk through this diagnosis with practical tips that can apply to anyone with Autism. There is an adage that claims, “If you meet one person with Autism, you’ve meet one person with Autism”. There are no two alike. However, the tips provided in this article and the next can be applicable for all children.

The medical definition of Autism, according to medicinenet.org is as follow: “Autism is a spectrum of neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication, and unusual and repetitive behavior. Some, but not all, people with autism are non-verbal.”

That sounds negative and depressing doesn’t it? I don’t like that definition, so I came up with my own:

“Autism is a spectrum of brain functionality characterized by the ability to navigate social interactions in a unique and individualistic style; and sufficient in communicating in a manner that accommodates the unique way in which the child has been wired by their Creator; and adequately able to self-regulate stressful situations by using the most terrific, creative and artful movement of body and mind. All, not some, people with autism ingeniously communicate with those interested and moved enough by compassion and love to explore the exclusive world that is autism! All people with autism are sensitive to sound, light, noises, taste and touch in an over-the-top exciting way that you and I cannot fathom.  All of this makes them marvelously created!”

That sounds so much better to me and so much more accurate! I have been a long-time fan of learning abilities; for me autism MUST be confronted in that vein if we as teachers are ever going to have a lasting effect on those students in our class that may fall on the spectrum.

Each letter in the word Autism stands for a miraculous trait held by each individual with the “ability”.

A-ABILITY

All children with Autism have Ability!

Many times, those with autism are described as “one with a dis-ability”. Again, I am not fond of the negativity that is associated with the term “dis-ability”. To me it makes it sound as though those with autism are incapable of learning, and we all know that is absolutely untrue!

Howard Gardner theorizes that there are multiple intelligences…and for his positive spin on learning, he’s my favorite! The theory of multiple intelligences states that there are 8 different learning styles. And although this is not a lesson on learning styles, it is important to know this information for not only the child with autism is your classroom, but also for every other child in your classroom. I am sure you will be able to relate to one or more of the following ways of learning-either for yourself or for the children you teach:

  1. Visual- The spatial learner is strong in visual and spatial judgment. They are characterized by being good at putting puzzles together; they recognize patterns easily; and they enjoy drawing and painting and other visual arts.
  2. Verbal- The verbal learner is strong in word usage, language and writing. They are characterized by loving books and the written language; they remember spoken and written information; they may use humor when telling a story.
  3. Logical-The logical or mathematical learner loves numbers and enjoys analyzing problems. They are characterized by having excellent problem-solving skills; they enjoy thinking about abstract things; and they like to conduct science experiments.
  4. Physical- This learner is called the kinesthetic learner…and is sometimes mistaken as being ADD or ADHD. This learner’s strength physical movement and motor control. They are characterized by being good at dancing and at sports; they enjoy creating things with their hands; and they remember by doing NOT by being told HOW to do.
  5. Musical- The musical learner’s strength lie in the fact that they are musical and rhythmic. They are characterized by how they enjoy musical, singing and playing musical instruments; they are good at remembering songs and melodies; and they have a rich understanding of musical structure and rhythm and notes.
  6. Interpersonal- This learner is strong in understanding other people’s feelings and they relate well to others. They are characterized by their ability to communicate verbally; they are also skilled at non-verbal communication; and they create positive relationships with others.
  7. Intrapersonal- This learner’s strength lie in the fact that they are introspective, and they are good at self-reflection. They are characterized by their excellent self-awareness; they enjoy analyzing theories and ideas; and they understand the basis for their own motivations and feelings.
  8. Natural- The nature learner shows strength in finding patterns and relationships with nature. They are characterized by their interest in flowers and trees and insects; they enjoy being outside and may like camping and hiking; and they do not enjoy learning about unfamiliar topics that have no relationship to nature.

Every child has an “ABILITY” to learn; they have a specific way that learning speaks to them. Think about how you learn best…do you love music? Are you the one that is fidgeting right now because we aren’t moving and it’s hard for you to concentrate? Are you hanging on every word and writing down as much as you possibly can?

Guess what? The child with autism wants to learn too! They have a learning style too…just like you and just like everyone else in your classroom. You just have to figure it out!

But you know what? Maybe you won’t. But maybe if you try incorporating all these learning intelligences in your lessons plans you get through to ALL the kids in your class. And that one who seems a little off starts to dance to the music; or maybe he begins to show his love of books by sitting in the library center in your classroom and looking at book after book. Maybe he stares out the window because he loves nature and he can’t wait to go outside and touch and feel every texture and smell every smell he can possibly smell and see every color…and maybe some we don’t even see!

Every child has ABILITY…the practical guide for you as a teacher with those who have autism is for you to simply know that every child wants to learn, and every child CAN learn. Find what strikes a chord with the children in your class and help them learn in that Intelligence that God gave them!

U-Unique

All children with Autism are UNIQUE!

They may have a few of the same characteristics, but they ALL have their own individualized plan for Autism!

Let me introduce you to three people:

The first one is an eight-year old boy with fiery red hair, full of curls. He has the milkiest white skin and the most beautiful blue eyes. He absolutely loves trains! He can tell you everything you need to know about trains! He loves the smoke and the tracks; he loves the sounds trains make and he has even ridden in one! When he was about 18 months old, he began losing words he knew. That was the first sign for his parents and for those that cared for him. But at 8 he is very talkative, very engaging; but he hates loud noises and wears earphone to drowned out noises that are common to you and me. But he is happy, and he is loved!

The next young man is 21. He is about 6 foot 2 and he wears glasses. He has graduated from high school—a couple of years later than his age group. He loves Lego’s! He can build anything and everything from Lego’s He will spend hours and hours working on the most intricate of designs. He is employed by Publix and loves his job. Emotions, like many with autism are not his strong suit. Recently his Mom was diagnosed with cancer. She spoke with him about it the best way she knew how, explaining the process of chemo and what that would do to her physically. He was most concerned with the fact that she was going to lose her hair. AT the end of the conversation they hugged it out and he went on with his day. This young man is happy, and he is loved!

Lastly, I want you to meet a five-year-old. He, like the first boy has curly, curly blonde hair. He is often called a toe-head! He loves to laugh and run around in circles! He climbs on everything he can climb on; he stares out windows into the bright world he sees. He loves to bounce, and he loves to flip. His great love is books! He will sit for hours in his room and look at book after book or he will look at the same three books over and over again. But this boy doesn’t speak. He communicates some with sign language, some with bringing you what he wants—like his cup if he wants more juice; and some with tugging you to the place he wants—the pantry if he wants a snack or to the fridge if he wants yogurt. This boy is happy, and he is loved!

All three of these kids are different; they are unique to their own set of “rules” for how they walk out their own individual plan for their unique ability.

Every child in your class is unique. Little Sarah may love being the Mommy in the play area and she loves to “boss” the other kids; you might not be able to tear little Jack away from the dump trucks and sandbox; and little Jordan may love to swing and swing and swing while out on the playground.

Just like their unique learning styles, children also have unique loves and preferences—all children! Children with autism may be a little more emphatic about what they love but they love it and are interested in it, nonetheless. Find that “thing” that lights up their eyes and grabs their heart; help them learn as much about that “thing” as you can. Facilitate their passion to know more!

Always remember the Uniqueness of those with autism—they are passionate about the things they love and the things that interest them.

T-TERRIFIC

All children with Autism are Terrific!

When you see something that interests you, I would venture to say that you want to dive right in and be a part of whatever that “thing” is, am I right? I love to read! I have been a reader for years! I have a great passion for it, therefore I want others to have a passion for reading too! Literacy is a huge “hot button” for me for preschoolers. I want them to join me in the passion.

Children with autism are no different. They can be passionate about trains or book or Legos. What does that mean to you? Well it means you can join them in their passion.

Here is a guideline of sorts to joining them though. They like their space, they like their personal bubble! But that doesn’t mean they want to be ignored. We can join their world, but we mustn’t invade their world with our way of doing things!

So, if Billy likes to slide over and over again, slide too!

If Mackenzie likes to look out the window, look out the window with her.

Join in their world, but make sure it is on their terms…don’t be offended if they walk away. Know that the next time you may be able to sit with them for 2 seconds instead of 1. It’s all about the effort on our part!

Our next and final article will cover the last three letters; and I will also provide some resources for you and for parents in your center that may need some assistance when it comes to the developmental delays in their children.