I remember watching Drew as a youngster, he was fascinated by John Deere tractors. Next came Hot Wheels, after that it was Star Wars and now it's Minecraft. It's important to note that fixations alone do not make a child autistic. The point is, as I've watched my son grow I've picked up on his areas of strength and his areas of weakness. I guess it is easy to say that he gets stuck...and in those moments of getting stuck you can clearly see his autism.
Fives years ago my wife and I first began to hear about autism. At that time Drew was diagnosed with Aspergers, simply put, he was/is a high functioning autistic child. For the next couple of years my wife Amy read several stories and articles about autism. We both consulted area experts and we helped Drew the best we could with psychiatrists, psychologists and lots of love and patience. When we first heard about aspergers and autism it was pretty rare. The odds were roughly 1 out of 150 children in 2009 were diagnosed with ASD. As an educator I rarely had students that were on the Autistic spectrum.
To take it a step further, in the year 1999, my first year in the classroom, the odds were roughly 1 out of 400 children would be diagnosed with autism. At that time it was uncommon. Fast forward to 2010, my first year as Warner Principal, we had four students on the spectrum. My second year we had seven students diagnosed with ASD. This year we are over ten students that are on the autism spectrum.
In the year 2014 Autism is currently diagnosed in 1 out of 68 children. That number is quickly rising. I will guarantee that you WILL have an autistic spectrum student in your classroom if not now in the very near future.
What does it mean to have a student with autism in your classroom? It first means that we must all understand what autism is; (to paraphrase from so many sources that I cannot even count) Autism Spectrum Disorder typically means that the individual has social impairments, communication difficulties, lack of empathy and difficulty understanding social cues and norms. This is just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak). I encourage you to check out the links below for more information.
On a more personal level I do have some advice for all educators.
1) Autistic Students struggle with change. Change of schedule, change of rules, change of routine are all difficult. Creating a visual schedule is key. It is also highly effective to front-load the student with changes before they occur. If you know there will be a surprise assembly, you may want to talk with your autistic student before hand and give the student a "heads-up". Visual schedules can be small (desk size) or large (for everyone to see).
2) Autistic Students will not respond the way you hope or expect. My own son struggles with eye contact. When he was younger most people that encountered him would remark that he was rude. My wife and I worked very hard to get Drew to understand society...our biggest wish was that society would understand Drew. If you have an autistic student you cannot expect the student to understand sarcasm, tone and body language. You need to keep it simple and straightforward. If you are an "old-school" person that DEMANDS eye contact...my advice is, get over it! Many autistic students will withdraw or shut down if you require this.
3) Expect frustration, anger, depression and sadness: Imagine life for yourself, what if people didn't understand you? What if you went through life knowing and feeling different? Autistic students feel this each day and this manifests into anger, frustration, sadness and even depression. My wife and I noticed the depression in second grade. That was our first clue that Drew needed more support than we could give him. Even today I still worry, I worry that he is depressed on the inside. Our family has tried to become better listeners, more patient, more understanding and simply loving.
A few weeks ago a student that is on the spectrum came up to the office. He looked very down and depressed. I immediately tried a couple of tricks to perk him up. I asked, "Guess what color my socks are?" He just shrugged. So I said it again, "Guess what color my socks are?" I then added, "C'mon, just a guess, I'll give you a Hershey kiss." Well that worked...he muttered, "White." I replied, "WHITE! WHITE! Mr. Gilpin never wears white socks!" I then showed him my purple socks that matched my purple tie! He smirked. I then said, come here it looks like you need a hug. I gotta tell you, he melted into my hug. That's exactly what he needed. He just felt down and needed somebody to slow down and take care of him.
My advice: You need to be prepared to slow down and love your kids.
4) Offer choice in your classroom. What I have discovered is that students in general respond better to choice activities rather than being forced to do something. This can definitely be said for students with ASD. My advice, use their fixation to your advantage. You may find that allowing them to do what they are passionate about will bring out their best work and their happiest frame of mind. Be willing to let go of the way things have always been.
5) Allow your Autistic Students to share their story. Notice I said allow...do not force them to. My son chose to share his story during his fourth grade year. This made a huge difference. He had pictures, information and simply told his classmates about Autism and about himself. He took ownership and pride in the fact that, this is who he is. If you have a student that is old enough to understand and share I would talk with the parents and see if they want to share their story.
April is Autism Awareness Month, you will see puzzle piece ribbons and you will see lots of "blue" for autism awareness. I encourage you to learn more about autism, and I will assure you, you will encounter a student with autism, if not now...very soon.
This Week's Big Question: Are you prepared to educate students with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Next Week At A Glance:
Monday, April 7th: Reading Month Winners get a Limo Ride and Lunch at 12 noon!
Monday, April 7th: Minecraft Club 4-5pm
Tuesday, April 8th: PTO Meeting at 7pm
Tuesday, April 8th: Minecraft Club 4-5pm
Wednesday, April 9th: Assembly
Wednesday, April 9th: Minecraft Club 3-4pm
Wednesday, April 9th: String Team 3-4pm
Thursday, April 10th: Spring Pictures
Thursday, April 10th: New Kindergarten Parent Meeting at CAC 7pm
Friday, April 10th: Consumers Energy visits the 4th grade
Staff: I'm looking for any volunteers to help with our Lego Club. We should be starting in two weeks.
Articles Worth Reading:
68 Things To Know About Students With Autism @HuffingtonPost
Autism Awareness - Show Appreciation @PrincipalHowell
A Once In A Lifetime Trip To The Zoo (Take That Autism) @aspieadventures
The Starfish Story (Shared by Shelley Singleton) @Events_4_Change
Here Kitty, Kitty (take the time to read and watch the short video) +Spike Cook @DrSpikeCook
Epic eBook Guide +Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Organizational Apps @theOCBlog
We Carry It With Us +Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp
Hurt Heart +Joan Young @flourishingkids
Who's in charge here? @jonharper70bd
10 Reasons Why Vacations are Hard @ShutUpRun
40 Amazing Things You Will Never Forget +Marc Chernoff @marcandangel
Videos Worth Watching:
Twinned with Autism (3 min)
Journey of Hope (13 minutes)
JMac Hoop Dream (5 min)
Touching...even if it is an ad. (2 min)