Official figures say that autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disorder, affects roughly every 23 in 10,000 children in India. Though experts attribute the low prevalence rate of 0.23% to the lack of sufficient screening and diagnosis, the absolute number of Indian children suffering from the disorder stands at 1.2 billion. Early diagnosis and preemptive intervention can create a strong foundation for a well-adjusted life later on among autistic individuals. Additionally, primary education and compassionate teachers too have an important role to play. To help teachers better understand autism and what it entails, we’ve rounded up the 10 things about autism that they should know.
- Every autistic child is different – autism, after all, is a spectrum
That saying about autism “If you have met one autistic child, you have met one autistic child,” is true. Sure, if one of your students is autistic you will have a fair idea about the common autistic traits like social awkwardness, repetitive behavior, and sensory issues but every autistic child is different. Something that works for one child might trigger a tantrum in another. It is a spectrum disorder that affects everyone differently.
- They all have different sets of strengths and weaknesses
Just like all the other students in your classroom, children with autism also have their unique strengths and weaknesses. Some of them might struggle to memorize stuff but be excellent with spelling and phonetics. Others might have issues with motor skills and struggle with writing. Teachers must try different teaching styles before arriving at a method that works the best for a particular child and must be prepared to work extra hard to help them realize their potential.
- Autistic children are likely to move up the autism spectrum
A severely autistic child might, with the help of proper therapy and unwavering support of their caregivers, slowly move up the spectrum and lead a largely independent life as an adult. A position on the bell-shaped autism curve cannot define their potential and no child should be labeled as low-functioning or high-functioning based on that.
- It is important to understand their sensory issues
Autistic children often suffer from severe sensory issues. They are not equipped to deal with sensory overload like neurotypical people are. Certain sounds, smells, bright lights, and even touch can cause physical discomfort and make them very anxious. If you have an autistic child in your class, you must understand their sensory requirements and try to make the classroom as welcoming and comfortable for them as possible.
- Children with autism thrive on routine and repetition
Autistic children exhibit an inflexible adherence to set routines and patterns. They thrive when things are planned to the minute and are repetitive in nature. Even the slightest bit of deviance from the said routine, which will not cause any significant difference for neurotypical people, can cause enormous amounts of stress and anxiety to autistic individuals.
- They cannot interpret social cues
Children on the autism spectrum lack social and interpersonal skills. This autistic trait makes reading a room and interpretation of subtle social cues extremely difficult for them – making social interactions with teachers and other students awkward and confusing. They might also end up making some inappropriate or seemingly mean remarks to their teachers and classmates.
- If they are stimming, they’re not trying to distract other students
One of the most prominent autistic traits is stimming. It refers to repeated, often unusual movements. Rocking back and forth while talking, tapping a pen on the desk, pacing in circles, listening to a sound over and over, are all examples of stimming behavior. Stimming usually is a self-calming technique that helps them manage their emotions of anxiety, fear, anger, or excitement. They are not doing these things with the intention to distract other students and disrupt the class.
- They might not take positively to sudden changes in their routine
Simple changes in routine like a new seating arrangement, or a surprise test, do not make much of a difference for neurotypical children. However, given an autistic child’s obsessive adherence to routine and repetitive patterns, a sudden change in routine is difficult for them to adapt and adjust to. Surprising them with sudden changes can lead to tantrums and meltdowns.
- Literal over abstract
Abstract language, vague concepts, and figurative sentences do not make much sense for an autistic child. Usage of even the most common idioms can throw them off. When it comes to children on the spectrum, the thumb of the rule is ‘literal over abstract,’ always. Telling them what needs to be done, in exact terms with minimum fuzz works the best.
- Autistic children usually have very particular special interests
Every autistic child usually has very specialized interests. Some are math savants, others are great at arts and crafts, some might have a penchant for coding, and everything related to computers. Such interests must be encouraged and used as tools for motivation. Even though it might not be possible to cater to these interests at school all the time, teachers can help them further hone their subject knowledge whenever they can.
Looking at the figures regarding the prevalence of autism across the world, and the fact that it has been progressively increasing over the last couple of decades, makes it important for every country to have an updated count of people with the condition. In this regard, the role of teachers is of utmost importance, specifically in a country like India where the healthcare delivery system is perpetually overburdened.
Teaching an autistic child can sometimes be challenging. They are different but like all other children, they are funny, loving, and lovable. By simply educating yourself about the condition and remaining open to learning more as you go, you can make school a stress-free and enjoyable experience for them.