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"... the most important considerations in devising educational programs for children with autistic spectrum disorders have to do with recognition of the autism spectrum as a whole, with the concomitant implications for social, communicative, and behavioral development and learning, and with the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child across areas of development."
—Educating Children with Autism2001

Understanding Autism

Four Categories of Differences
Not all individuals with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome exhibit every characteristic, or exhibit them the same way. A student may exhibit a characteristic one day but not the next depending on the environment, how stressful a situation is perceived to be, even how tired he is or whether he feels ill. Characteristics impact each other, and change over time. As a child’s neurology matures, some characteristics may lessen or disappear.
Think of the students’ skills as being delayed in development, rather than being impossible to develop. It is common for children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome to act like they are two or more years younger than their chronological age.

Because there are so many possible characteristics, it can be helpful to divide them into four broad categories: 
physical, cognitive, social and emotional.

When a student reacts intensely, consider how many categories are involved in that situation. The more categories involved in a situation, the more likely the student will be extremely challenged. While some children will melt down without being stressed in multiple categories, you can be sure that the more categories involved in a situation, the more stressed the child will be, and the quicker and more intense the resulting behavior. 

As the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional demands of a typical school day intersect, the student with autism becomes more stressed, as shown by the yellow, orange, and red areas in the venn diagram. School is a highly social experience, and children on the autism spectrum are functioning continuously in the yellow and orange zones. The addition of a seemingly benign incident or demand can quickly tip the balance, leading to an outburst or meltdown.

The following story illustrates ‘the perfect storm’ for a meltdown. Tim spends most of his day in a small, separate classroom for students with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, but is mainstreamed with typical peers for P.E. Today, the students are going to learn line dancing and are expected to imitate a series of movements in formation and in time to music. As soon as the activity has been explained, Tim begins to run around the gym, crying and demanding to go back to his classroom. The P.E. teacher doesn’t understand why Tim is so upset and asks how he can help. Tim screams “I hate line dancing!!” 

What happened to Tim in this situation that resulted in an almost immediate meltdown? The environment and the task require competence in all four areas: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional; and many students with autism or Asperger's Syndrome would be unsuccessful in this situation. Possible explanations for Tim's response include the following:

Tim might struggle with the acoustics and open space in the gymnasium, and this environment would make it difficult for him to focus. [Physical] Being surrounded by 24 peers makes him feel anxious; he doesn’t know these children well and is at a loss when trying to join them. [Social] Tim doesn’t understand how to make his body imitate the movements. [Cognitive] He can’t hear the directions because the music is hurting his ears. [Physical] Tim’s anxiety peaks. He knows he won’t be successful at this task, although he doesn’t know why, and he is embarrassed and ashamed because his peers don’t seem to share his difficulty. [Emotional] Tim can’t process or regulate how he’s feeling, he simply feels threatened and wants to escape.

Once you understand the underlying characteristics, you would anticipate that Tim could have significant difficulty with this activity and you would adapt the lesson, reduce the volume of the music, shorten the amount of time he must participate, pair him with a peer buddy, or all of the above. If he was successful, you would celebrate with him that he accomplished something that was truly herculean, rather than merely be satisfied that he had done what he was “expected” to do.

Improving the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in grades K-12

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