In this Literature Review, we start by understanding autism and its various characteristics. After that, we will progress to an analysis of learning and teaching strategies for students with autism. At present, there is a lot of research available on autism as a disorder, and since the focus of this review is on understanding the characteristics of students with autism and developing teaching and learning strategies for these students, there was found to be ample research on teaching strategies for autistic students.
In the middle of the twentieth century, a name was given to a disorder that affects an estimated 3.4 out of every 1000 children aged from 3 to 10 years. Autism is a disorder of the human brain that first makes its presence felt during infancy or childhood but might not be diagnosed then. There are five pervasive developmental disorders or autism spectrum disorders, autism being one of them. All share characteristics of abnormal social interactions, impaired communication skills, lack of variety in interests and very repetitive behavior (Autism Spectrum Disorders). In fact, “autistic aloneness” and “insistence on sameness” are to this day the two primary symptoms of autistic children (Autism).
Autism is also known as autistic disorder, childhood autism, or infantile autism. It is a phenomenon that covers a wide range of symptoms and indicators: On one extreme, people suffering from it may be silent, completely mentally disabled, and might not do much other than rocking or flapping their hands. Or, individuals with lesser degrees of impairments may be active, but might act peculiarly in public, be interested in very few things, and have undeveloped communication skills. Some people with autism have normal levels of intelligence, while most people with autism have some level of intellectual disability, ranging from mild to severe (Autistic disorder). It is said that “early intervention may help children gain self-care and social skills, although few of these interventions are supported by scientific studies; there is no cure” (Autism).
The intensity of the disease is divided into three categories: low-, medium- and high-functioning autism. These classifications are subjective, based either on a certain IQ threshold or the dependence level of the individual in everyday life (Autism Spectrum Disorders).
Characteristics of Autism
There is not one single symptom that characterizes autism; rather there is a combination of symptoms. The primary distinguishing factors of autism are impairments in social interaction, impairments in communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior. It is usually the presence of some or all of these which calls for a diagnosis of autism, other symptoms might also be present but do not lead to a definite diagnosis (Autism).
Autistic people severely lag behind others in the department of social skills. They lack vital social skills which normal people might not pay heed to, but these skills are significant aspects of daily life. Intuition, for example, is one such skill which people suffering from this impairment do not possess causing them to suffer in social situations. According to Sachs (1995), Temple Grandin, who was a famous autistic adult, compared her failure to comprehend social communication of normal people with feeling “like an anthropologist on Mars”.
Autism begins to show early in childhood as social skills of these children do not develop fully. These infants do not respond much to events or things around them, they do not pay attention to the people around them either, smiling less and do not register a response when called by their name. Autistic toddlers also make lesser eye contact as opposed to other children. When compared with other three- to five-year-olds, the social understanding levels were a lot lower and there was less spontaneity, vigor, communication via use of non-verbal movements and response. But there are few people, the primary caregivers, with whom these children manage to make solid bonds. It is often said that autistic children are loners, however this has been reported to be untrue: due to their lack of requisite social skills, they find it difficult to make and maintain friendships. Hence, they might have friends but because they are unable to strengthen these associations, they are more often than not, invariably lonely (Autism). “Students with autism may come across as unfeeling but they do, in fact, have feelings and these need to be recognized with sensitive treatment”. It is up to the teachers and parents to facilitate further social interaction through encouraging these students join school clubs and societies, teaching the child to observe the behavior of other children, encouraging co-operative games, encouraging prospective friendships, helping the student to develop intuition and understand emotions through direct teaching of how to read people’s faces and body language and respond to cues that indicate different emotions (Supporting students with autism in further education).
Recent research has made use of eye tracking technology to investigate the social cues which people with autism pick up on and respond to. The results of this study, undertaken by Dr Courtenay Norbury, from Royal Holloway, University of London and the University of Oxford, showed results which were contrary to earlier beliefs that autistic children do not respond to social cues at all, or negligibly so. “Our work suggests that individuals with autism, like their typically developing peers, can and do attend to important social cues such as the eyes when viewing familiar social scenes. The individuals with autism who had additional language impairments tended to spend less time looking at faces generally, but when they did look at the face, they spent significantly more time looking at eyes than mouths” (Social Cues Used By Those With Autism Illuminated).
Studies have also shown that individuals with autism have aggressive and violent tendencies, but these reports are more anecdotal in nature rather than systematic examinations of characteristics of autism. This data is limited in nature and scope but worth mentioning here, as autistic students would be likely to throw severe tantrums and behave aggressively. They have problems with inattention and are resistance to change (Koegel & Koegel 1995 pp 53-65).
As far as communication skills are concerned, studies have shown that almost half of individuals with autism find it impossible to fulfill their daily communication needs due to incomplete development of their natural speech. Children as young as a year old communicate differently if they are suffering from autism. They may babble, use unusual gestures and display lack of responsiveness. Some restrict their communication to simply repeating others’ words. They can not comprehend imaginative activities and have a difficult time translating symbols into language. Difficulties with non-verbal communication include inappropriate facial expressions, unusual use of gestures, lack of eye contact, strange body postures, repetitive speech patterns, restricted vocabulary and difficulty with pragmatics of conversation (Autism).
Repetitive behavior is another symptom of autism and there are a number of categories which denote this. Stereotypy is one, where the individual indulges in apparently senseless physical movement such as hand flapping or spinning an object repeatedly. Compulsive behavior is another category, in which the individual shows a stubbornness to follow certain rules. Another significant repetitive behavior especially for children is that of self-injury, where a person with autism performs actions which either harm him or have the potential to cause harm to him. While these behaviors might occur in the absence of autism as well, they have a higher probability of occurrence as well as higher severity in occurrence in people with autism (Autism).
Teaching Strategies for Students with Autism
In the UK, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is mapped out for students with autism, which is a combination of relevant activities from the curriculum and activities base on an individual’s personal goals and objectives. It is usually the parents, classroom teacher, the student if possible and a special education teacher who work in unison to develop this plan. Other parties involved in this collaboration can be speech and language pathologists, behavior consultants and school psychologists. Hence, a specialized programming and instruction scheme is devised for students with autism. Teachers with special training are often necessary as they are experts in behavior management and are trained to deal with complex social and communication situations which these students face. Developing IEPs is a process which requires “gathering information about the student from various kinds of assessments, sharing information and discussing the student amongst relevant people, determining long term life goals, setting short term achievable goals, setting objectives to meet these goals, and planning strategies and services” (Teaching students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools, p.21).
It is said that the most strongly recommended approach for teaching students with autism is to make use of visual aids. This is because these students are often relatively stronger in areas of concrete thinking, rote learning and understanding of visual relationships, and find abstract thinking, communication, paying attention and interacting in social situations difficult. Hence, visual aids such as photographic and written stimuli help them learn and communicate. The primary advantage of such techniques is that it allows them to focus on the message for as long as the time they need to sufficiently process the information at hand. Since these students need more time to do this due to their cognitive and/or motor impairments, they must be allowed extra time, and ample lag between provision and instruction and demand for response. Another effective method employed by teachers and parents would be to classify tasks into smaller tasks and then teach these tasks in small steps, so as to encourage easier learning by students and prevent frustration and lack of development (Teaching students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools, p.27).
Tasks should be varied often as these students tend to get bored and anxious and the variation would also prevent any inappropriate behaviors from occurring. However, if there is too much variation, students might suffer from sensory overload and get frustrated. They need to experience calming activities as well which do not impose too much burden on them and confuse or disorient them as this is a roadblock to learning (Teaching students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools, p.29).
It is also critical that students with autism are taught appropriate social skills. This is needed to be done via providing him/her with situations and a guide on how to deal with these situations. According to (Supporting students with autism in further education), “Students with autism will have difficulty in group situations. They may behave in ways which seem odd to the non-autistic person”. Students should be involved in activities which enable contact with peers such as shared learning arrangements, pairing student with different students to discourage dependence on one individual, forming groups for special school events and assemblies, clubs, etc and encouraging participation in extra-curricular activities (Teaching students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools, p.38).
“Students with autism may have obsessions which interfere with their learning” (Supporting students with autism in further education). To develop the communication skills of students with autism, they should be interacted with in environments which they are comfortable in like the classroom, playground and gym. They should be talked to in sentences, but vocabulary should be used of the level that they can easily comprehend. Words should be familiar and specific; repetition might be necessary depending on the level of communication disability. Language used should be clear, simple and concise. Students take time to process information hence they should be spoken to slowly, with pauses between words, depending on individual ability. Conversation skills can be taught through simple drawings as well. Symbolic drawings can be used to stand for basic conversational ideas and colors could be included to depict emotion. This way, they will get a better grasp of conversation skills needed in various social contexts and situations (Teaching students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools, p.39-51).
All people with autism have stunted development and growth in the areas of social interaction and behavior, but the degree and nature of the problems they face might be different for each. Some individuals may be withdrawn to the point of being reclusive, while others may be extremely active to the level of seeming peculiar. Although people with autism share some common features, no two individuals are the same. Also, their difficulty level and type can change with development. While the common characteristics are important in developing an understanding of the general needs associated with autism, it remains vital to pair this information with the student’s individual interests, abilities and personality. Drafting out teaching strategies for students with autism is complicated because there is a lot of variability in learning styles, communication and social skill development across students. Students will display different extents of challenging behavior depending on the impact of these characteristics on them.
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Koegel, R.L. & Koegel, L.K. 1995, Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies for Initiating Positive Interactions and Improving Learning Opportunities, Paul H. Brooks Publishing Company, Baltimore, MD.
Sacks, O. 1995, In Title Article, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, Knopf, New York.
Social Cues Used By Those With Autism Illuminated. Science Daily, 2007, Web.
Supporting Students with Autism in Further Education. The National Autistic Society, 2007, Web.
Teaching students with Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools. Ministry of Education Special Programs Branch, British Columbia, Canada, pp. 27-56, 2007, Web.