What is Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder which affects the way an individual communicates with, relates to and understands people and the world around them. The condition can affect people in different ways, and to varying degrees of severity which has led to the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) being used in diagnosis. Asperger’s syndrome is a term often used to describe people with autism spectrum disorder who have ‘normal’ or superior intelligence and who experienced no language delays in childhood.
ASD’s are characterized by a triad of impairments in the following areas:
Impairments in social interaction, including difficulties relating, sharing and forming relationships with others.
Impairment in social communication, including difficulties interpreting and expressing verbal and non-verbal communication.
Impairments in imagination and social understanding, including difficulties with imaginative play, pretending, planning ahead, tendency towards focus on the detail rather than global understanding, rigidity of thought and behaviour
The triad of impairments is accompanied by the presence of stereotyped activity, thinking or interests that are unusual in their intensity or focus. Sensory perception and motor impairment or clumsiness are often experienced by people with ASD.
The way an individual presents with autism spectrum disorder will depend on many factors, including the severity of their experience of the autism triad, their intelligence and personality. People with ASD can also experience other disorders or psychiatric illness which may further affect their abilities.
How common is Autism and Asperger’s syndrome?
For ‘classic’ autism, the estimated prevalence rate is around 5 per 10,000. The estimated prevalence rate of autistic spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome, is over 90 per 10,000 in the United Kingdom.
Approximately four times more boys than girls are affected by autistic spectrum disorders.
Much of the behaviour characteristic of autism may reflect a deficit in Theory of Mind. The individual cannot appreciate the feelings, knowledge, or beliefs in other people (nor indeed fully recognise or interpret his or her own thought processes).
Stimulus over-selectivity refers to responding to only part of a stimulus, rather than to the whole thing or the whole social setting, with implications for an inability to maintain multiple attention, or stress resulting from over-stimulation.
A limitation in central coherence implies an inability to use context or to generalise from one task or setting to another. This further highlights the tendency to attend to single elements of a stimulus or to fail to see the whole from the sum of the parts.
Literalness of language use implies that nothing can be taken for granted in the autistic child’s response to instructions. For example, if requesting the child to ask his mum if she wants a cup of tea, one would need to request him also to return with the answer.
Concreteness highlights the likely problem in developing (imaginative) play in that objects are not used as representations of something else … a cardboard tube is a cardboard tube, not a telescope.
Classroom practice for pupils with autism or Asperger’s syndrome will need to take into account the following issues:
- the child’s lack of generalisation of learning, limited focus and lack of incidental learning
- the literalness of understanding
- difficulties in becoming involved in group activities
- possible reactions to over-stimulation and the fact that this can easily occur in situations that other children cope well with
- observed behaviours which might be seen as simple naughtiness or non-compliance may in fact have a range of other meanings for the child with autism or Asperger’s syndrome (i.e. the observed ‘naughty’ behaviour may in fact be the child’s only way … of indicating the need for help or attention, or the need to escape from stressful situations,… of obtaining desired objects, … of demonstrating his/her lack of understanding, … of protesting against unwanted events, … of gaining stimulation, …of expressing anxiety which has built up over a period of time).
- Providing a very clear structure. Ensuring the pupil knows the programme at the start of each day/ lesson and can make frequent reference to this throughout. Giving the pupil chance to tick off the activities. These pupils perform best when things are predictable; visual timetables work well
- Providing warning of any impending change of routine, or switch of activity. Helping the pupil to understand that one activity has finished and another one is starting.
Using clear and unambiguous language. Avoiding irony, or phrases like “my feet are killing me or ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’’
- Addressing the pupil individually (for example, the pupil may not realise that an instruction given to the whole class also includes him/her. Calling the pupil’s name and saying “I need you to listen to this as this is something for you to do” can sometimes work; other times the pupil will need to be addressed individually).
- Repeating instructions and checking understanding. Using short sentences to ensure clarity of instructions.
- Using various means of presentation – visual resources, modelling, etc.
- Ensuring consistency of expectation among all staff… and avoiding any ‘backing-down’ once a reasonable and manageable target has been set.
- Recognising that change in manner or behaviour may reflect anxiety (which may be triggered by a minor change to routine).
- Not taking apparently rude or aggressive behaviour personally; and recognising that the target for the pupil’s anger may be unrelated to the source of that anger.
- Specific teaching of social rules/skills, such as turn-taking and social distance.
- Minimising distractions or providing access to an individual work area or booth, when a task involving concentration is set. Colourful wall displays can be distracting for some pupils, others may find noise very difficult to cope with.
- Seeking to link work to the pupil’s particular interests.
- Exploring word-processing, and computer-based learning for literacy.
- Protecting the pupil from teasing, and providing peers with some awareness of his/her particular needs.
- Allowing the pupil to avoid or experience significant differentiation in activities which s/he may not understand such as games, some sports, drama etc
- Supporting the pupil in open-ended and group tasks.
- Allowing some access to obsessive behaviour as a reward for positive efforts.
- Adults will need to constantly monitor peer-interaction and other problems which could lead to stress for the pupil and consequent difficult behaviour.