Working with students on the autism spectrum can pose unique challenges for teachers, which is why many educators decide to pursue a Master’s of Special Education. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a wide range or “spectrum” of strengths and differences in social, communication and behavioral challenges. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children has been identified with ASD.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association folded all subgroups of autism (formerly considered separate diagnoses) into one umbrella grouping of ASD in its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Mainstream and special education teachers, however, should understand the characteristics of these previous subgroups, as well as the teaching challenges they present, because the level of disability for students with ASD can range from mildly impaired to severely disabled. Here’s a breakdown of the subgroups.
On the milder end of the spectrum, students with Asperger syndrome struggle with social interactions, have limited interests and exhibit repetitive behaviors. As some experience delayed development of motor skills, they might appear clumsy and display awkward mannerisms. According to theAutism Society, “what distinguishes Asperger’s Disorder from classic autism are its less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays.”
Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified), aka PDD-NOS
Students with PDD-NOS exhibit some (but not all) of autism’s characteristics or have relatively mild symptoms, which is why some experts even refer to PDD-NOS as “subthreshold autism.” According to Autism Speaks, “its defining features are significant challenges in social and language development.”
Research Autism characterizes autistic disorder, also known as classic autism, as a pervasive developmental disorder that appears before the age of three and is defined by abnormal functioning in all three ASD areas: reciprocal social interaction, communication and restricted, stereotyped, repetitive behavior
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)
As the rarest subgroup and most severe end of the spectrum, childhood disintegrative disorder describes children who develop normally for the first few years and then quickly lose many social, language, motor and other skills, usually between ages two and four. Often these children also develop a seizure disorder.
Since many of the characteristics overlap from one ASD subgroup to another, they present some common teaching challenges. For example, because of struggles with communication and social skills, students with ASD might lack eye contact and social reciprocity, resulting in one-sided conversations or giving the appearance of being aloof. They might miss nonverbal cues, struggle to “read between the lines” or see things from someone else’s perspective, making it hard to predict or understand the behavior of others. While some students with ASD might have terrific rote memory, they might find it difficult to understand abstract verbal concepts such as idioms and sarcasm.
The Organization for Autism Research points to common school situations that might cause stress and behavior problems, such as handling transitions, understanding directions, interacting with peers and feeling overwhelmed by stimuli (i.e., noises, lights, etc.). This means students with ASD might struggle with making friends, interpreting facial expressions, working in groups or adapting to a change in classroom routines. Due to the stress (and perhaps as a coping mechanism), students with ASD might exhibit repetitive behaviors (such as rocking or hand-flapping) that could be disruptive to other students.
The Autism Society says that “some children need help understanding social situations and developing appropriate responses. Others exhibit aggressive or self-injurious behavior, and need assistance managing their behaviors.”
Each student with ASD has individual strengths and challenges, so targeted training helps teachers tailor programs to their unique needs and abilities.While a dedicated classroom might be a great fit for some students with ASD, an inclusive, mainstream classroom might work best for others. By understanding both the characteristics of ASD and the teaching challenges they present, teachers will be better equipped to help all their students succeed.