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Autism: What Is It And What Can Be Done?
by Stephen A. Peterson
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Autism: What Is It And What Can Be Done?
(also referred to as: Pervasive Developmental Disability—Not Otherwise Specified)
© 2002

Stephen A. Peterson

Autism is a brain-based developmental disorder that affects roughly 1 in 1,000 persons in the United States. Affected persons usually lack typical language ability and do not do well in most social settings. Males make up 80% of the autistic population. Why this is is not known or understood by researchers.

What is also unknown are the causes of this condition. Everything from genetic alterations to prenatal maternal contact with a disease to chemical imbalance have been blamed. However, poor parenting can be ruled out inspite of what some writers and researchers have suggested.

Despite being informed that they had nothing to do with their child’s disability, some parents continue to report guilt for not being able to successfully interact with their child. The following is what is known about autism.

1. Difficulty with organizational skills. Persons with autism regardless of their intellectual level have been found to have difficulty organizing themselves. An autistic student might be able to quote the historical dates of every United States Civil War battle but cannot remember to bring a writing pen to class. These students have been found to either be a very neat person or the sloppiest person one might know. A parent should remember that he is not intently trying to impose their wills on them. They are just not capable of organizing themselves without specific training. An autistic child needs training in organizational skills using small very specific steps in order to function in social or academic situations.

2. Individuals With Autism Have Problems With Abstract And Conceptual Thinking. Despite what parents are told, some autistic individuals eventually acquire abstract skills, but others never will . Abstraction is being able to arrive at a conclusion from information that is given. For example: 1 + 1 = ?. When abstractions must be used, it is advised that visual cues such as: “Why didn’t you take a bath?” may appear appropriate when dealing with a child who does not want to take a bath. With many autistic children rather than an open ended question, you might say “I do not like it when you didn’t take a bath. Please, go to the bathroom and take a bath right now. If you need help, I will help you but I won’t do it for you.” Avoid asking long winded questions. Parents or caregivers should be as concrete as possible in all of their interactions.

3. An Increase In Unusually Behavior Usually Indicates An Increase In Stress. In many situations, especially in unfamiliar situations, will cause stress due to a feeling of a loss of control. In most instances, stress can be reduced when the young person is allowed to remove themselves from the stressful situation. Establishing a program to help a young person deal with stress if they are in school as suggested.

4. Do Not Take Any Misbehavior Personally. Persons with autism should not be taken as the individual conscientiously misbehaving or desiring to hurt the feelings of others or trying to make life difficult for others. A person with autism is seldom capable of being manipulative. Generally misbehavior is a result of their attempts to get through experiences that are frightening, confusing, or disconcerting. Persons with forms of autism are, by nature of their disability, egocentric. The majority of persons with autistic disabilities have a very difficult time understanding the reactions of others due to a perceptual disability.

5. Use Speech Literally. That is, very simply, say what you mean. Unless the speaker knows the person with autism very well, he or she should avoid:

 Nicknames – “shorty”, “cutie”, “buddy”, “smart” and the like
 Sarcasm – “I feed my face. What about you?” “Are you ticked off?” “Get Real!”
 Double Meaning – “Chill out!” “Cool it!” “That’s sexy!”
 Idioms – “Let’s run to the store”, “Save your breath!”

6. Facial Expressions And Other Social Cues Generally Do Not Work.
Generally, the majority of autistic persons have a difficulty reading facial expressions and interpreting body language or suggestive behaviors.

7. If An Autistic Person Does Not Seem To Be Learning Tasks. It a sign that the task or tasks are too difficult for him and needs to be broken down into smaller simpler task or tasks. Another method is to present tasks in several different ways---visually, physically or verbally. These methods are often ignored by teachers and home school parents because this requires patience, time, experimenting and willingness to change past methods and habits.

8. Avoid Verbal/Information Overload. The teacher or parent should be clear, use shorter sentences with simple language to get points across. If the young person has no hearing problem and can attend to you, he may have difficulty sorting out what is being taught and the other information.

9. Keep Things Consistent. Prepare and present a short list of the subjects you are trying to teach. Write them down on a chart. Go over them each day first thing with the young person. If change is to occur, tell him and repeat the information regarding the change.

10. Manage His Behavior. Although it seems impossible, it is possible to manage the behavior of autistic children. The key is consistency and stress reduction for the young person. It is also recommended that positive reinforcement socially appropriate behavior be done routinely.

11. Be Aware Of The Environment. In many instances, an autistic person can be very sensitive to what is in the room. Bright colored painted walls or the hum of a florescent light is extremely disturbing for persons with autism. To make the necessary changes, requires the teacher or parent to be vigilant and aware of their environment and the problems it can present.

12. When The Young Person Misbehaves Or Consistently Argues Is A Sign Of A Problem. Although children misbehave or argue, an autistic person frequently does so when he has or is losing control. This can be a signal that someone or something in his environment is upsetting or bothering him. What has been found helpful is to get out of the environment or if he is able to write down what is bothering him. You may write down your feeling but do not expect a positive response as he may continue to try to understand what is happening and its meaning. Another successful method is role play and discussing what made him angry or misbehave. Let him answer as he thinks you may respond to his behavior. Utilizing these activities helps to de-escalate a situation as well as change his focus with regards to what may be bothering him.

13. Assume Nothing When Evaluating Abilities And Skills. Persons working with children who have autism report some autistic persons may be math whizzes but not able to make simple cash exchanges at a cash register. Or they may have the ability to remember word for word a book he has read or a famous speech he had heard, but cannot remember to bring paper to class or where he put a gym shoe. Uneven skill development is a typical attribute of autism. Autism, as previously stated, is not well known or understood. It is a baffling problem for parents, teachers and those who work and observe this population of children and young persons.

14. Keys. The keys for working with persons with autism are:


Additional tips for parents:

1. See a medical doctor. If you suspect that your child may be autistic, find an experienced physician and a get a diagnosis. Have her/him explain it to you. Ask as many questions as you feel necessary to ask. Demand to know! Don’t wait for them to present information to you. You will wait for a long time with no answers.

2. Read up on disability rights. Be familiar with the Disabilities Act. Do not be afraid to challenge medical doctors, school administrators or teachers. They will only do what is commanded or demanded of them. In this regard, patience, persistence, knowledge and being respectful will draw the best results.

3. Get help. Many children with disabilities never get help because of the fear and feelings of shame their parents often times have. Remember, there is nothing you did to cause this disability. Others have similar problems. There is help available. Keep informed. Join at least one local parent-professional group either in your local area or on a computer chat or similar system.

4. Be patient. Do not give up on behavior management. Remember that your child is not willfully misbehaving but just trying to make sense of their world and surroundings.

5. Don’t repeatedly try to drill a task into the child. Autistic people, usually, strongly resist any changes in routine. Making or forcing an autistic child into something can prove to be a disaster. Instead, when you see him having trouble, step back and try to break up the task into something simple or manageable. It simply means he had hit his limited---a fact we all have. Try giving him choices. This will give him a sense of control and stability.

Dedicated to: Lesley Tennison (a great mom for her son Michael)
Michael (just tryin’ to get along!)

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