Today's educators are increasingly aware of the learning disabilities common in children. One of the more widely publicized and much debated conditions is autism. The educational debate with respect to autism largely surrounds whether segregated autism classrooms or integrated programs are better for the child.
Autism is a developmental disorder that can begin at birth or in the first two years of life. In more severe cases, autistic children engage in puzzling behaviors that are markedly different from other children their age. They may show no interest in social situations, aversion to touch and repetitive behaviors, such as rocking or flapping their arms. Less severe cases may be classified as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or Asperger's Syndrome. These children may exhibit normal speech, but have deficits in social behavior.
Autism was once very rare. Today, however, autism numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 150 children is diagnosed with autism. Boys outnumber girls four to one in diagnoses.
Because autistic children are impaired in their ability to communicate and socialize, many programs exist to segregate autistic children from others and focus on specialized education, sometimes one-on-one instruction. However, due to educational budget cuts, many autistic children are now being integrated right into the regular classroom. Whether this is better or worse for all students involved is debatable. But if autistic children are being schooled along with non-autistic peers, certain steps teachers can implement will make the process more successful.
* Follow a rigid schedule. Knowing what is going to happen next is often beneficial to autistic children. A chart listing a daily schedule that he or she can follow will indicate study times, lunch time, recess, and other scheduled activities. If any changes occur to the schedule, provide plenty of advanced warning.
* Use clear language and avoid idioms so there is no confusion.
* Have a quiet place the autistic child can go in moments of overstimulation or frustration. This is a comforting place where he or she can regroup before rejoining the class.
* When addressing the entire class, it might also be necessary to address the autistic child individually. He or she may not understand that group instruction also pertains to him or herself.
* Use various means to present lessons, including pictures, words and modeling with other students to help ensure clarity.
* Enforce social rules, such as taking turns and sharing.
* Repeat instructions and check that the student understands them.
* Make sure the other students are aware of the autistic child's special needs and that teasing will not be tolerated.
* Keep in mind that obstinate behavior or anger should not be taken personally. It could simply be a sign of frustration in the child.
* Organization can help reduce anxiety and outbursts. Make sure the autistic child sits in a distraction-free area.
Integration of autistic children into the regular classroom can be a good start toward building social skills.