Understanding Autism

Autism is a disability with characteristics that vary across a wide spectrum. While persons with autism can’t be identified by their physical appearance, they usually have difficulties with language or communication, social skills, and behavior, often due to sensory difficulties.

The different levels of autism range from mild to severe. Individuals with severe autism may be nonverbal and seem to be unaware of other people. Those with mild autism can appear to be incredibly smart but may seem odd in social interactions. Most people with autism are somewhere in the middle.

Individuals with Autism Have Difficulty in Three Main Areas

1. Communication

  • Repeating words or phrases, sometimes out of context
  • Less responsive to requests
  • Laughing or crying for no apparent reason
  • Takes communication literally—does not understand social or verbal innuendos
  • Inability to follow multiple instructions

2. Social Interactions

  • Difficulty telling others how they feel or what they need
  • Awkward social skills or a preference for being alone
  • Difficulty making eye contact or using nonverbal communication
  • No sense of danger

3. Behavior

  • Difficulty with changes and a preference for routines
  • Very susceptible to sensory overload. Easily upset by noise, crowds, too much happening at once, or touch
  • Unusual play, spinning of objects, or unusually strong attachment to objects
  • Intense interest in a particular topic (for example, trains, movies, dinosaurs, or animals)
  • Excessive physical over-activity or under-activity

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Ways to Help

  • Seek to better understand a person by talking with family members about the person’s interests and how best to relate to him or her.
  • Interact in a relaxed and friendly manner.
  • Encourage classmates to ignore inappropriate behavior and to compliment the person when he or she contributes in a positive way.
  • Do not allow classmates to tease or insult others for any reason. Lead by example and find ways to make Church activities a positive experience for everyone.
  • If appropriate, encourage classmates to come up with ways to include children with autism. Let them know that while children with autism may choose to spend time by themselves, they may want to make friends.
  • Counsel with the family or caregiver and learn to recognize signals from the person with autism that show they are feeling overwhelmed.

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Teaching Tips

1. Communication

  • Prepare a quiet environment where there are few distractions.
  • Keep instruction short and simple. To get a child's attention who has autism, get down on the same level and say his or her name.
  • Provide order and structure to help the person feel less anxious and more comfortable. Have a consistent class or activity routine.
  • Make a class schedule out of pictures or drawings (for example, song, prayer, story or lesson, activity, and prayer). Point to each picture as you progress through the schedule.
  • Use pictures, objects, photos, and videos when teaching. People with autism are generally visual learners.
  • Understand that if people with autism become fixed on an idea or question, it is unlikely that they will disengage until their question is answered and they feel satisfied.
  • Be flexible; your schedule must be able to be adapted to the needs of the person with autism.

2. Social Interaction

  • Learn what the person does well (such as putting together puzzles or singing), and find ways to help the person use those skills in the classroom.
  • Select appropriate activities that include interaction with classmates. Use these activities to promote making friends and taking turns.
  • Consider a “buddy system” where a classmate assists the person with autism, when needed.

3. Behavior

  • Regularly teach clear, simple rules that the child can achieve.
  • When inappropriate behavior occurs, repeat the rule. Then encourage the student to engage in another activity.
  • Praise the specific behavior whenever the person does something well, such as, “Good job folding your arms, Carrie.”
  • Ignore small disruptions and consistently praise appropriate behavior and improvement.
  • Ask family members about unusual or inappropriate behavior. Parents can help you understand what the child is trying to communicate and how you can respond in a helpful way.
  • Provide frequent interaction and activity. It is unrealistic to expect a person with autism to sit for long periods and listen attentively. Don’t expect too much too soon. Patience, consistency, and caring will eventually bring progress.
  • Consider visiting the school of a young child with autism. Doing so could help you learn about the child’s abilities and effective ways to interact with him or her. You will need to ask permission from the parents and school authorities before visiting.
  • Do not be discouraged if the child wants to sit and watch and not interact.
  • Know that there will be good and bad days that may happen without warning. A good day does not mean that everything is fixed, nor does a bad day mean that all is lost.

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