In most grammar school classrooms today, you are likely to see at least one child on the autism spectrum. The Center for Disease Control in the U.S. has changed the stats form 1:69 to 1:59 children diagnosed with autism. That is nearly 2% of the school age population!
Many neurotypical children will be sitting next to a child on the autism spectrum for the first time, and it won’t be the last time! Around age 3 social comparison starts, and children begin to intuitively recognize how others are different from them. It’s amazing how they know who the smart kids are, and who is not so smart. The preschool teacher doesn’t teach them that, they know instinctively! They learn from their environment through social comparison and mirror neurons, which are what make it possible for us to empathize and experience the emotions of others vicariously.
Here are some tips to help you talk with your children about autism and autistic classmates:
Autism is a social disability, not a disease.
People with autism are not sick, or bad, or broken or wrong. The only difference in them is that their brain processes information differently, which influences the way they think, the way they interact with others, and sometimes the way they move their body. They might behave in a way that seems odd to you, but inside they are just the same, and often they are very, very smart.
Neurological dis-regulation is part of autism, and stimming behaviors are the individual’s way of regulating themselves and returning their neurology to a state of calm.
If you see your classmate flapping their hands, chewing on their shirt, rocking in their seat, or doing some other physical gesture repeatedly, recognize that they do not feel comfortable in their own body at that moment, and it is not their fault. These movements are how they calm their body. When have you felt very uncomfortable and what do you do when you want to calm yourself down?
People with autism suffer from sensory-hypersensitivity which makes them feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
Everything is notched up ten times for your classmates with autism. So, if the something bothers you or distracts you, like the loud noises in the gymnasium, it probably bothers the child with autism ten times more. Whenever something bothers you, check to see if your friend with autism also appears uncomfortable, because he/she might be feeling the times ten factor!
People with autism process incoming data from the environment differently, and sometimes get lost in their own thoughts.
Your classmates with ASD have a different way of seeing the world. Their brain is like a laser beam, instead of a spot light like the majority of us. That means sometimes they get so deep into their own world that they don’t hear what is being said to them, or understand what you are saying the first time. You might have to ask more than once, or wait for an answer, but it doesn’t mean they don’t like you.
People with autism may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts that are not presented in black and white or linear terms. Be patient with them! Because their brain is like a laser beam, they may not always understand what you mean, so if they give you a blank stare, try explaining it another way. It may take them longer to think about what you are saying and respond than you expect from other friends.
People with autism have a full range of emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears.
Just because they have challenges in social situations or in interpersonal communications does not meant that aren’t interested in friends. They are just like you on the inside. They don’t want to be left out, teased, made fun of, or be laughed at, but because of their laser beam brain, sometimes they don’t know how to act in situations, and sometimes the really get it wrong.
People with autism do not infer information readily, do not read between the lines and do not understand many abstract concepts, so speaking in concrete terms supports their understanding.
Speak to your classmate in very specific terms because it makes it easier for them to understand.
Their life is hard, because they need to make adaptations in many areas in order to be able to function effectively, especially in the areas of motivation, social interactions, and learning.
Be kind to your classmate with ASD. People with autism are like left-handed people in a right-handed world. The world we live in was not built for the way their mind works, so everything is much harder for them than it is for you.
Autism is a social disability and difficulty with language is one of the common characteristics.
People with autism often will not seem interested in making friends or in talking with you. Don’t take it personally, and don’t ignore them. Remember that communication is very hard for them, and they may not know what to say, or be able to find the words to talk with you at the moment, but usually they still want to be liked and have friends.