Autism is a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

The other characteristics associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual response to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance. A student who shows the characteristics of having autism after age three could be diagnosed as having autism if the criteria above are satisfied.

There are a number of disorders related to autism, referred to as autism spectrum disorder. It is a collection of syndromes and conditions ranging from the presence of few of the characteristics of autism or the characteristics are present in a very mild form. Autism, Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS are part of the autism spectrum disorder. In autism, children exhibit severely disordered verbal and nonverbal language and unusual behavior patterns. In Asperger’s syndrome, children experience nonverbal language problems, have a restricted range of interests, and good verbal language. In PDD-NOS, children experience nonverbal language difficulties, but do not meet the criteria for other PDD disorders.

What are some of the characteristics associated with autism?

Individuals with autism often demonstrate unusual patterns of learning, speech, and behavior. 80 percent of people diagnosed with autism are also diagnosed with mental retardation. Physical appearances usually are same as other typically developing children. Social interaction becomes difficult for children with autism because they have a hard time making eye contact and do not react to other people. Difficulties and delays with language and communication are the hallmark of children with autism (Hunt & Marshall, 2006).

How can we assist people with autism?

Individuals with autism will require extensive behavior support and skills instruction, and will benefit from a functional, community-based curriculum that focuses on life skills. Students with mild cognitive disabilities may progress in general education. Depending on an individual’s strengths and needs, they may receive special education services at home, special day class, pull-out services or full inclusion in general education with accommodations and modifications.

The methods used most successfully for individuals with autism are based on the principle of applied behavior analysis. Every behavior serves a function, therefore identify the function of the student’s behavior and then find an alternative behavior that serves the same function. New behaviors are taught reinforcement-based opportunities for response. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a communication system based on teaching nonverbal children to request information. Children will combine the pictures to make a sentence. One way to increase social interaction for individuals with autism is by using social stories. Gray (2003) created and social stories to address the language and social needs of verbal children with autism. It provides a self-instruction plan for the student and teaches appropriate new behavior in problem situations.

Useful Links

• National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY)

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)