Autism Spectrum Disorder in School

Helping Students on the Spectrum Succeed

Autism Spectrum Disorder in School

Helping Students on the Spectrum Succeed

Table of Contents

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that causes challenges with social interactions, communication, and certain behaviors. ASD is considered a developmental disorder because although it can be diagnosed at any age, symptoms typically appear within the first two years of life.1

ASD is known as a spectrum disorder because there is a wide variety in the types of symptoms and the severity of symptoms that individuals experience.1 No two people with autism spectrum disorder will have the same set of symptoms and challenges. According to the CDC, one in 59 children is estimated to have ASD, and it is four times more common in males than in females.2 While ASD is a lifelong condition that does not have a cure, it can be treated in various ways to manage symptoms. Frequently, individuals with ASD can live independent and fulfilling lives.2

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), individuals with ASD have:

  • Difficulty with communication and interaction with others
  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Symptoms that create problems with functioning in school, work, and other areas of life

What are the Signs and Symptoms of ASD?

The signs and symptoms of ASD differ from one person to the next, and individuals might exhibit more or fewer symptoms than others with ASD.1 Some of the signs and symptoms include:1

Social Communication : Interaction Behaviors

  • Lack of or inconsistent eye contact
  • Not looking at or listening to people
  • Not sharing the enjoyment of objects or activities with others
  • Failing tor respond when someone calls their name or otherwise tries to verbally get their attention
  • Struggling with making back and forth conversation
  • Talking at length about their favorite subject without noticing a lack of interest from others; or without giving others a chance to respond or contribute to the conversation
  • Exhibiting facial expressions, movements and gestures that do not match what is being said
  • Having an unusual tone of voice that may sound flat, robot-like or like singing
  • Struggling to understand other people’s points of view
  • An inability to predict or understand other people’s actions
  • Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings
  • Having trouble communicating their own feelings
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Preferring not to be touched or held
  • May be very interested in people but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them

Restrictive : Repetitive Behaviors

  • Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors
  • Echolalia: the behavior of repeating certain words or phrases
  • Having an intense interest in certain topics such as numbers, details, or facts
  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
  • Getting upset by a slight change in routine
  • Being more or less sensitive than other people to light, noise, clothing, temperature, or sound
  • Having unusual reactions to the ways things smell, taste, look, feel or sound
  • Not playing “pretend” games like other children might
  • Sleep problems
  • Irritability

Positive Symptoms or Behaviors

  • Excellent memory
  • Being able to learn things in extreme detail
  • Strong visual and auditory learning abilities
  • Excellence in math, science, music or art

How Can you Help Students with ASD Overcome School Challenges?

Positive Symptoms or Behaviors

School can be one of the toughest places for an individual with ASD to be. There are a lot of people at school, and a particular learning structure that is expected. The social communication and learning styles can be a challenge to an individual with ASD. Some of the challenges students with ASD may face at school are:1

  • Social Interaction with teachers and peers
  • Noisy or Disordered Environments
  • Intense Sensory Stimulation
  • Changes in Routines
  • Unstructured Times (e.g. lunch where the time is unstructured)
  • Organization and Schedules
  • Difficulty using a pencil and paper for writing

Overcoming Challenges

Every student deserves a learning environment that works for them. Some of the ways in which teachers and parents can help to accommodate students with ASD so that they learn in an environment that works for them are:3

  • Clearly established and ordered routines
  • Warning for changes in routines
  • Planning and practicing communication strategies and social interactions
  • Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones for noisy environments
  • Designated quite area where the student can go to take a break if needed
  • Visual schedules and graphic organizers
  • Visual or written instructions rather than auditory instructions. Many students with ASD are visual learners rather than auditory learners
  • Computer use in place of writing because many students with ASD struggle using a pencil and paper
  • Designated note taker to help students with ASD obtain all necessary information

What is an IEP and How Does it Help a Child with ASD?

IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. It is a written document that outlines a child’s particular needs and accommodations regarding their education.4 An IEP is beneficial to students with autism because it is tailored to the individual child’s needs. Every person with autism presents different symptoms and behaviors. This makes it necessary to have a plan that is individualized to meets each child’s needs. An IEP is also a legal document that outlines:4

  • The child’s individualized education plan and goals for the school year
  • Services and accommodation the child might need to meet those goals
  • A method for evaluating the student’s progress

What School Resources are Available?

An IEP is a powerful tool to support your child’s education. Other school resources that are available to help children with ASD are:

  • Social Workers
  • Counselors
  • Special Education Teachers
  • Teacher Assistants

What Government Resources are Available?

Children’s Rights

People with autism have numerous legal rights and protections. One of the basic rights that children with autism are afforded is the right to a free and appropriate education.5 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) dictates that every state must provide all eligible children with a public education that meets their individual needs.5 This law specifies that children with various disabilities, including ASD, are entitled to early intervention services and special education.5

Generally, a diagnosis of ASD will afford a child the rights that are protected under the IDEA. Under IDEA, parents of children with disabilities are treated as equal partners with teachers and schools in creating an education plan for their child.5 This allows parents to advocate for their children and make sure their children’s needs don’t go unserved. Another component of the IDEA is that children with ASD should also be afforded a school experience in the “least restrictive environment” possible, meaning that every effort should be made for the child to integrate with their peers and to be included in the school curriculum and education program.5 In other words, the intention is not to isolate children with ASD from other children; but rather create an environment conducive to their learning within the mainstream environment.

Government Programs

Early Intervention

The IDEA provides states with federal grants to implement early intervention (EI) programs.5 Any child under the age of three who has a developmental disorder or physical or mental condition is entitled to receive early intervention services at no cost.5 While early intervention services differ from state to state, some of the services available to families are:5

  • Speech and language instruction
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA)
  • Psychological evaluation
  • Family training to implement new skills
  • Family counseling

Special Education Services

After the age of three, families are entitled to special education services for their child with autistic spectrum disorder.5 Typically, special education services are offered through the school’s special education department.5 The difference between early intervention and special education services are that early intervention is focused on development whereas special education is focused on providing your child an adequate education regardless of disability or special needs. The document used to outline your child’s special education program is the Individual Education Program (IEP).5

Extended School Year

For children with autistic spectrum disorder who might experience a learning regression or a regression in skills during school vacations or throughout the year, extended school year (ESY) services may be available.5 These services are provided during summer vacation to help students with ASD to excel in their learning.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is any item, form of equipment, or technology that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.5 U.S. Federal Law requires school districts to identify in Individualized Education Programs the assistive technology that children with ASD might benefit from.5 It is important to be informed and aware of your child’s rights and to advocate for them strongly. Some of the rules and rights surrounding assistive technology are:5

What Health Insurance Resources are Available?

Health insurance and coverage when it comes to ASD and disabilities can be very complicated. Luckily, thanks to Autism Speaks, at least 200 million people now have health coverage for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).6 Depending on your type of health coverage; your eligibility for coverage and reimbursement for therapy and special education services will differ. If you are covered by a fully insured plan (state regulated), all 50 states have taken action to require the coverage of the treatment of autism, included ABA.6 If you are covered by a self-funded plan, the rules are regulated by federal law and not state law; which can impact coverage.6 As of 2014, anyone enrolled in Medicaid is entitled to the coverage of autism service in almost all states in the U.S.6 It is important to look up the type of coverage you have to determine what kind of reimbursement and coverage you or your child may be eligible for.

How can Educational Consultants Help?

A special education consultant can help be a liaison between parents and children, and schools, teachers, administrators, and more. Because it can be difficult for parents to know their children’s rights, know the law, and advocate for their children, educational consultants can help students with disabilities to receive a good education that takes into consideration a child’s individual needs. Educational consultants can be helpful in the following ways:7

How Can Case Managers Help?

A case manager is tasked with assessing, planning, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating the actions needed to meet a client’s health needs. A case manager can help a family with a member on the spectrum by guiding them through medical processes and pointing them towards the required resources. A case manager can help a family with questions, concerns, and problems that they may have. They ensure all appointments are scheduled, tests are performed, evaluations are conducted, and follow up care is being provided. They can oversee the medical care of your child with autism to make sure their needs are being met. In times where parents may be overwhelmed, case managers help advocate for children with autism and can recommend and direct parents to the best resources and help.

How Can Therapists Help?

Therapists and counseling can be useful for both children and their parents in cases of autism. For children with autism, counseling can help them to increase independence, reduce interfering behavior, teach language and communication skills They can also teach social awareness skills, and skills to help children with ASD to navigate the world.

For parents, therapists can help them to understand an autism spectrum disorder, understand their children better, and teach skills and strategies to help their children. Therapists are often frequently knowledgeable about the treatment options available for children with autism spectrum disorder and can help parents to devise a treatment plan for their child.

Support Groups for Parents with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Having a child or children with autism spectrum disorder poses unique challenges for parents who want the best for their children. Support groups can be great for connecting parents of children with autism and being able to lean on and take advice from parents who have had similar experiences. Support groups also provide countless resources for parents to educate themselves and navigate the mental, physical, financial and educational challenges presented. Some of the support groups available for parents with children with autism spectrum disorder are:

National Autism Association (NAA): The mission of the National Autism Association is “to respond to the most urgent needs of the autism community, providing real help and hope so that all affected can reach their full potential.”8 NAA helps to advocate for the autism community, conducts research, provides education and training, provides direct tools, thoughtful awareness, and hope.

AutismNOW: The mission of Autism NOW is that “The National Autism Resource and Information Center will be a dynamic and interactive, highly visible and effective central point of quality resources and information for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, their families, and other targeted key stakeholders.”9

There are numerous other support groups out there with similar missions that offer free resources and help to parents of children with autism.