How Autism Presents in School-Aged Children
by Randi Olivier, Nikki Tomboli, Jenna Tynes, and Arden Bordes
“Our son had just started school, and everything was going fine, or so we thought. He had a Paw Patrol book bag that he adored, like a few other kids in his class, so we just knew that he would fit right in. We loved watching Johnny get on the bus everyday as much as he loved his new Paw Patrol book bag. One month into the school year, we got a call from his teacher asking for us to meet with her for a parent-teacher conference. We could tell by the tone of her voice that something was wrong. Sure, we knew that Johnny had the occasional tantrum here and there, but overall, we thought he was adjusting well in school and making new friends. We were so happy. We went in for the conference and his teacher told us that Johnny was having difficulty keeping up with the curriculum, playing with his peers at recess, and transitioning between various activities. Walking into the conference, we never expected to receive a recommendation to get our son tested for autism, but on that day we did. To say we were shocked was an understatement. Getting a diagnosis was a long process that included hours of testing. The doctor confirmed what Johnny’s teacher suspected- our son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Hearing those words from the doctor left my husband and I at a loss for words. We did not know the next step to take or whether our son would ever be able to succeed academically or socially. As a parent, you never think this will happen to you and your child, but this is our life now. We are prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead in our son’s academic and social journey.”
As a parent of a school-aged child who has recently been diagnosed with autism, you may have experienced these same feelings. You are not alone! You may not have a clue about how the disorder will affect your child and if your child will ever be able to succeed in school. We have gathered some generalized signs and symptoms of autism in school-aged children that you and other adults in the child’s environment may notice so that, like these parents, you can prepare yourself for the academic and social journey that may lie ahead of you and your child.
ASD: WHAT IS IT?
“Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and non-verbal communication.” Individuals with ASD often exhibit difficulties in three core areas: social engagement, repetitive behaviors, and communication1. Approximately 1.5% of children are affected by autism at school-age2.
PRESENTATION OF ASD IN SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN
An individual with ASD may demonstrate communicative difficulties. Communication encompasses expressive language (what they can say), receptive language (what they can understand), and pragmatics (social skills).
Red Flags of ASD3:
- Uninterested in interacting, playing, or communicating with peers
- Disengagement during group-play activities
- May not listen to instruction or commands from authority figures
- Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
- Unmotivated to participate during learning activities at school
- Difficulties with speech and language
- Demonstration of tantrums or acting-out
- Resistance to change or change in daily routines
Some Self-Regulating Strategies3:
- Hand flapping
Some odd behaviors can be interpreted by a parent or teacher as a child acting out or misbehaving, but these behaviors are actually ways that the child attempts to communicate or self-regulate due to compromised language, social, and behavioral function caused by ASD3. Behaviors of children with autism vary among the population, but can include:
- Property destruction
- Aggression towards others
- Tantrums These behaviors may be exhibited because of social deficits, language deficits, and sensory issues secondary to autism and may contribute to limited learning specifically related to language and reading acquisition3.
CHALLENGES WITH LANGUAGE AND READING ACQUISITION
- LANGUAGE ACQUISITION Teachers and other professionals often take the child’s language skill to give an estimate of overall ability, but for children with ASD, there is a danger that a child’s school will only cater programming to their lower verbal skills as children with classic autism presentations may have more severe verbal deficits compared to their nonverbal abilities4. Some children with autism experience trouble with joint attention (“coordinating attention between people and objects”) and symbol usage (“shared meaning for symbols”). These problems impair the comprehension and expression of a person’s language subsequently impairing their reading acquisition5.
- READING ACQUISITION One academic component that is necessary for higher-level learning is reading acquisition. How a child from this population may demonstrate success in reading may look much different than a typically developing child. Some children on the ASD spectrum may show an early interest in iconic symbols, including letters and numbers. These children may eventually become early readers, often considered hyperlexic readers. Hyperlexic readers may seem very advanced in reading or decoding (sounding out the words letter-by- letter) skills for their age, but this can give a false perception that they may be comprehending more than they truly understand4.
Some children with ASD may show deficits in reading based on their academic goals being more heavily focused on functional living skills rather than reading acquisition skills or based on their level of severity. Some teachers may disregard reading completely or limit reading acquisition to sight words that are functional for safety measures (i.e. “stop”). This limits the child’s opportunity to acquire other components of reading acquisition.
A lack of “language-rich environments” within a child’s natural environment prior to beginning school may also add difficulty. Some parents may avoid providing these language-rich environments outside of their home due to safety concerns, to avoid embarrassment, or due to the exhausting demands of parenting. Just like typically developing peers, this lack of exposure puts children with autism at a disadvantage as they begin to acquire literacy skills5.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Milestones and improvements in children with autism are a result of engaging and informed parents. In order to “bridge the gap” between where your child currently is and how he or she can rise to their fullest potential, it is important to understand the resources that are available to help. Here are a few considerations to make when thinking about objectives for a child’s academic program because thriving-not just coping-is possible with an autism diagnosis.
- INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PLAN Students with ASD present teachers with some unique challenges. For students who require special services in the school setting, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) may need to be considered to address the challenges the client faces due to ASD and implement a plan to remediate them. An IEP is a legal document stating your child’s diagnosis, strengths, weaknesses, measurable goals, and provides details about the supports and accommodations that will be used to help them succeed academically. For more information on IEPs, continue learning HERE. In addition, each child’s IEP must be tailored according to the broader context of the curriculum4. Goals targeted will usually include expanding communication: what they can say and what they can understand, social interaction skills, and academic goals.
- BUILD A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM Parents and teachers must be aware of the signs and symptoms of ASD in order to identify them. It is important to consider whether or not the teacher working with the child is knowledgeable about challenges students with ASD have when it comes to learning. In addition, the teacher needs to know teaching and learning strategies that promote success with the children who have ASD despite the challenges they may face. Whenever possible the special interests of the student with ASD should be incorporated into learning. This method is considered “incidental teaching” and can be used as a motivator for the child4. If they are educated about ASD, the teachers must be patient, cooperative, and willing to work closely with the child to ensure academic success. It must be emphasized that appropriate supports and appropriate communication between professionals and parents be provided to ensure each child’s individualized needs are being met.
Autism Speaks (2012). Facts about autism. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/facts-about-autism
Hudry, K. (2015). How to spot an autism spectrum disorder in school-age children. In the conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/how-to-spot-an-autism-spectrum-disorder-in-school-a e-children-38158
Children’s Therapy & Family Resource Centre (n.d.). School aged developmental milestones. Retrieved from http://www.kamloopschildrenstherapy.org/autism-red-flags-school-aged
Volkmar, F. R., & Weisner, L.A. (2009). Working with school-aged children. In A practical guide to autism what every parent, family member, and teacher needs to know (pp. 242-246). doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2004.11.002
Laz, L.K. (2009). Teaching emergent literacy skills to students with autism. Unpublished master’s thesis, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho.