Autism is a psychiatric disorder of childhood that is characterized by marked deficits in communication and social interaction, preoccupation with fantasy, language impairment, and abnormal behavior, such as repetitive acts and excessive attachment to certain objects. It is usually associated with intellectual impairment (thefreedictionary.com), but this is not always true. There are many different types of disorders that are often confused with autism. Autism, autistic disorder and childhood autism are easily interchangeable definitions; there is also pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In recent years the quantity and quality of research into autism and other related conditions have increased. New consistent approaches to diagnosis and more rigorous assessment methods help in deciding the type of treatment each individual child needs. This research has lead to valuable new methods that can be used to help autistic children to better understand the world around them and improve their social and communication skills.
Recent advances in the early identification of autism have presented new opportunities for early intervention and treatment. Early diagnosis helps in determining the type of treatment or method each individual child needs. There are many interventions and methods discussed in research related to teaching social and play skills to children with autism and other developmental disorders. Some examples of these disorders are: teaching isolated playing skills, such as helping an autistic child steer away from their “obsessions” (explain obsessions) and helping them understand the different functions of certain items. Other methods are script training, using peer models and using pivotal response training (Terpstra, Higgins & Pierce).
Children with autism have deficit areas that affect their lives both socially and educationally. Children with autism have to be taught differently than children without disorders because they are usually visual learners rather than verbal.
Most children engage in different types of playing patterns. One of these types of play is symbolic play, which is for example when a child uses a stick as a sword or has pretend friends. There is also functional play, which is when a child pretends to use a fake object such as plastic knives and forks and makes a pretend dinner. Finally, there is sociodramatic play, which is when a child is involved in role-playing activities. Children typically engage in this type of play with others. Children with autism often have a hard time engaging in these types of activities because of their limited verbal and social skills. This includes social cues, physical contact and the abstract nature of pretending (Terpstra, Higgins & Pierce). In symbolic play, a child who has a lock of in play skills may spin the wheels of a car repeatedly instead of rolling the car on the ground. An autistic child may play near another child or with some of the same toys, but not interact with the other child. Also, in situations where there is team play involved, an autistic child would have difficulty with this type of play because of the intense social interaction, high level of activity and specific rules.
All children have their own unique qualities and skills. This applies even more for children with an autistic disorder. Autistic children have special needs that parents and teachers alike have to consider when making emotional and educational decisions. Each teaching method may not be correct for every child, some may respond to only one, while others may respond well to intensive therapy. When determining which intervention to use, there are many important factors to consider, one being proper diagnosis of the child and their condition. Other factors are the developmental level of the child, availability of typical peers, motivational techniques, the setting and the type of play that will be taught (Terpstra, Higgins & Pierce).
Motivational factors are an important aspect when considering what teaching skills should be used with autistic children. An interaction between autistic children with either parents or teachers is usually initiated by the adults. When the adult starts the interaction then the autistic child may demonstrate social avoidance, contrary to the child being the initiator of play. One method that has been very effective in getting an autistic child to play and interact with others is using the child’s preferred topics and incorporating them to playground games. Teachers and parents can create these games by identifying a favorite movie, character or sport and making this theme the focus of the game. This strategy motivates the child to participate in the game by making their theme or “obsession’ the focus of the game, they feel like they are experts at the game (Terpstra, Higgins & Pierce). A personal theory of mine is that autistic children have some sort of part in their personality due to their condition that makes them feel they have to be in control. The reason that autistic children sometimes have bursts of anger is because they are not in control of their communication skills. They feel frustrated because they lack those social and communicational skills and therefore feel like they are not in control of their thoughts and cannot express their needs to people around them.
Teaching methods must be applied in a classroom as well as in the home. Four types of interventions have been created to teach play and communication skills in autistic children. The first one is script training. This technique is used to teach sociodramatic skills. Script training is when children are given specific roles in a given environment for different play situations. This technique is most effective when applied in small groups and its purpose it to facilitate social interaction during activities. Script training can help teach the autistic child to initiate conversation with other children.
Teaching skills taught in isolation is very important. When isolated play skills are taught it prepares to autistic children they tend to function above their level of competence. Pivotal Response Rating is an intervention method designed to be used by anyone who works or lives with an individual that has autism. This includes parents, teachers, therapists, friends and siblings. Pivotal Response Training focuses on motivation and response to various cues. The final technique that can used when teaching autistic children in the classroom is using peer trainers and peer models. In this technique autistic children interact with other children and adults in an integrated environment.
One technique that has been very effective in teaching children with autistic disorders is that of visual learning. Some children may have difficulty associating meanings of different words with verbal instructions, but this doesn’t necessarily occur when instructions take a visual form (Tissot & Evans). Visual learning exists in two forms: two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Two-dimensional learning consists of written words, icons or pictures. Three-dimensional learning involves gestures and expressions.
Visual Learners are children that process and retain information better than if it were presented in a written format, as opposed to information to information that is primarily heard. Grandin (1995) an autistic author once described what it was like to be a visual learner. He described how he thought in pictures and that when somebody spoke to him, the words were instantly ‘translated’ into pictures. He considered this a tremendous advantage. But, like autism itself, being a visual learner is not necessarily an effective learning technique for all autistic individuals.
Autistic children do not learn words just by hearing other people use them. One approach that is used to teach words is through visual strategies such as two-dimensional or three-dimensional representations, as mentioned beforehand. These can take forms of pictures, icons, cartoons, photographs or gestures. The goal of using these visual processes is to enhance the meaning of communication for the child, but every therapist must remember that this technique is not meant to substitute vocal exchange; it is simply used to facilitate language comprehension and communication. Kathleen Quill (1995, 1997, 1998) feels that autistic children have difficulty shifting their attention. This is why they are unable to follow a normally changing conversation or acquire meaning of different social events. Students who are autistic do not understand the world around them. They are at a disadvantage because they are “visual learners in a very auditory world” (Tissot & Evans). Visual strategies can help make better sense of the world around them for these disadvantaged children.
Communication is a very important aspect that must be treated when giving therapy to an autistic child. It is important to remember that these children often do not use spoken languages or visual strategies, but this does not mean that they are not communicating. Webster’s Reference Library Concise Edition, English Dictionary defines communication as “the ability to impart, to share; to succeed in conveying information…”, while other experts give communication a broader meaning: communication is the ability to let someone know your needs and desires, verbally or non-verbally.
There are various techniques that are suitable for treating children with autistic disorders. These learning and teaching techniques can be taught either individually or in groups. Sometimes what is most effective is choosing one technique and sticking to it for an extended period of time. In some cases, it is better to vary the treatment and/or use a combination of different techniques. Every child is unique. This fact is more so with autistic children. It is up to every parent and teacher to work together to find out what is best for the child and for researchers to keep contributing their findings towards more treatment options and creating awareness. No one knows for sure what causes autism. Some say it can be genetic, hereditary. There have been cases in which parents report their children having signs of autism after getting vaccinations from their doctor. For now, the answers are unclear, but with the help of parents, researchers, teachers and therapists, perhaps one day we will find a cure.