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Autism in the Classroom


NPR’s recent series on autism included a visit to the May Institute outside of Boston where specialized teachers work with children living with the disorder. A year’s tuition at May now runs $75,000 and parents have pushed hard for their school districts to foot the bill. Massachusetts is feeling the pinch. As the number of diagnosed cases rise—more than half a million children have been diagnosed nationally—superintendents are taking notice and preparing their teachers to work with autistic children in their classrooms. “It’s an unbelievable explosion of kids,” said Newton, Mass. superintendent Jeff Young. “It’s growing both in terms of number and severity.”

Massachusetts recently sent a group of teachers to an autism seminar at the May Institute where they watched demonstration videos of teachers in the classroom and listened to technique instruction from autism specialists. Other school districts around the country are turning to places like May to help them prepare for children who have been diagnosed—at a rate of one out of 150—with some form of autism.


My question is: why are there so many children diagnosed as autistic all of a sudden? Are children themselves changing? Or is the constant bombardment of TV, electronic games and computers taking their toll on children at earlier ages? Should we reevalutate our parenting and teaching practices of children in the 21st century? Just food for thought.

I think that autism is present at the same rate it was years ago, but it is just being diagnosed more. I have an autism student almost every year. I teach an inclusion class. Some have been severe and others are mild. I have a daughter that has autistic tendencies. She is now 24.

I worked with children with autism for four years. During that time, and since then, I have kept abreast of all current studies about autism. The reason that there are more students with autism in the classroom is because there are more children born each year with this condition. The increase is not solely due to more diagnoses. To believe that is extremely naive. Autism awareness is something for which everyone in the autistic community strives. Autism is an epidemic. To be sure, it is a polygenetic epidemic, so it cannot merely be attributed to heredity. We humans don't breed fast enough to cause the increase that we have seen in the past 5 years. That means that there has to be one or more environmental factors that trigger the condition in children who are genetically predisposed to becoming autistic. Current research has not been able to pinpoint those factors with any accuracy. Rather than blaming TV or blaming doctors for overdiagnosing the issue, our attention would better be placed on supporting autism research, so that we can put a halt to this epidemic. Otherwise, we can expect to see fully 50 percent or more of the students in every classroom with some form of autism. By the way, the difference between being diagnosed with autism and having some mild autistic tendencies is the person's ability to cope with everyday society. We could all be considered to have some tendencies, but we are not all considered to be autistic.

I know little about autism and less about medicine, but a doctor once suggested that vaccines with mercury (I think) in them might have some effect. Has anybody ever researched this, or is it yet another urban myth to scare us from following the agencies in place to care for us?

Mainstreaming is a challenge for teachers dealing with a class load of 30-40 kids. Teachers do not have the help they need in the classroom to deal with the myriad of issues mainstreaming brings about. If mainstreaming is to succeed, there needs to be 2 teachers (not TA's) in the classroom. Has anyone given this a thought.

Many people have looked at the link between the contents of vaccines and the onset of autism. The debate is not settled, but many families and some medical practitioners believe that the link is strong. Note that rates of autism in California are dropping after an astronomical rise, and this comes after themerisol was taken out of the vacccines.

As a person involved in the educational field, I feel un-educated when it comes to autism. Most of us have no training for working with students who have been diagnosed with autism which makes it even harder to work with students with a severe case of autism. I have seen students with severe autism hit, bite, pull hair, scratch, and throw heavy objects at their aids, teachers and other students. I do not feel that this form of physical abusive belongs in the schools. Often these students have demonstrated these behaviors when they were toddlers and their autism label was used as an excuse for ignoring the behavior instead of holding the child accountable and disciplining the child. At what point is the safety of the other students, within the school setting, or the people working with this aggressive behavior the priority and not the student’s rights to a free and appropriate education? The student who has been attacked, has been bitten or had a handful of hair pulled out is not getting a free and appropriate education but they do not seem to have rights that protect them. Where does one who lives in a small community, who lives over an hour away from a large city, get services to help meet the needs with this growing population?

To say that an "autism label was used as an excuse" is to show just how little you know about Autism Spectrum Disorders. Over the years I have worked with countless numbers of families, none of whom would have chosen for their child or their families to suffer through the pain and isloation that comes with an ASD diagnosois, if they were in fact given a choice. Your comment suggests that this diagnosis is some sort of escape route from responsible parenting ---- this statement could not be further from the truth. The parents of students with ASD that I have known and had the pleasure of working with deserve a medal for their dedication, strength, perseverance and love. It is our responsibility as educators to support these parents and these students, and to provide environments where students do not feel as though they need to lash out in a physical way --- clearly a desperate cry for help.

I don't have a child with autism, but I do have a child with special educational needs. I have been hearing for over a decade about how teachers "don't have the training" to "deal with" him. On the other hand, my requests to have teacher inservice written into his IEP have always been met with indignation.

CJ asks where to go for help with a child who is autistic. Assuming that this is not purely a rhetorical question, you do what parents do. You search the internet for research, you seek out training in how to respond to the student's needs, you separate fact from fiction. What you DON'T do is to state in one sentence that you have no training and then follow up by asserting that autistic students are physically abusive, or that their parents have made excuses for their behavior rather than holding them accountable (what methods have you used for holding them accountable? how is it working for you?).

Then use the research into best practice to write (in collaboration with the student's parents) an IEP that includes measureable goals AND the services that are needed to support them (how much one-on-one time is needed? what training is needed for staff to be able to deliver on the required services? is a functional behavioral assessment needed to provide clues into why the student is throwing things, or pulling hair? Is there a lack of communication skills that leads to frustration? Do other kids provoke the behavior to cause a show? Is the environment overstimulating?). When the district tells you that what the child needs is unavailable, unreasonable, or that "we don't do it that way here," back it up with your research (it wouldn't be a bad idea to become conversant with the school's responsibilities under IDEA).

Like I said, I don't have a kid with autism, nor do I have special training. But neither is this stuff rocket science. Any teacher with a degree and certification ought to be able to FIND some information on autism (or other disabilities) and methods for working with students with disabilities (here's a thought--communicate with the special educators in your district). Try listening to parents--odds are that they have some good resources to share.

If your question is sincere, I wish you good luck.

Schools are not perpared to handle autistic children in public school. The schools need to hire behavioalists and teachers with experience to work with them. It is only natual for people who have no personal contact with autistic children to think that parents are not disciplining them. You have to know the situation. You have to understand the problems with communication.

I am a school counselor in a very small,economically depressed, school. We have seen a rise in Autism w/in our district. I am looking for a place to go for resources, on meeting the educational and social needs of these students. How to appropriatly discipline the students and how to reach them academically. Where do I turn for ideas.....books, websites

I think that my daughter has mild tendecies of autism. She has a learning disability, a slight speech impairment, fine motor skills deficit,and she takes occupational therapy also along with speech therapy. She have been taking these classes 2yrs and she is now 8. By me reading alot of the info on Autism online, has helped me to better, understand, that, this, is somewhat what she has but in a mild form though. I have made an appt for her to see a Neurologist.....Will he be the one who will determine and diagnois that.... this is perhaps what she may have. I didnt notice a change in her until she turned about 4 or 5 yrs of age. Now, I believe, its more so noticeable and obvious to people. I have had Psycological reports done and all of her cognitive skills were low. But the one thing that the tests did show was that she was intellectual but had some difficulties in certain things and that she could put forth the effort but some things were just a struggle for her. Your input would be very helpful to me, as a 35 yr old, single parent of two.

Thanks, My name is April Price

I'm tremendously proud of the teaching and administrative staff I work with in their response to children with special needs. The special ed mandate of a full spectrum of services is applied here to every child regardless of giftedness or disability. And when we receive a student who has a disability with which we have little or no experience (like hearing impairment, this year) our teachers volunteer to attend meetings with specialists to learn how to adjust their teaching methods. Their positive attitudes and behaviors are reflected in the success of their students and the loyalty of the parents. The bottom line is that the kids who come to us are our kids and our responsibility -- we deal with their needs and look for their gifts. If you don't work in a place like that I would encourage you to become the change you want to see in others. They will see your success and want it for themselves.

As the parent of a gifted young man and of a high functioning but sometimes volatile autistic young man, I can testify that one's parenting is presumed to be the "cause" of one's child's actions, regardless of what biology, the environment, teasing/bullying peers, inadequate teacher preparation and limited supervision of instruction may have imposed on that child's perceptions and experiences. When my sons were young and attended different schools, it was as if I was supposed to be a different parent, depending on which school door I walked through---in spite of the fact that I was known to be a well-respected faculty member at a university! I still recall an ARD where a stiffly judgmental person commented that "We don't have 100% compliance yet."---to which I should have replied, "Well, that's obviously genetic--neither of his parents is 100% compliant either!" Similarly, when a self-important sour busybody in a grocery store suggested when she saw me coping firmly with a tantrum "You should hire a sitter when you need to shop."---I should have retorted, "Is that what YOUR mother did?"
A useful recent article is available online http://discovermagazine.com/2007/apr/autism-it2019s-not-just-in-the-head and makes the point that multiple causes may intersect, but that well-prepared teachers and clinicians who respect and work with parents make a world of difference in the outcomes.

Certainly the increasing rate of diagnoses of ASD, ADD, and ADHD probably has some of its roots in our polluted environment, corn-syrup drenched food supply, absurd focus on manufactured academic success to ensure that "all the children are above average", can sit still longer than their parents and teachers can, can stay out of trouble far better than the average politician and many other realities that did not totally enclose our existence a generation or two ago.

There are many, many resources available on the Internet, but none that live with your child 24-7 or care what happens to him/her when s/he moves on to the next phase of his or her life.

As a society, it should be unsettling to all of us that almost NONE of our teachers are cross-trained as special educators with preservice experience in working with children who have special academic and behavioral needs, nor do most beginning teachers have thorough preparation to teach culturally and linguistically different learners even though that is often over half of who comes to school in schools where beginning teachers find positions.

Likewise, we all need to understand that there is literally nothing out there nor even thought of for the soon-to-be-burgeoning population of youths we were unprepared to serve adequately when they "age-out" of the support system of public education but are neither so incompetent that they can be "warehoused" in facilities for less intellectually able forgotten ones, nor competent enough to live alone, continue in an unadapted post-secondary educational setting, nor have enough employability skills to function in a work place that provides any challenge or satisfaction.

As an urban, individualistic culture, we are ill-equipped to respond to family members we love who will need a supportive environment for the rest of their lives but who can no longer find a meaningful role helping out on a family farm where multi-generational living patterns could provide continuity as older members of the fold no longer able to do the heavy lifting (of hay bales or social/emotional/economic support for less able members of the clan), could continue in place, but with younger family members able to take on their roles.

Currently, most of the action groups trying to get resources and attention for the needs of those with ASD diagnoses and their families are stuck in the early childhood phase of trying to find chemical cures and educational solutions---which is certainly needed and appropriate. Numerous wealthy and famous families have responded to having a child with these needs by trying to solve the problems of their own child "right now". It remains to be seen whether they will tire of this as their family member ages or will continue to seek kind and generous solutions that respect the emotional needs and humanity of their own and others' grown children.

To Margo/Mom:

As a teacher of 15 yrs, I understand where the other person is coming from when he stated that he didn't feel trained to deal with autistic students.

This year I have four special needs students in my classroom of 20. One of these students has been diagnosed as a high functioning autistic student. However, his parents continuously use his diagnosis as a "cop-out" or excuse for his uncontrollable behavior. I have never dealt with parents like this before and never would have believed that they existed until now. I believe that these people are looking for a handout and truly do not want to be bothered. Even the doctor the child uses does not help. At one point we even suspected that the medication was being sold. So, even though you are a wonderful parent and you hope that all parents are just like you, the reality is, not all kids are that fortunate.

Hi Monali, I am a TA sorry.I work in the special ed. field. TA'S are are very well trained to help teach children.I enjoy my job very much and will go back to school to get my degree! Thank you!

After reading all comments from people I came to know the degree of acceptance for children with special needs. I dont answer or pay attention to ignorant and illiterate people. They dont experience the pain of a parent of a child with ASD. My heart aches when my son can't control his behaviour.He pinches, scratches, and pulls my and his sister' hair because he says something and we can't understand baecause of poor social and language skills(for three and a half years we are taking him to speech pathologists,resouse teacher, occupational therapist,and paediatrician). As a four and half year old, its hard for him to walk slow or hold hand.
As an educator I have two students 6 years old and I can help them to manage their behaviour. I try to give them lot of attention. I pair them with other students as buddies to play and learn social skills. I can see positive results. But when it comes to my own experience with my son at the end of the day he had tough time in the child care and sometimes missing doses of medicine(he has been excluded from school after two months because teacher couldn't control her anger and frustration). We are all different and need special education and trainig to work with our students and children. The last thing I will add here that if a child with ASD will know the "Consequence", he will manage his behaviour without so called "Discipline".

I'm a single parent and I have a daughter w/ autism and she is 10. It's been a battle from day one since we live in a small town. My daughter was only going to school for 2 1/2 hrs a day for 3 yrs since the special education teacher stated they couldn't deal w/ her behaviors. By the way, my daughter's vocabulary is limited to 3 word sentences but she can't express herself or carry a conversation. It just upsets me as a parent that the people who decide to go into the teaching profession can't step out of their box and ask for help or research about a student that isn't there "model student". In my profession, when there is something I don't understand, I have to research on my own to find out how to do the job or ask my collegues. Also, us parents don't expect our children to be born w/ autism or any other disability so we end up educating ourselves on the disability. Truthfully, to me it isn't a disability but a blessing since I learn more about being a better person just from my daughter. She doesn't sterotype people like us "normal people" do. Teachers who state that autistic kids don't belong in public schools but in a specialized segregated enviorment, In my opinion, you are in the wrong profession. Just remember, these kids don't request to be born this way but God gives us these children and all "different people" to help our spirits grow and be better people. Be more accepting and ask for help or teach yourself as us parents do.

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Recent Comments

  • Anna: I'm a single parent and I have a daughter w/ read more
  • a desperate mom and an educator: After reading all comments from people I came to know read more
  • barbel stephens: Hi Monali, I am a TA sorry.I work in the read more
  • longtime teacher: To Margo/Mom: As a teacher of 15 yrs, I understand read more
  • Rita Deyoe-Chiullan, Ph.D.: As the parent of a gifted young man and of read more




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