Socialization and Communication Are Key in Supporting Individuals with Autism.

By Sally Burton-Hoyle, Executive Director, Autism Society of Michigan

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurological disorder that impairs socialization and communication and may cause differences in the way an individual processes information. When a child with ASD is asked to tell about or show something that is known to be an interest, the child may seem unable or unwilling to do so. An individual’s inability to regulate his or her processing of the environment through the sensory system, including smelling, touching, seeing, and hearing, and sensitivity to external movements, are early characteristics a parent or caregiver may notice. A child may act as if he or she cannot hear or see, or sounds may seem to cause pain to the child’s ears. A child may act as if he or she does not want to be touched or held. Touch may appear to cause the child physical pain. A child may not respond to his or her name, or may be in constant motion.

A Spectrum of Symptoms

The effects of ASD can range from mild to severe, thus it is considered a spectrum disorder. For some children, socialization and communication difficulties may not be visible until they are older. They might develop language but have trouble playing with and relating to others. Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) was previously considered an “umbrella” term that encompasses a wide array of variations in the symptoms of ASD. Asperger Syndrome is commonly defined as a form of the high end of the autism spectrum. Individuals with Asperger Syndrome are often depicted as having high I.Q. but are lacking in social skills.

What Causes Autism?

There is no known cause of Autism Spectrum Disorders. One theory suggests that inappropriate responses to people and the environment, by individuals diagnosed within the autistic spectrum umbrella, may be the result of “trauma” to the portion of the brain called the cerebellum (as used here, “trauma” has no connotation of abuse). The cerebellum affects a person’s ability to regulate environmental stimuli. Therefore, according to Understanding the Nature of Autism: A Practical Guide, by Janice Janzen, trauma to the cerebellum may explain why the use of language is difficult for individuals with ASD.

Processing disturbances resulting from ASD, the movement of a thought to an action, for example, may take longer. Such a delay in processing does not necessarily mean that a cognitive impairment exists in an individual with ASD-it could mean that the person needs additional time or cues in order to process the request. While statistics show that approximately 60% of individuals with autism have cognitive impairment, this figure does not seem to address the movement disturbances and processing delays that individuals with ASD experience. Most cognitive tests are given orally, and persons with ASD typically learn best through their visual systems rather than their auditory systems.

Communication & Socialization Are Key

Regardless of where an individual is on the autism spectrum, it is best to address their socialization and communication skills. Behavior is communication. Therefore, it is imperative for individuals who cannot express themselves through language to develop a communication system. If a person’s efforts to communicate are not supported, behavioral difficulties may arise. A very important part of looking at behavior, as communication is to consider each person’s right to communicate, if an individual is unable to “talk,” then we must teach communication using pictures, words, or objects. Pictures and other visual strategies are generally successful for teaching individuals with ASD.

Emphasize Individual Strengths

If we presume competence in each individual with ASD, and provide a way for them to communicate, we will assist individuals with ASD toward finding success. To assist persons with ASD in achieving their needs-we must also think in terms of that individual’s strengths. The following practices are recommended for individuals with ASD:

  • A sensory processing evaluation by a qualified occupational therapist
  • Look at behavior as communication
  • A communication system available to each person 100% of the school day
  • Presume competence
  • Tasks broken down into small increments
  • Paraprofessionals support for students where appropriate
  • The use of a visual/picture/word schedule
  • Educational and vocational instruction in typical environments

If we work with each individual’s skills, strengths, and capacities and provide each individual with typical socialization and communication opportunities in his/her neighborhood school, the Michigan schools will surge ahead in supporting persons with autism and their families.