Autism spectrum disorders are developmental disabilities currently affecting approximately one out of every 88 children in the United States according to the CDC. This means that many classrooms in public and private schools across the country have at least one student with a diagnosis of autism or a related disorder. These disorders include pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s syndrome. Most children today will be friends with, or at least know, a student with an autism spectrum disorder. This means that teaching all children to show compassion and sensitivity to children with autism is an essential part of the socialization of today’s generation of students.
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Knowledge is Power
Many children, and even adults, fear what they do not understand. For many, the child with autism can seem odd, quirky and at times even scary. Meltdowns, rituals and social difficulties can be difficult for many students to understand and as a result, those same traits can lead to isolation for children with autism. Therefore, it is important that students be educated about what autism is, as well as about what autism is not. Giving compassionate and age-appropriate facts, as well as dispelling myths and stereotypes, can be very helpful in allowing a child to understand peers on the spectrum.
Presenting facts in an age-appropriate way is essential in helping students develop compassion and sensitivity. There are several books written from the perspective of a child with autism and are designed to speak to neuro-typical peers. Some of these books include I Have Autism: A Child’s First Look at Autism, In My Mind: The World Through the Eyes of Autism and My Friend Has Autism. A teacher might wish to invite the child’s parents to offer information in the child’s particular strengths and needs as well.
Focus on Strengths, Not Deficits
Many students tend to notice the obvious traits of their fellow peers. They notice that some children are shy, some are great athletes, some pick up facts easily and others may have difficulties maintaining friendships. In order to help foster an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion, focus on the strengths of the students, rather than the deficits. The child who is especially good at science should be praised for his or her efforts in science and may even be given the opportunity to help lead discussions, lessons or experiments, for example. This helps the students learn that all children have value, and that while their peer on the autism spectrum may need some social skills assistance, there are areas that the peer excels at.
Use the Buddy System
Many children with autism desire to have friends but may not have the social skills to initiate and maintain friendships. The teacher may wish to assign all students to have a buddy for a week. These buddies can help do classroom chores together, work together on certain assignments or sit next to each other at lunch. Drawing names for buddies each week helps to reduce pairing up by popularity and helps even the most reserved children feel included. By offering a buddy to each child, the student with autism won’t feel singled out and may even be able to practice new social skills with each buddy.
Many children are naturally curious and compassionate. When given accurate, age-appropriate and sensitive information, their fears and concerns about their peer’s autism symptoms may be significantly reduced. By helping neuro-typical students better understand their peers with autism, compassion, sensitivity and even friendship may develop between neuro-typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorders in the inclusive classroom.