Although we all know what the Autism Spectrum Disorder is, it is still very difficult to deal with these cases both for families and, within school contexts, for teachers or educators. Here I expose some of the main characteristics that children suffering from this disorder present, and I hope it serves to bring a little closer what autism means both for those who suffer from it and for those who live with it.
Since I started my project in the kindergarten, one child caught my attention above all others. He was a bit disobedient. At nap time, he was often unable to calm down and a teacher had to come over. He had a drawer with his own toys that the rest of the children were not allowed to use, and above all he got very angry if something happened against the rules. He was not able to adapt to changes and was not very flexible if a new situation or an unexpected event took place in the kindergarten. In addition, he had difficulties with language and was not able to articulate and communicate like other children his age.
Everything made sense for me when my colleagues told me that this child had a psychological disorder known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This disorder is characterized by alterations in the social, language and communication, and thinking and behavioral domains. It is important to highlight that autism is a continuum that includes a great variability, each person with ASD and its evolution is different. There are symptoms that are more stable across all ages and grades, but no two cases of autism are the same. Furthermore, autism is independent of culture, country, or socio-economic status.
Some of the early signs observable around 12 months of age in cases of autism are:
- Decreased use of eye contact (with social intention).
- Absence of orientation responses when hearing his name.
- Absence of pointing behaviour.
- Absence of object display behaviour.
Regarding communication, children with some degree of autism usually present difficulties to acquire spoken language, and once acquired, alterations in prosody (melody, rhythm, or intonation of spoken language). Besides, there is a decrease in "social talk" and difficulty to maintain a reciprocal conversation. It is important to point out as a characteristic of this disorder the literality in the comprehension of language, which can generate complicated social situations, since there is a tendency to misinterpret the message received. People with autism interpret in a literal way everything that is said to them, so they are not able to understand ironies or certain jokes that for someone who does not suffer the disorder would be easy to understand in a social situation.
In cases of autism, it is necessary a routine that can be followed, and the changes that arise in it can alter the person, giving rise to disruptive behaviours or resistance to these changes. For them, adapting to unexpected events is especially difficult. Attachment to favourite objects and repetitive patterns of rigid and limited play are common, as is the absence of symbolic play. Thus, at ages when this type of play starts to appear, in which children interact to simulate situations, objects or characters that are not present, children with autism would not participate or show any interest.
In the affective domain, they can be sometimes cold or distant, and reluctant to show affection. It is important to be aware that when a child with autism cries, he does not do it to call attention, but his affectivity can be uncontrolled and irrational in some situations, jumping from one emotional state to another without an apparent reason or in a disproportionate way. It is also particularly difficult for them to understand the emotions of others, especially if they are not clear or intense. It is believed that these affective disturbances may be due to their difficulties in understanding, cognition and social expression.
It is common for them to show hyperactivity responses to certain environmental stimuli, and the opposite to others. For example, they tend to be more sensitive to noises or lights, perceiving them more intensely, which can make them react in a way that is incomprehensible to someone outside the autistic spectrum.
In ASD cases, it is important that we provide discipline with a coherent structure, as well as early intervention involving the family to minimize tantrums, encourage social interaction and speech therapy.
Finally, I would like to add that in terms of the treatment of ASD, programmes are increasingly being developed that seek their integration in school and areas where they can develop with the rest of the children, instead of using more artificial methods that isolate and separate them from the rest, making it difficult for them to integrate into society in the future. It is important to provide school support to the child in the areas where they need it, as well as to teachers and parents, so that they can learn how to deal with behavioural problems.