In March 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on the prevalence of Autism in the United States. Autism is identified in 1 in 68 children. (1 in 42 boys, 1 in 189 girls) This number has risen from 1 in 150 in 2000. The increase may not be that there are more people with Autism, it is actually that there is better accuracy with how the disease is diagnosed.
Some people with Autism can easily function in what many would consider “normal” life, while others with Autism may not make as smooth of a transition from the structured life of primary school and high school to the unpredictable world of higher education or even a career.
“Autism is a neuro-biological disorder,” said Rachel Smirz, a LCCC and Ashland University Partnership alumna. She is also a local intervention specialist who works with students with Autism on a daily basis. She continued, “The wires in the brain don’t connect the way they’re supposed to and can cause issues with communication, relating to others emotionally, and [can go] along with some other neuro-biological disorder such as ADHD or OCD.”
The rate of co-occurrence with other developmental disease is about 83% of the time. Even though this is true, about half of all people with ASD are described to have above average intellectual ability.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder really is a large spectrum. You have really low-functioning kids who are nonverbal who communicate with communication devices or sign language, or you have your very high-functioning kids who are very verbal and very intelligent, usually in one area more than another,” Smirz said. “I am currently working with a kid who is extremely high in math who can almost do multiplication in his head at a second grade level, but cannot read very well.”
Smirz said that students with Autism may have trouble making friends. “In a typical school setting, they would have issues relating to others and making friends would be a huge thing for them because they don’t know how to connect with people. Kids with Autism are very picture oriented. When they’re talking they see visual pictures of things. So to have a friend where you just communicate [by speaking], would be extremely difficult for them. That’s why visual schedules and visual cues are so important, it’s the main way they learn and function.”
She continued, “Idioms are a huge thing. One kid could say ‘it was raining cats and dogs,’ while the student with Autism may be picturing cats and dogs falling from the sky because they don’t understand idioms.”
Smirz said that many teachers don’t understand how to work with students with Autism. “Students with Autism do need the picture cues and visual directions. They need the teachers to slow down, not talk at a normal pace. Teach it or explain it a different way. It might take a million times but it will eventually click with the student, the teacher just needs to figure out how that student is wired.”
She made a reference to a popular television show that may help some understand Autism. “A lot of people speculate that Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” has Autism. He doesn’t know how to make friends, the friends that he does have accept him for his quirks. He is very schedule oriented. He has to have things done a certain way. Like Saturday night is laundry night, laundry has to be done every Saturday.”
There are a few effective ways to help treat some of the symptoms of ASD. There are different behavior and communication approaches, diet changes, medication which can help with some of the effects of Autism (not to treat the disorder directly), and different alternative medicine. There are things like Occupational and Physical Therapy, speech therapy, and sensory integration therapy to help when things get too loud, too bright or when they want more pressure against them. ASD students often use weighted vests to help themselves keep calm.
A lot of sensory issues go along with Autism. “If they have a sensory need, like the lights are too bright, or it’s too loud, or I can’t have this touching me, they can regulate by doing things like hand-flapping, rocking back and forth or will just shut down and not talk to anyone. This is a way that they self-stim. It is a coping strategy that they have learned so that they don’t go into a meltdown,” Smirz explained. “A lot of students have issues with identifying emotions. They aren’t sure how to feel in a certain situation and what to do when they feel that way. If they feel really angry they aren’t sure how to express that anger appropriately or how to say they’re sorry or how to come down off of that anger.”
“If you have met one person with Autism, you’ve met…one person with Autism,” Smirz said. “If you have met someone who has Autism, they don’t represent everyone who has Autism. They all have different characteristics, they all have different coping strategies and ways to calm themselves down. Not everyone will hand-flap or rock back and forth or need visual schedules but some need these strategies and use them to make it through everyday life.”