Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial. Signs of autism can now be picked up as early as one to three years of age, though it doesn't necessarily mean that just because your child shows some autistic tendencies, that they are autistic or will have difficulties for life. However, if you have a child whom you think could be autistic, the sooner they are professionally tested the better and the more targeted help there will be. It would also reveal whether the child has any other developmental conditions such as dyslexia, ADHD or speech disorders which could affect their ability to learn. It must also be remembered that no two ASD children are alike and their support needs will be very different.
If you can’t find information from your local doctor, child health services or schools, this Australian parenting site will give you some indication of what to look out for. The Spectrum's checklist (another Australian organisation) is also very good and has translation into several languages.
In Australia, ASD children may not be excluded from school - not even from normal classrooms or the mainstream curriculum, though the child’s progress may be evaluated against previous performance rather than compared to that of the rest of the class.
Preliminary studies from Norway suggest that joining mainstream classes is beneficial for autistic children without being unduly disruptive for other students. Indeed, when social behaviours for all have been included in the curriculum, teachers have had appropriate training and there are time out options, behaviour of all students improved. Alongside these developments various alternative or autism -friendly schools have also emerged and even conventional education has been made more accessible with the help of technology.
Autism – friendly Schools
There is a long list of Autism - friendly schools in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa in Autism Parenting Magazine. Wiki also has some including Pathlight School in Singapore. There may be considerable differences between these schools - presumably most offer more understanding, trained staff and individually tailored programs, but you would need to check out their websites and talk to other parents to find out which ones would be most suited to a child's needs.
Big Picture Schools
Big Picture Schools were originally developed in Rhode Island in 1998 for disengaged students, but the concept has since been adopted by other countries including Israel, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, India and China. The main difference compared to conventional schools, is that instead of having a one -size -fits -all approach, classes are tailored to the individual learner and their strengths and interests. Although there are as yet only a few such schools in Australia, a large trial involving 50,000 students is set to begin in Victoria.
Instead of spending most of their time in class, students spend more time in the community, online, with mentors or face -to -face, and simply getting more ‘real world’ experience. They retain the same teacher throughout their schooling. Though effective for children who have given up on education, such schools also benefit those who are doing well, because they encourage all students to advance at their own pace and foster greater creativity, regardless of ability.
I can hear teachers groaning now. How will we ever be able give each child individual attention? We already have too little time to do all the things we need to do now and surely it will be very expensive. The word is that it needn’t cost more than the present system, especially if lost productivity of those presently lost to the system is taken into account. One way to do this, would be to make greater use of technology which has also made great strides.
Technology to the Rescue
Firstly there are now many types of assistive technology – for example, for students who have difficulty communicating, tablets with icons, text to speech and vice versa, offer useful alternatives. Other programs teach social skills such as helping students to recognise what others are feeling – anger, sadness, being pleased or happy and so on, which many autistic children lack.
There are also now apparently some 20,000 educational Apps which could help students to learn online. Unfortunately, the only one I’m remotely familiar with is the Khan Academy which my son used some years ago to catch up on some advanced maths he needed for his Engineering Course.
This has free, graded online instruction in subjects ranging
from maths, finance, biology, chemistry, art, and history right through to astronomy and medicine in line with national curriculum guidelines.
Students at any level, not necessarily autistic ones, work at their own pace
and in their own time and cannot progress to the next level until they have
mastered the previous one.
Teachers need not fear for their jobs. With routine work and drills out of the way, teachers would be free to do the work which humans do best, such as providing encouragement and human contact to those in their care. I'm thinking here of the new fully automated model Aged Care facility in Aalborg, Denmark. While routine tasks have been outsourced to electronic monitors and equipment, no fewer humans are employed because they provide personal contact -touch, conversation, physio and other services.
One advantage of Khan Academy for example, is that teachers can monitor remotely how well the class is doing, which areas students are struggling with and who needs more help. This would enable teachers to concentrate on those having difficulty as well as removing other barriers to learning.
Children who are different, including disabled and autistic children, often come in for more than their share of bullying and ostracism - 60% of disabled children in the USA according to the clip below, compared to around 25% of other children, which is bad enough in itself, so for them, their classmates, schools and communities, I’ll include this little clip.
For tips and resources on how to prevent bullying - for schools, educators, parents and students, see the excellent Aussie The Bully Project Website. It also has information on dealing with Cyberbullying which is even more prevalent than the traditional kind.
Peer Support, Mentoring and creating an Inclusive School Culture
The I Can Network in Victoria (AU) currently provides 80 schools with face - to - face or online peer support and group mentoring for autistic students and works to create inclusive school cultures. Almost three quarters of the staff are on the Autism Spectrum. This is an excellent idea which could be adopted by other jurisdictions.
The Transition to Work and Adulthood
In addition to academic skills, communication and social skills, more emphasis is needed on preparing young ASD adults for an independent life beyond school. Autism Europe makes a number of recommendations including more training which plays to an individual’s strengths so that they can obtain higher paid employment and can participate more fully in society. Interestingly, Kahn Academy also offers some life skills such as Financial Literacy, Internet Safety and so on, but given the wide diversity of people with ASD, these must be tailor -made for each individual. More training is also needed for families and support workers.