Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects an estimated 1 in 68 school-aged children. Children with this neurodevelopmental disorder learn differently than nondisabled students and can experience hardships throughout their lives if unassisted by parents, teachers, and special educators.
As a teacher, you’ve likely encountered children with ASD and potentially students who’ve yet to be diagnosed. Spotting signs of autism early gives students every chance to develop alongside their peers and live happy, fulfilling lives.
The Signs of Autism
ASD is particularly difficult to diagnose. No medical test can detect it, and it’s unlikely to cause physical symptoms. Children of all races, genders, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds can be impacted by ASD, and being a spectrum disorder, ASD affects them in different ways and to varying degrees.
General educators must be mindful that students with ASD behave differently than their nondisabled peers. In particular, they struggle with communicating and interacting with others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), people with ASD may struggle with:
- Adapting to social situations.
- Back-and-forth conversations.
- Looking at or listening to anyone talking to them.
- Making or maintaining eye contact.
- Picking up on social cues.
- Playing pretend and making friends.
- Responding to their name.
- Sharing interests with others.
- Modulating their tone and facial expressions.
- Understanding other people’s point of view.
Many children with ASD also exhibit restrictive or repetitive behaviors and are known to repeat words and phrases they hear, a phenomenon referred to as echolalia. Adhering to strict routines, they can become upset with small changes to daily life, and they can have a strong or muted reaction to lights, sounds, temperatures, and other sensory inputs.
Every Student Is Unique
ASD can have a serious impact on a child’s development, but it can also provide these young learners with intense focus and the ability to recall information with incredible detail. Visual and auditory learners, children with ASD often excel in the areas of math, science, music, or art, which goes to show that every student is truly unique and comes with their own strengths and challenges.
Hitting Developmental Milestones
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for ASD at 9, 18, and 24 or 30 months of age. Children as young as 18 months can be diagnosed with ASD, and a reliable diagnosis can be made by age two. However, teachers are often the first to recognize the signs of autism in students.
In addition to signs and symptoms, educators should be mindful of missed developmental milestones that could indicate a student may have ASD. By the time they’re entering preschool—at three and four years of age—most children should:
- Avoid danger, such as falls from a tall height.
- Comfort others who seem sad.
- Enjoy helping others.
- Seek to play with other children.
- Speak well enough to be understood.
When entering kindergarten, most students should be able to:
- Answer simple questions about what they’ve read.
- Count to 10.
- Focus on activities for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.
- Recite simple rhymes.
- Tell a story with at least two events.
Fun in the Sun
Having your students play outside is one of the best ways to watch for social, emotional, and developmental milestones. Games like follow the leader; hide and seek; and duck, duck, goose let your students engage in developmentally appropriate play, giving you an opportunity to identify at-risk students. Check out the Go Out and Play! Kit offered by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for a list of fun activities and additional resources you can use to monitor students’ development.
Intervening on Behalf of Students
If you suspect a student has ASD, your first step is to reach out to your school’s special education teacher, who can perform an initial evaluation. Depending on their findings, you may need to recommend that parents schedule a developmental screening for their child with a healthcare provider.
Parents trust you and look to you for insight into the development of their children, who spend most of the year in your classroom. No parent wants to hear that their child may be falling behind, but broaching the subject may be your best chance at ensuring a student with ASD undergoes a formal evaluation and receives the special education services they’re entitled to.
Making a Difference in Students’ Lives
The connections in a child’s brain, or neural circuits, are essential for learning and most adaptable in early life. Although there’s no cure for ASD, you can make a real difference in the lives of students through early intervention. With your help, they can learn and play alongside their friends, and as they grow older, they’ll have a better chance of avoiding depression and other behavioral problems commonly experienced by adolescents and adults with ASD.
Going Above and Beyond for Students With Disabilities
The University of Texas Permian Basin offers an online Master of Arts in Special Education, Autism Spectrum Disorders track that will empower you to enrich the lives of students on the autism spectrum. In as little as one year, you can graduate from this 36-credit online program with the knowledge and skills needed to:
- Implement evidence-based practices for teaching students with ASD.
- Create an inclusive classroom for students with disabilities, including ASD.
- Communicate intervention strategies and develop intervention plans.
Accredited by the prestigious Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), our MA in special education, ASD track will help you overcome the challenges encountered in today’s classrooms. Whether you remain in your current role or pursue a new career in special education, this degree will enable you to reach a broader range of students and help the most vulnerable among them live their lives to the fullest.
Apply to our online MA in special education, ASD track and learn to better provide for the needs of all students.