About 1 in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Development Disabilities Monitoring Network. In fact, today’s statistics show that 1 to 1.5 million Americans live with an ASD—the fastest-growing developmental disability.
With the increase in children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, mainstreaming is becoming a favored educational approach for students with ASD. The reason: studies show that students with disabilities benefit from being in a general education classroom, both academically and socially.
Typically-developing students also gain from the concept of mainstreaming and inclusion. Educating non-disabled students together in a classroom with students with disabilities creates an atmosphere of compassion, tolerance and understanding. This prepares students of all abilities to function in the world beyond the classroom.
But learning this kind of compassion, tolerance and understanding doesn’t happen overnight—especially if typically-developing students are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with kids on the spectrum.
It is quite common for kids to meet someone who does not fit the mold of what they consider to be “normal” and choose to avoid or judge them. Consequently, it is important for parents to help their children learn to accept kids with disabilities, try to help them understand their differences, and ultimately recognize them as peers and friends.
The following advice can help parents teach their children about ASD—and help guide their children to open their eyes and arms to difference, and ultimately, true acceptance and friendship.
- explain to your children the ins and outs of ASD
- help your kids to understand how kids with ASD are unique
- accept their differences
- be a good friend
- assume kids on the spectrum can’t understand you
- be afraid to ask questions or ask adults for help
- judge kids with ASD because of their differences
- forget the importance of leading by example
Explain to your kids that autism spectrum disorder, also referred to as autism, is a neurological disorder that affects the way a person’s brain and body works. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that people’s symptoms and characteristics are varied, and can range anywhere on a spectrum from mild to severe.
Autism is not a disease and is not contagious. Researchers are still trying to figure out what causes the disorder. What we do know is that ASDs are almost 5 times more common among boys than girls, and ASD affects anyone, regardless of where they live, race, religion or economic status.
Children with ASD may find it difficult to manage change in their daily routine, look you in the eye, communicate, follow directions or make friends. Additionally, they may misbehave or act in peculiar manner because they have trouble controlling their behavior, understanding expectations or coping with the world around them. Some kids with ASD have sensory issues, which means they see, hear, smell, taste and feel in different ways. For example, the feel of grass under their feet may make them upset, the sound of a car horn may hurt their ears, the smell of vinegar may make them cry, or the texture of peanut butter in their mouths may make them gag.
Having ASD causes difficulties in certain areas and strengths in other areas. For example, a child with ASD may be a genius at math or trivia, but have trouble talking to friends in social situations or playing on a sports team. Becoming familiar with common ASD traits will make acceptance and tolerance easier. The following is a list of some mannerisms that kids on the spectrum tend to exhibit:
- they may stand too close while talking and not understand social cues
- may be unable to make eye contact or stare into space
- become extremely focused on one thing, such as reptiles or sports facts
- follow certain routines and get anxious about being unable to complete a routine
- repeat themselves over and over
- flap their arms and spin around
- become upset by noisy and overcrowded places
- appear uncaring and unsympathetic to others
- be unable to interpret facial expressions or sarcasm
To connect with individuals with ASD, it is important to understand, embrace and accept these differences.
Being a friend to a child with ASD means several things. It means not only accepting differences, but also joining your friend in the activities that interest him or her, such as playing video games or learning about insects. It also means trying to protect your friend from things that cause him or her to become upset, such as an overcrowded school cafeteria or loud music. Additionally, patience is vital. Always speak slowly and use simple words. Be understanding when your friend has meltdowns or acts unaware of others’ feelings and emotions.
Individuals with ASD can have communication challenges, such as difficulty with expressive communication—the ability to communicate with others using language—and receptive language—the ability to listen and understand language.
When kids have expressive communication challenges, they have trouble expressing that they think and feel. Some kids with ASD do not talk at all, while others use pictures, a small computer or electronic talking machine, sign language or gestures to communicate. It is important to remember that just because some kids can’t express themselves, it doesn’t mean they can’t understand you or are not smart, curious and interesting.
Problems with receptive communication mean that some kids on the spectrum don’t always comprehend what is being said to them. As a result, it is vital to speak slowly using simple words, do not say too much at once, do not use slang or sarcasm, and be sure to allow a lot of time for them to process your words and respond in their own way.
Asking questions leads to understanding. Remember that no question is a bad question. Spending time with individuals with ASD can be confusing, and at times, their behaviors don’t make sense. While some kids on the spectrum are whizzes at some things, they also can react peculiarly in social situations or have a hard time coping with everyday challenges, such as schedule changes, different textures or loud noises. So, it is understandable that you may have many questions or need assistance when a friend exhibits problematic behaviors, such as hitting, kicking or screaming.
Don’t shy away from kids on the spectrum because of their differences. Instead, be open to these differences. Invite your friend to play with you. Include him or her in different kinds of group activities, such as watching a sporting event or a movie. Teach your friend how to play and interact by modeling your behavior and actions. Help your friend to do things that are difficult for him or her. And join them in activities that are of interest to them because you can learn a lot from them.
Remember to lead by example. When other kids see you embracing a friend with ASD, they will follow. Be sure to always protect your friend when others are bullying or urging him or her to do something they shouldn’t be doing.
Help others learn about ASD. Share with them what you have learned about your friend, including their strengths and why they behave the way they do. Also remember that friendships are two-way streets. While your friends learn from you, you can also learn from them. For example, many kids on the spectrum have special interests and excel at music, art, math or science. Taking the time to be a true friend will allow you the opportunity to learn new things about the world around you.
While kids with ASD are very different in some ways, they are also very similar in others ways. Just like you, they want to be loved, build friendships, learn new things and spend time focusing on special interests.
Our world is made up of many different kinds of people. Embracing and accepting difference, and being open to friendships with individuals who are unique creates strength and compassion. Remember: never judge kids with ASD just because they are unlike you—and don’t forget the importance of leading by example. With your acceptance and friendship, kids on the autism spectrum can fit in, excel at school and make strong, lasting connections.