School can be a difficult place for children with autism. It can be particularly tricky for those who approximate typical, who seem almost to be like everyone else. These are the children who are sometimes referred to as high functioning (children with HFA-High Functioning Autism or Aspergers).
I don’t like the term high functioning, because I have noticed that it has sometimes come to imply or equate needs less support, or gets less understanding.
These children do not have less autism- they have the same challenges with joint attention, understanding nonverbal social and communication cues, (including body language, facial expression, tone, figurative language, and nuance), understanding the perspective of others, and getting it that expectations for social communication continually shift based on context. They can be brilliant with collecting and memorizing astounding quantities of static information, like listing every planet in the Star Wars realm, or knowing the exact day of the week for a certain date. In contrast, relative knowledge and dynamic situations can be very difficult indeed – in other words social communication and understanding the perspective of others.
At times I have heard the term mild autism used to describe someone, and I get that autism is considered to exist on a spectrum, but I also understand that to have the diagnosis, the features that impact the individual have hit a kind of critical mass. If that is the case, then it seems to me that we might consider looking for the commonalities with these kids. The words high functioning or mild autism seem to imply that they are less impacted by the core challenges of autism- and for these children (those with HFA and Aspergers), I cannot agree that they are less impacted.
Now, before I get people upset with me, or I am accused of being insensitive, I must agree that there are children who face more severe challenges when you consider sensory issues, language development, self-regulation, and intellectual ability, etc. However, I am not working to suggest that these children and their families do not face enormous daily challenges and obstacles. Rather, my goal is to increase autism awareness and social understanding – not to compare the challenges of individuals.
Educators understand that all children are different and yet it can come as a surprise that students with a similar diagnosis can appear so vastly dissimilar. This can even shift and change for a particular individual with autism: an intervention or strategy can work one day- but not another- or in only one environment- or with/for only one person. Additionally, the strategies that create success for one child do not necessarily work for another, and strategies that work for a neurotypical student may not be effective for a student with ASD. The world often comes at these students very unevenly- and their responses can seem uneven as well. It is sometimes stated that if you know one child with autism… you know one child with autism!
What I want to explain is that the children with autism who may not seem so obviously impacted are facing challenges which may not be easily seen or understood. The children I am noticing struggle with invisibility and with being misunderstood in this way are the ones with the high functioning label. Others may not understand the depth of their differences, and that these children are not merely being melodramatic, or manipulative, but that they are struggling with handling the social environment. They have the same challenges with perspective-taking, social thinking, joint attention, etc. as the child with with limited language – being articulate does not mitigate these challenges.
School can be stressful, and it has been my observation that it is precisely these kids, the ones who approximate typical, who are most able to see what I call The Gap. They are aware that there is a difference between them and their neurotypical peers. This awareness, combined with a multitude of other factors can set the stage for difficulties with anxiety, emotional regulation challenges, and depression, to name a few. (This is a topic for another post, perhaps.)
Our teachers need support in understanding the challenges faced by students with autism. There is an opportunity here to consider a shift in paradigms: an adoption of a stance in practice (not just theory) that recognizes that a child can be smart and still have challenges, and that in essence we need to be building a cognitive and a social ramp for our children with autism.
About Leah Kelley
Leah Kelley is a K–12 Special Needs Resource Teacher, a parent of a child with ASD, and an experienced primary teacher. She completed her Masters Degree in Education at Simon Fraser University, focusing on Supporting Educators in Understanding the Experience of Students with Autism. More of Leah’s posts can be found on her blog 30 Days of Autism, on facebook and on twitter.30 Days of Autism: http://30daysofautism.wordpress.com/ gmail: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/30-Days-of-Autism-Leah-Kelley/154311301315814?sk=wall On Twitter: @Leah_Kelley