Many children with autism struggle with social skills, intellectual focus, sensory deficits, communication and cognition, Diana says. "Their diagnosis should ideally be private, a detail that's kept confidential between parents and school personnel; but that doesn't mean that peers can't be informed as to the challenges a fellow student faces.
"You don't want to make it too complicated," she explains. "Children can see casts and crutches; but it can be difficult to understand that ‘John’ (for instance) is uncomfortable with intrusion into his personal space, or can't stand to eat round foods, or is easily frightened by loud noises, etc. Children, when told of these exceptions, will often be extra sensitive to them.”
"In short, the very first step to inclusion is to ask peers to be adaptable." Most of the time, they will oblige you. We've all heard - and many of us have experienced this scenario - that kids can be cruel. But cruelty usually goes hand-in-hand with ignorance. A child who teases a peer with autism often does so simply because the typically-developing child is in the dark about the special needs of his or her peer. "With noises," Diana specifies, "a child might keep yelling at a kid who exhibits noise sensitivity in order to solicit a reaction, simply because he (the yeller) doesn't understand the underlying discomfort.
"Once, you've had an open and honest discussion about the special needs of an incoming student with the rest of the class, you'll want to make some simple modifications." Here are a few examples of challenges you may face, and the ways you can solve those potential roadblocks:
- Challenge: not comfortable with messes
Solution: offer inclusive play with a No Mess Sandbox or No Mess Art & Craft Studio, rather than paint and paste
- Challenge: sensitivity to noise
Solution: encourage the use of "inside voices" at all times
- Challenge: language and communication difficulties
Solution: adopt a flash card or hand signal alternative for basic needs (bathroom, water fountain, quiet time, etc.); you can also or a Personal Communication Book
- Challenge: light sensitivity
Solution: dim the lights, or allow sunglasses with peers opting for clear lenses
- Challenge: trouble sitting still
Solution: use a visual timer or schedule that helps the entire classroom picture when it's time to eat, play, learn, go home, etc.; make Wedge Air Cushions available to the child with autism and several peers
Whatever modifications you choose, make them accessible to everyone: "Flash cards or individual chalk boards are a great way to include a child who doesn't speak easily. But make sure that you challenge all kids to write down their answers and hold them up on cards during public 'Q & A', so that John doesn't feel like he sticks out," Diana says. "One of the major benefits for children of all ability levels has been the introduction of computers into the classroom. Children who struggle with communication, handwriting, or even just need a few minutes of private time here or there during the day, can be taught to use a computer in a quiet corner of the room.
Diana suggests putting concepts in the words of children. Don't say, "John has autism." That information is not only private, but it's also confusing to kids. Instead, try "John doesn't like when you shout at him. Can you think of something you don't like? Perhaps you don't like eating peas? Walking on sand without your shoes? Taking a cold shower?"
Kids are adaptable if the tools they need in order to adapt - namely sensitivity and understanding - are easily available to them.
Modifications for Children with Autism
The child who is most different than the rest usually has the hardest time adapting to an inclusive environment. Any child with special needs will have obstacles to overcome as he or she enters the typical classroom.
For instance, many children who can keep up with the learning process - often exceeding the speed of their peers - struggle to allow their peers the opportunity to participate. "John may be a boy who's always shouting answers out of turn. In this case, John has to learn that he must raise his hand and wait to be called upon. Or, you can encourage his waiting, by asking him to speak second, third or fourth if he knows the answer to a question. This way, he avoids alienating his peers and even discouraging their participation.
"One of the things that is very helpful for children with social challenges is video modeling," Diana says. "This is where you can introduce a concept like controlling your temper, and the child can watch an enactment on video before trying to keep his cool with his peers."
Another effective technique can be introducing “first and then” scenarios. “Tell ‘John’ that he can answer a question if FIRST he raises his hand and THEN he is called upon by the teacher. Or tell him that he can touch another student or teacher on the hand if FIRST he asks for permission and THEN receives a 'yes' answer.”
"The bottom line for making and keeping an inclusive classroom is understanding the needs of the child with autism and then effectively communicating those needs to his peers," Diana explains. "And the benefits to both groups, those with challenges big and small, is that they all learn to get along with different people at a very young age.
"And let's face it," she adds, "we all can use a little sensitivity and adaptability on the part of our peers now and again."
About Diana H., COTA, Senior Brand Manager for Giant Leaps
Diana has been a member of the FlagHouse team for seven years and currently serves as the Senior Brand Manager of Special Needs. As a certified occupational therapy assistant with more than a decade of experience, she worked extensively with children and specifically with children with autism. Diana is proud to be a member of the Special Olympics Young Athletes™ Advisory Board and a past recipient of the Sensory Processing Disorders Foundation's "Sensational Business Member of the Year" award.
About FlagHouse Inc.
With operations in the United States and Canada, FlagHouse offers more than 20,000 products. It has served public and private sectors for over 50 years, including: schools, parks, community centers, healthcare organizations, day treatment and residential care centers, military bases, and individuals. Catalogs include Flying Start™ (ages 5 and under), Giant Leaps™ (ages 5-20), Going Strong™ (ages 21 and over), PE & Rec, and CATCH® (Coordinated Approach to Child Health). For more information please call 1-800-265-6900 or visit www.Flaghouse.com.