Puzzling Through New Ways to Teach Children with Autism

Find out the new ways in which teachers and therapists are helping kids with autism communicate, learn and live more independently.

By Deirdre Wilson

Fast Facts

• One in every 110 American children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

• Signs of autism are typically evident by ages 2 or 3.

• Boys are four times more likely than girls to have an ASD.

– Source: National Centers for Disease

Sixty or more years ago, if you had a child with autism, you’d likely be told to put him in a mental health institution and move on with your life. Children with the most severe autism symptoms – obsessively spinning in circles, unable to verbalize clearly, throwing tantrums and shrieking at small changes in their daily routines – baffled physicians and researchers alike.

“There was no treatment,” says Susan Wilczynski, Ph.D., executive director of the Randolph-based National Autism Center, which provides resources and best practices for treating people with the disorder. “There was just isolation, and that unfortunately continued for a long period of time.”

Today, there are many treatment options. There are also many more children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – one in every 110 children nationwide. ASD encompasses three main conditions – autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – and all of these cause serious social, behavioral and communication problems in kids and adults.

In the 1950s and ’60s, schools dedicated to teaching kids with an ASD finally began cropping up in different parts of the country – some founded by parents who were frustrated by the lack of services for their children with autism. Today, many more schools serve children with ASD specifically, with teachers, therapists and others working to help these children cope with their disorder, function in the world and, above all, learn.

It’s a tall order – one that doesn’t yield immediate results, often involves repeated trial and error, and can be discouraging for teachers and parents alike. But with autism on the rise and no cure in sight, the demand for schools and services to meet these children’s needs will continue to grow.

Whether you’re the parent of a child with an ASD or simply curious about how these children can be taught, you’ll be amazed by how far special education teachers have come.

Change the Environment, Change the Behavior

Most schools teaching children with autism base their techniques on a method that has been shown to work – Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). The idea behind ABA is to figure out how to change the environment around a child with autism so that she can express herself more successfully. It works better than simply telling the child what to do.

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