For a child with ASD, school can be a scary place. There is a lot of sensory information being thrown at the child from what feels like all angles, a high level of social interaction is required, and unstructured times (such as between classes, or at recess) can leave the child feeling lost. As such, many children with ASD develop a strong resistance to attending school, and owing to the rigidity of those with ASD, it can be very hard to convince the child to do otherwise.
No parent enjoys sending their child to a place he or she hates, and every parent wants their child to succeed at school, and to enjoy it as much as possible. To that end, it’s important not to give up on the concept of a child with ASD enjoying school; instead, if your child is resisting school attendance, try the following strategies to get him or her turned around to the idea of school again:
Try to discover why the child does not wish to attend school; remember that bullying is a common experience for those with ASD, due to their socially awkward behaviour. Always begin by making sure the child is not being picked on. Also check for:
- Unstructured times being a subject of stress and confusion.
- A specific unpleasant event which the child may now be avoiding, but has been unable to vocalize (or possibly even able to identify that he or she is so upset about it). Remember that even minor events may seem very confusing or upsetting to someone with ASD.
- A lesson or class the child is struggling with. He or she may have become so frustrated at not getting it that the entire idea of school has become upsetting.
- If your efforts come up empty, contact the school to see if any of the staff have observed something that may have motivated the child’s resistance.
If your child is having a difficult time expressing his or herself, you may want to use visual supports to facilitate communication.
Most children are sponges for new information, learning rapidly about everything around them and incorporating it into their lives, often through imaginative play. For many children, social situations are no exception to this rule; they can move through peer situations easily, changing their behaviours to fit the changing milieux around them. Through experience and observation, they learn to pick up on the many subtle cues and “unspoken rules” that govern social interaction.
For a child with Asperger’s syndrome, the social world is very different place; their brains do not register this vital interpersonal information easily, particularly the more subtle forms of it, such as body language and tone of voice. Many children with Asperger’s syndrome either misread this kind of information or miss it altogether. For this reason, many children with Asperger’s syndrome appear socially awkward, and they may not behave in ways others feel are appropriate. Teaching social skills to children with Asperger’s syndrome is absolutely essential and it will help them develop proper behaviour in social situations.
In order to help children with Asperger’s syndrome learn better social skills, parents and educators must understand the unique challenges faced by children with Asperger’s, and how their brains learn differently than those of normal children. The following “problem areas” tend to have a particular impact on the learning of social skills:
- Visual spatial processing: Children with Asperger’s syndrome need things explained to them verbally, as they don’t process visual information around them easily. They will not generally observe the behaviour of their peers and mimic it, which slows social learning.
- Holistic processing: Children with Asperger’s syndrome are not “big picture” thinkers; they tend to instead hyper-focus on small details. Therefore, they often cannot read situations as whole entities, finding themselves unable to make the needed connections. Children with Asperger’s syndrome may also struggle to properly apply their past experiences to new situations, and will overly generalize situations to simplify them into something they can understand. It is also hard for children with Asperger’s to properly sense intent, leaving them both naive and prone to being inappropriately defensive.
- Abstract reasoning and problem solving: When issues arise, especially socially, children with Asperger’s syndrome often cannot think abstractly enough to solve the problems at hand (or it would take them much longer than they are likely to be allowed). They have a hard time assessing what their choices are, and selecting a specific choice that represents the best course of action. In their frustration, they can become overwhelmed and emotional.
The term “neurodiversity” was first pioneered in the late 1990’s by two forward-thinking individuals: journalist Harvey Blume and autism advocate Judy Singer. Blume and Singer both believed that the ‘Neurologically Different’ deserve their own political category, standing alongside the familiar ones of class, gender, and race and working to augment the rights and redefine common perceptions of the neurodiverse.
It was Blume and Singer’s wish to see the neurodiverse perceived in light of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They noted, for example, that those with dyslexia often show above-average visual thinking abilities and entrepreneurial knack. Those with ADHD have a penchant for creative problem solving on the fly. They are typically very imaginative and excel in holistic problem processing that is based on imagination rather than working memory. People on the autism spectrum often show an unusual affinity for mathematics and computer programming. Those who struggle with mental illness, though their challenges may be many, often come up with unique and insightful ways to cope, and frequently exhibit heightened creativity.
Those who believe in the concept of neurodiversity do not advocate ignoring the many problems and hardships faced by those with aforementioned conditions, but rather that we should not frame these conditions in the negative alone. Instead, individuals who are neuroatypical ought to be respected, celebrated, and honored for their unique skills and achievements. It should be more understood by the public at large that those who fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity are every bit as capable of achieving great things as those who are not.
The Seven Key Points of Neurodiversity:
When attempting to understand what neurodiversity is and how those with it can best adapt and thrive while remaining true to their authentic selves, it’s wise to keep the following seven points in mind:
- The Human Brain Functions Like an Ecosystem more so than like a Machine. How many times have you heard the brain likened to a computer? This is, as it turns out, too simplified a view. The brain functions more like the internet, or one of the many biological ecosystems we can observe in the natural world around us. It is a complex network of interrelated systems, all working together.
- Human Brains Exist Along Spectrums of Ability. Disability categories are not discreet entities, not boxes that entirely separate people off from the mainstream of cognitive ability. Dyslexia, for example, has been shown to be part of a spectrum that includes normal reading ability.Many people on the autism spectrum may behave and function in a way that is outwardly “normal”. Cognitive abilities like literacy, sociability, attention, and learning, all exist on spectrums, and we as people are more connected in this than we realize. There is no hard line between the cognitively “normal” and the disabled. Instead, there are many shades of grey, many different mental landscapes.
When dealing with a child on spectrum, the presence of sudden or chronic behaviours that are aggressive, odd, or socially inappropriate can present challenges one may feel ill-equipped to understand and deal with. Being prepared ahead of time can help a great deal in managing these issues in the calm, logical way. The following questions and answers cover some of the most common problems that arise with the behaviour of children (and some adults) who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):
My child’s behaviour has changed suddenly; what should I do?
First off, have the child seen by a doctor. Children with ASD sometimes can’t identify and/or vocalize their feelings, so may not be able to express the pain caused by a medical condition that has arisen quickly, making it important to rule such out.
Once medical issues have been found absent, assess whether or not changes to the child’s routine or environment have happened recently. Remember that even small changes, such as re-arranging a room or changing lighting or shampoo brands, may upset someone with ASD and bring out “coping behaviours”.
My child doesn’t understand physical boundaries and tries to hug strangers; what should I do?
Remember that social boundaries are very challenging for someone with ASD to grasp; they quickly assume what is okay at home or with friends is okay as a general rule.
To combat this, try writing a “social story” (with pictures if possible) explaining why people hug friends and family, but not strangers. A comic strip style of format is often ideal for these.
Try to teach more appropriate ways of showing affection to strangers rather than just limiting the problem behaviour, as those with ASD should be encouraged to interact socially as much as possible/enjoyable. Suggest waving to strangers instead, for example, or holding the door open for them. Reward the child for practicing these alternate skills.
Consider conducting a general social skills “training course” for the child, explaining in story form why people greet each other in the ways they do, part as they do, etc.
My child gets very anxious during breaks and at lunch hour; how do I help her deal with this?
School break times often stress those with ASD because they are both unstructured time and often involve sensory overload (noise from many children playing, lots of movement).
Consider having a support worker stay with your child during these times and structure the break time around certain games each day to create a routine.
You can also look for special support groups at the school for those with ASD that focus on teaching children social skills in a way they can handle. This way the child both develops a peer network and receives structure and support, with someone on hand to help her troubleshoot her particular issues with social interaction.
Give your child methods for indicating her distress to staff if she can’t easily vocalize it, such as stress scales, so that staff know when it’s time for a “time out” from social situations. Likewise, teach your child healthy relaxation techniques to use during these breaks, such as listening to soft music or practicing deep breathing.
If breaks are still simply too overwhelming, seek permission from the school for your child to spend them in the library or computer room.
For many people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), obsessions, repetitive behaviours, and routines that might appear overly rigid or unhealthy to neurotypical individuals are actually a source of comfort and self regulation. Like all things, however, when used too much, these behaviours may detract from other things or cause distress to the person with ASD, so understanding these needs and knowing where to draw a line is important. To help a person with ASD learn how to manage these issues, it’s vital to understand the behaviours’ function and how to respond to them.
Why People with ASD Develop Obsessions and Repetitive Behaviour
People with an ASD may have any number of obsessions (some of them as common as certain TV shows), but often they center around a “technical”, academic, or mechanical skill-set, such as computers, trains, historical dates or events, or science. Obsessions can become quite odd and particular, however, involving specifics about numbers or certain shapes (things like car registration numbers, for example, or bus or train timetables, and the shapes of body parts or stones). People with ASD can feel quite strongly about these things, no matter how mundane they may seem to others.
Children with ASD develop obsessions as they help to give them a sense of structure, order, and predictability, which counterbalances the chaos they may feel is inherent in the world around them. They also give a solid, sure base on which to begin conversations and break the ice with others. For these reasons, it’s vital to not label these obsessions as unhealthy by default, but rather to allow the child with ASD to explore them. One should try to understand the function of the behaviour and remain observant for signs of things going too far. Such signs include the seeming distressed while partaking in their chosen hobby, signs they wish to resist engaging in it but cannot (it’s become a compulsion), or signs it is making the child withdraw socially more than he or she normally would. Similarly, it may need to be managed if it becomes seriously disruptive to others.
Repetitive behaviour (such as hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, etc.) develop quite early and may likewise appear unhealthy or troubling, but serves a therapeutic role for the child with ASD. Many suffer from sensory distortions (over or under sensitive senses), so may need the stimulation or distraction this kind of activity provides.
Understanding Routines and Resistance to Change
Those with ASD often feel confused and frightened by the complexity of life around them, due to their susceptibility to sensory overload and difficulty with understanding complex social dynamics. Developing set routines, times, particular routes, and rituals to handle daily life helps the person with ASD moderate their confusion and anxiety by making the world feel like a more predictable place; as such, people with ASD develop a strong attachment to routines and sameness.
How attached the person is, and how much distress is caused by a breach in these routines, varies with the individual; he or she may be upset by minor breaks (even as small as changing activities, or the layout of a room being changed), or need a larger, more chaotic upset, such as the disruption and stress of the holiday season. As a general rule, the more unexpected the change, the more upsetting it will be; warning those with ASD about upcoming changes and keeping calendars and timetables is often helpful.
Likewise, one should expect those with ASD to rely even more heavily on their routines during times of change or stress; as with obsessive behaviours, this reliance should be allowed, but managed so it does not become unhealthy.
Behavioural difficulties are common in children who have ASD, but with the right strategies and support, they can often be mitigated through effective management. There are myriad reasons for these difficulties, such as issues with communication, sensory processing, social interaction, and balance issues which affect active play. It’s vital that parents and caregivers understand these behaviours are not their “fault”, they are merely symptoms of the underlying difficulties the child with ASD is facing.
Understanding the Causes
The root causes of behavioural difficulties are generally as follows:
Difficulties with communication: Children with ASD typically struggle with expressive language, understanding what is being said to them, and picking up on non-verbal communication cues. This can, understandably, become quite frustrating and provoke problem behaviours.
Difficulties with social situations: The difficulties presented by social situations for a person with ASD go beyond just communication; people with ASD also struggle to understand other’s points of view (inflexible in their opinions), and grasp the “unspoken rules” of social interaction that state when to, for example, end a conversation. Due to all of this, children with ASD may shun social contact, and they are more likely to experience bullying.
Difficulties with unstructured time: People with ASD have a hard time dealing with situations where there is no set schedule, as their brains have a hard time sequencing activities on their own. For this reason, children with ASD are more likely to act out during recess or other break times, as they feel confused and frustrated.
Difficulties processing sensory information: Those with ASD often have over or under-sensitive senses, leading to a tendency to get overwhelmed or to seek stimulation to a problematic degree. They may react strongly to touch, be very picky eaters, get overwhelmed by loud noises (or be unable to concentrate over background noise), etc.
Additionally, one should always remember that people with ASD do not easily adapt to change; always be on the lookout for things in their environment or schedule that have been altered, as this may trigger problem behaviours. Illness (especially seizures, which ASD individuals may be prone to) can also trigger acting out, as the child with ASD cannot easily vocalize his or her pain. Consider using diagrams to help children express where they are feeling pain.