As a mother of two sons with autism, my friend Laura knows the challenges that children with autism face in the classroom. The difficulty sitting for long periods of time, the shrill sound of a pencil sharpener, the smells of a new cleaner in the classroom, or a sudden change in routine can send her bright 14-year-old son into sensory overdrive.
Yet, as Laura points out, there are many children on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum who struggle through elementary or middle school undiagnosed—and are considered behavior problems when they can’t handle the social, sensory, or communication challenges of a typical school day.
This blog offers a list of “behavior checkpoints” to help teachers recognize behavior issues that may be signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and provides resources to work with parents to help these children.
What Are Autism Spectrum Disorders?
According to the national organization Autism Speaks: “Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors. However, symptoms and their severity vary widely across these three core areas.” Autism spectrum disorders include autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger syndrome.
While signs and symptoms of autism usually emerge around 18 months to3 years of age, each individual with autism is unique. Mild symptoms of autism may go unrecognized until a child is much older.
Behavior Checkpoints: Signs That a Student May Have Autism
Students on the autism spectrum may demonstrate a combination of behaviors and tendencies, such as:
- Poor eye contact
- Difficulty regulating emotions, which leads to outbursts in unfamiliar or overwhelming situations
- Disruptive and physically aggressive behavior in frustrating situations
- Compulsive tendencies, such as the need to be first (first in line, first to class, etc.) and to be time conscience (to be early or on time)
- Extreme sense of fairness
- Improper or very few social interactions
- Trouble staying on task and finishing work (easily distracted by other things)
- Difficulty losing (board games, outdoor activities, etc.)
- Can develop precocious language and unusually large vocabularies, yet have difficulty sustaining a conversation
- Inability to understand humor, sarcasm, or nonverbal communications, such as the meaning of a smile or frown
- Awkward or peculiar way of speaking (extremely loud, robotic monotone or a particular accent)
- One-sided conversations and tendency to discuss self rather than others
- Inability to understand issues or phrases that are considered common sense
- Unusual repetitive behaviors such as toe walking, hand flapping, arranging and rearranging objects, and repeating words or phrases
- Need for extreme consistency in their environment and daily routine
- Intense preoccupation, obsession, or depth of knowledge on a specific topic (anywhere from vacuum cleaners to astronomy to numbers)
Sensory Processing Problems
- Hypersensitive to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch, such as the buzz of fluorescent lighting in the classroom, the texture of fabric tags, or the smell or appearance of a particular food in the cafeteria
- Seeking out or unusual response to this sensory input
- Seemingly ordinary sensory stimuli becomes painful or confusing
If you are concerned about a student, gently communicate your concerns with his or her parents and suggest having the child evaluated by a school professional. Usually a district psychologist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist is a good place to start. Each county’s Office of Education has specialists that will do an evaluation of the child. A Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) is another great resource that supports districts to address parent or teacher concerns.
Additionally, these resources provide more detailed information for both teachers and parents:
- Organization for Autism Research: 6 steps to success for autism and Asperger syndrome in your classroom
Teachers, parents, and schools can work together to raise awareness and support children with autism.
Theresa Wooler has more than 10 years’ experience in K–6 classrooms as a parent volunteer, has taught high school English, and is currently involved in education through Evan-Moor’s marketing communications team.