Saturday, April 11, 2009
Autism spectrum can be difficult for some to see
By Julie Deardorff
April is National Autism Awareness Month. According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a complex developmental disability affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others.1.5 million Americans are living with the effects of autism spectrum disorder and the prevalence of autism has risen to 1 in every 150 American children.
A Florida kindergarten teacher recently asked her pupils to vote on whether a 5-year-old boy should be removed from the classroom. The misbehaving child, who was in the process of being tested for autism, was ousted by a 14-2 count; he spent the day in the nurse's office.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, a mother was ticketed for ignoring a restraining order and bringing her 13-year-old autistic son to church. Church officials charged that the 6-foot, 225-pound boy was "disruptive" and his "erratic" behavior threatened the safety of others.
"We've seen the light at the end of the tunnel," is the expression some autism communities now use to describe the growing and aging autistic population. "And it's a train."
By all accounts, autism prevalence has risen dramatically. In the 1970s the neurological disorder affected an estimated 1 in 10,000 children. Today, at least 1 in 150 children - who will one day be adults - have landed on the spectrum.
Society isn't prepared to handle the increased demand for special needs. But as these types of cases show, affected children are looking to be part of the mainstream. Parents are insisting on it.
It's an understandable desire; we all want our children to have an equal opportunity in life. For example, Karen Race, the Minnesota mother, knows that some people might fear or misunderstand her son Adam, who cuts an imposing figure for a 13-year-old, is severely autistic and has limited verbal skills. But she rejected the church's suggestion that he view mass through a video feed in the church basement."There are lots of places I won't take my son if he's a distraction, such as a school play or concert," said Race. "But we're talking about mass, the source and summit of Christian life. (Excluding him) ushers in all the ways that autistic individuals are hurt and left out by society."
Children with milder forms of autism, meanwhile, such as Asperger's, often can function in a regular classroom to everyone's benefit, as long as teachers, bus drivers, aides and support staff recognize their brains are wired a little differently than "neurotypical" children. Higher-functioning autistic children are not mentally handicapped; in fact, they are often very bright.
It's easy to see how a child with autism or Asperger's could frustrate a teacher with limited or no knowledge of the disorder. Problems inevitably arise when autistic behavior is misinterpreted as willful disobedience, something that a child - or parent - can control, which may have been what happened in Florida.
Before the teacher, Wendy Portillo, held the vote, she had the boy's classmates tell him what they didn't like about his behavior, which included throwing crayons and kicking the tables while lying on the floor. Portillo told police that she believed that if the boy heard from his classmates _ rather than adults _ how his actions affected them, the lesson would finally sink in.
Autistic children vary widely in terms of intelligence and behavior. They may have difficulty relating to others, miss social cues, have trouble forming relationships and suffer from sensory overload. The very nature of the disorder makes it hard for them to understand how others feel.
This doesn't excuse unruly behavior that disrupts the class. Everyone loses when children are forced into inappropriate situations. But a little familiarity with autism might make a teacher think twice before using negative peer pressure to cruelly shame a 5-year-old in front of his classmates.
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