April is Autism Awareness Month, so we wanted to shed some light on the topic of autism.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand what autism technically is. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a group of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction. The symptoms are present from early childhood and affect daily functioning.”
For years, my mom has worked as an autism paraprofessional, working one-on-one with students who have autism. So, I decided to ask her some questions to get some perspective on what it’s like to work with autism day to day in a class setting.
What are the best ways to be proactive about identifying autism? What are some early signs that should urge you to consult a doctor?
It is so hard to say because there are so many aspects, and one or two signs don’t necessarily mean anything. It is a combination of social, emotional and cognitive delays, repetitive behavior, and little or no language and communication. It’s hard to talk about autism because it’s such a broad spectrum that you can’t quite define it. I know that there’s a technical definition, but since I’ve worked with so many different students, I’ve seen so many different things. You can have a child who is great academically but may struggle with social interaction, and then you can have another child who is great socially but may not read or communicate.
What are some ways people can ensure they are helping a family member with autism in the best way?
It would first depend on the level of the person [who is autistic]. The best thing that you can do for any person with autism is to treat him or her as an individual. You have to figure out what the behavior is, what’s causing it, and what can satisfy it. I’ve been seeing a lot online about protests against Autism Speaks, but I personally like them [Autism Speaks]. Their symbol is a puzzle piece, and that’s exactly what autism is like. Not just one thing works in all cases. I can work with 10 children with autism, who range from 5 to 18 years old, and there isn’t one answer. For each person, you would need anywhere from 12-20 interventions, because they all have different behaviors. Some of them may hit themselves or scream, so what works for person A probably won’t work for person B. That’s why I like the puzzle piece, because you have to find what fits for each individual. If two students have the same behaviors it can be for totally different reasons. One may have a sensory issue, and one may be unable to communicate, which is why you need to focus on the reason behind the behavior to then chose the correct intervention.
What are some challenges you face day-to-day in your job?
The challenge I think lies with the fact that there are so many people involved, especially in the school setting. Every student has a team, but we [people in my position] work with them day to day, so often, we know them best, but having everyone on the same page, and figuring out the best strategy can be difficult. Also getting resources we need can be frustrating, since each situation varies so much. The big one is not having the school and family on the same page. If we do certain things at school, but at home, the setting is different, that can cause a big issue because a child with autism really needs consistency.
What are a few things you would want everyone to know about autism?
I want people to realize that just because a child or adult has autism, it doesn’t make him or her less capable than anyone else. I think that, a lot of times, people assume that these individuals can’t do certain things or that if a child is throwing a fit or does not have a certain skill, that they will always be that way, but that isn’t the case. It does take a lot — what you can teach someone else in a few weeks might take a student with autism a few months or years to learn — but they can do it. Also, don’t lump all people with autism into the same category. Finally, and, most importantly, people with autism deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.