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Defining the Characteristics of Autism

written by: Barbara • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 1/5/2012

Autism is defined as a developmental disorder with behavioral characteristics on a spectrum from severely impaired to gifted in development, social, academic and communication abilities. By understanding where students are on the spectrum, teachers can provide individualized instruction.

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    Autism can be characterized as a developmental disorder impacting students physiologically, socially, behaviorally, academically and within the domain of communication. It is imperative that a student's IEP (Individualized Education Plan) contain diagnostic data that defines the spectrum of impairment for each of the impacted areas and outlines the interventions.

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    Developmental Characteristics

    Children may show autistic physiological delays as early as 3 years of age, so it is important that they are seen by a physician who specializes in working with children who have autism and developmental delays.

    When children are prompted to begin speaking between 1-2 years of age, the autistic child may experience a delay in babbling the first word or mirroring back the first phrase.

    The IQ (Intelligence Quotient) for children with autism indicates that greater than 50% of them have IQs in the 50th percentile range and 20-25% have IQs in the 50-70 range and an unidentified percentage have IQs in the gifted/exceptional range.

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    Social Characteristics

    Students with autism may appear absent in direct social connections, and exhibit an awkwardness in understanding the dynamics of social engagement. Just remember, they are merely being self-protective and engaged inwardly in processing the stimulation of the social world around them.

    Typical social engagement requires eye contact, but for students with autism, there is generally a spectrum of interaction that ranges from avoidance to active engagement.

    Autistic students on the extreme spectrum of avoidance in socializing with peers should have one on one Instructional Assistants working with them to help navigate positive social engagement. Teachers can prepare a curriculum that includes role-playing and collaborative group work to help students feel social acceptance and inclusion in the classroom.

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    Academic Characteristics

    Given the IQ spectrum, teachers must incorporate the diagnostic data from each student's IEP in creating learning objectives that are accessible and equitable in meeting each student's academic needs.

    Lesson plans should include modifications if indicated to provide inclusive student performance in academic content areas. Lessons should be designed using the data from the IEP, so if students are reading at a 3rd grade level and need help understanding what is being read, then teachers can design reading strategies specific to comprehending the reading.

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    Communication Characteristics

    For autistic students on the spectrum, communication can range from being completely non-verbal and inward to being socially engaged and highly communicative.

    Social communication for students with autism can range from using gestures to get needs met to appearing to visually penetrate through the person seeking to socialize with them or provide direction and instruction.

    Teachers can provide cue cards or visual signs for students to use in the classroom to help them with communication needs.

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    Behavioral Characteristics

    According to each student's developmental ability, behaviors may range from simple isolation to extreme acting out. Autistic students may exhibit repetitive gestures or mannerisms that could provide constant distractions in the classroom, so the teacher and Instructional Assistants should help prepare the classroom for inclusion and understanding of the behavioral characteristics that may define students with autism.

    Given the range of autistic characteristics, exceptional students may exhibit off-task behavior or lead independent lives in the classroom. The IEP should provide behavioral interventions and strategies to address any behavioral issues that may present during classroom instruction or during the school day.

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    Individual Plans Can Lead to Success

    Students with autism may have one or a combination of autistic characteristics that exhibit in and out of the classroom. With proper interventions and strategies, each student can have an educational experience that is unique, engaging and successful.