Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. Autism Speaks continues to fund research on effective methods for earlier diagnosis, as early intervention with proven behavioral therapies can improve outcomes. Increasing autism awareness is a key aspect of this work and one in which our families and volunteers play an invaluable role. ASD affects over tens of millions worldwide. Moreover, government autism statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years. There is no established explanation for this continuing increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered.
Not long ago, the answer to this question would have been “we have no idea.” Research is now delivering the answers. First and foremost, we now know that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. A small number of these are sufficient to cause autism by themselves. Most cases of autism, however, appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development.
In the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism, a number of nongenetic, or “environmental,” stresses appear to further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is important to keep in mind that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk. As with all children, children with autism will be required to follow the early years foundation stage of education from the age of three to the end of reception year. However, children with autism have differences in their brain development and they may have difficulties in learning those skills which typically developing children learn naturally. Essentially, a young child needs to develop ‘learning to learn’ skills in order to access a curriculum – sitting for short periods, looking, listening, attention, concentration, enjoyment, simple self- help skills, eg toileting.
Cumine, Leach and Stevenson (2000) give an outline as to how this curriculum can be adapted to meet the needs of children with autism. They emphasise the child’s special needs and give hints on teaching, with case study examples.
Personal, social and emotional development : What a child learns in the early years is crucial in the development of his social competence. Specific social interaction skills need to be taught – using real social situations.
Communication, language and literacy : Similarly, the child may have great difficulty in understanding communication, verbal and non-verbal. Again, this may need to be taught.
Mathematical development : This may be an area of strength. However, mathematical experiences will need to made meaningful for the child.
Knowledge and understanding the world : The child may not be naturally inquisitive and this will need to be fostered. However, they may have extreme curiosity for certain things. Help will be needed to make sense of past, present and future events.
Physical development : Be vigilant with those children whose agility outstrips their sense of danger. Clear safety rules that the child understands will be necessary.
Creative development : Help the child reflect on previous experiences and learning and help them make connections between past and present learning. Education for all is the driving force which has made altruists and educationists realise this area of learning disability and arrange for innovative remedial measures.