Autistic Kids In Primary School
When “Autistic kids” reach primary school age a whole new range of questions and decisions for parents and educational staff are required. There is no one right path for autistic kids as they embark on the formal years of schooling. Autism is formally known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) simply because every “school age autistic kid” will be unique and will fall in a different spot along the spectrum. Many of the communication, non-verbal, interactional and repetitive behaviour issues identified for autism in the preschool years will continue on in the primary school period.
Deciding on a Primary School for children with Autism
One of the first and hardest decisions for parents is deciding on the right kind of schooling (special education units, mainstream, home schooling). Once this is decided, the “right school” or program for each child needs to be determined.
As autistic kids are on a spectrum some will be low functioning on primary school entry. They may still not be talking, may have low intellectual abilities have poor interaction, attention skills or have disruptive behaviours when routines and rituals cannot be followed. Other autistic kids may be high functioning in terms of talking skills, high IQ and good learning potential. These children may need a primary schooling approach that can be supportive in terms of social, friendship development and ensuring the learning environment can accommodate learning styles/needs.
Autistic kids and early literacy development in the primary school years
The ability to learn to read, spell and write will be varied for autistic kids in the primary school years. The key is to identify strengths and use these to build on new learning.
Early intervention to continue to boost language understanding and ensuring there is a means of communicating (speech, visual symbols, iPad communicators) is key for learning in the primary school setting. Goodwin et al (2017) in their study found that IQ and severity of the social symptoms of ASD were strong predictors of functioning at school age.
Lanter et al (2017) found autistic kids with typical language development achieved significantly higher scores on an emergent literacy skills than those with mild-to-moderate or severe language impairments.
Autistic kids in the primary school years may show splinter strengths as early reading skills are emerging.
However, they may not be able to functionally apply these early reading skills to more holistic skills and learning tasks. For example, an autistic kid in primary school may be able to demonstrate strong letter identification (i.e., knows the letter names) but may not be able use these to spell or read. They may learn how to read words and short text but may not understand what they have read. They may be willing to read text that matches their passions or obsessions but will not attempt “expected” classroom tasks.
Goodwin, A., Matthews, H and Smith, C. (2017). The Effects of Early Language on Age at Diagnosis and Functioning at School Age in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017 Apr 26Lanter, E., Watson, L., Erickson, K. & Freeman, D. (2017). Emergent literacy in children with autism: an exploration of developmental and contextual dynamic processes. Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch. 2012 Jul;43(3):308-24
Can Autism be diagnosed as late as the primary school years?
Children with ASD can be missed during the preschool years. Later diagnosis may occur if the autistic symptoms are subtle. The autistic signs may not have created concerns until the structured learning environment of a primary school setting has highlighted them.
Teachers may be able to identify possible autistic signs in primary school-age children. They have the experience to see the wide range of skills children can present with in a classroom. If a child is even outside this natural variation of skills, personality and anxiety levels they may ask questions as to the possibility of ASD.
As autistic characteristics include communication and social difficulties teacher may be able to see potential atypical presentations at the different ages within the primary school years. Teachers can watch children interacting together in different arenas (meeting and greeting, quiet work, group work, playground interactions). Many school-age children are referred for specialist assessment when teachers become concerned with their observations of a child’s learning, social and interactional levels.
How can SpeechNet Speech Pathology help with Autistic Kids in Primary School
No matter if a child is low functioning or high functioning SpeechNet can provide assessments and therapy programmes to support autistic kids. This can involve
- Investigations of social and interactional development and road blocks.
- It involves helping with transitions from the preschool settings to more formal learning expectations
- Assist with developing communication systems to support autistic kids within a classroom (e.g., use of visual cues of events and tasks)
- Consultations with teachers and principals to help their understanding of the strength and areas needing support for individual children with autism.
- Therapy to strengthen talking skills
- Therapy to strengthen vocabulary and language skills which can be the foundation skills for all learning
- Therapy to support emerging reading and spelling skills
- Therapy to support social communication – making and keeping friends.
- Assist in the understanding that the repetitive and restricted behaviours (e.g., flapping, noise making) may increase when the child with ASD is stressed, bored or excited
- To assist in the understanding of the types of sensory stimuli that can distract or distress a child with autistic characteristics.
- To assist the school in understanding that autistic children may not be ‘deliberately being naughty” but may be reacting to unexplained changes or anxiety. Sometimes providing small changes in classroom or school processes can assist autistic kids e.g., more time to finish tasks, opportunities of more repetition of new learning tasks, teaching vocabulary before it is integrated into a lesson, providing a retreat area (e.g., a quiet reading corner) if a child is feeling overwhelmed or sensory overload, providing visual prompts for steps and daily activities, giving warnings before transitions between tasks are required.
- Assist the school in identifying if and what kind of support may be required.
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