Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects the nervous system and often poses serious behavioral, social, and communication challenges. It almost always shows up during the first 3 years of a child’s life.

Autism or ASD can prevent children from developing social skills. This is partly due to the fact that children with the disorder may not be capable of understanding emotions or facial expressions in other people.

Children with ASD may:

-     Prefer playing alone

-     Not want to be touched

-     Not want to change routines

Children with ASD may sometimes seem to live in their own world. They often lack social awareness and are not interested in interactions with other children. Children with ASD like to focus on following a routine that may include normal behaviors.  They usually have problems communicating with other people, including other children. They may not start speaking as soon as other children do and they may not want to make eye contact with other people.

In most instances, there’s nothing about the appearance of these children that indicates they have autism. However, children with the disorder may behave, interact, communicate, and learn in ways that are quite different from most other people.

The thinking, learning, and problem-solving abilities can range from severely challenged to extremely gifted. Some children may require a lot of assistance in their daily lives while others require much less help.

Coping behaviours (also known as stimming) are commonly used by kids on the spectrum; they tend to repeat movements such as flapping the hands or rocking in order to calm themselves. They may also develop abnormal attachments to objects. Many people that have autism can do specific mental tasks particularly well; such as counting or mental math. Children with ASD may also remember certain things very well or excel at music or art.

How ASD Affects Development

Being on the spectrum often results in delays in the physical development of children. Developmental milestones are a sign of typical child development. Children reach dozens of developmental milestones between when they are born and when they become adults.

Early developmental milestones include rolling over, social smiles, and sitting up. Later developmental milestones include the acquisition of language, physical, social, and emotional skills, as well as intellectual abilities.

Kids that have autism usually do not reach the expected developmental milestones at the same time as their neurotypical peers. They develop at their own rate and acquire skills in a different order than we might typically expect.

For instance, a child with ASD may start using a few single words at about 12 months of age. He/she may lack the explosion of language that other children have, perhaps learning just a handful of new words every month. It might then take such a child until he/she is 3 years of age or older to start combining the words to form short phrases.

The lower brain, which is responsible for coordination and balance can be affected. The muscle tone of children with the disorder may also be different from that of other children.

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects both fine and gross motor activities. The lower brain is responsible for adjusting the looseness or tightness of muscles; sometimes this makes smooth changes and transition of muscles quite the challenge. An inability to adjust to gravity and the lack of a mental map of the body can interfere with larger motor movements. This helps explain why their movements may be slow and unpredictable. For some children, this also affects fine motor activities such as playing music, drawing, and writing.

Troubles with Social Interactions

Learning through play and social interactions is an important part of the development of any child, but children on the spectrum can find this particularly challenging. They may display a lack of appropriate interaction with family members. Difficulties in social interactions are also common.

Children with ASD may have problems making friends or even understanding the social intentions of other children. Instead, they may exhibit an abnormal attachment to objects not typically considered child-oriented.

Just like other kids they may have a strong desire to have friendships with other children, but their actions can actually drive away those potential companions. They may also exhibit a lack of awareness of personal space or even inappropriate friendliness.

Imaginative play can prove rather challenging for a child with ASD who has a very literal understanding of the world and how it operates. Within education, students are often asked to ‘imagine’ themselves being somebody else from a different time or place, which in this case is not a great exercise for every child.

It is important to accept the fact that some aspects of behavior that children with ASD exhibit cannot be changed. Instead of focusing on change, it would be better to encourage such children to learn and explore the world in a way that makes sense to them.

Social interactions might be something some children with ASD might not want, and as such, providing a safe environment for them to do something quiet, such as reading or playing on their own can be a good idea to allow them to view the world from a safe place.

Understanding Other People’s Perspectives

Understanding the perspective of other people is another critical issue. This is a skill that typically develops between ages 3 and 5. However, children with Autism can take much longer to develop this important social skill. They may find it impossible to take another person’s perspective without deliberate training on the importance of doing it and how to do it.

A complete lack of understanding of other people’s ideas and feelings, or a limited ability in this area is common. In addition, they may not fully understand how their actions and words affect others. Unfortunately, it can cause many issues for them socially since they might fail to understand that those around them might have different beliefs than themselves.

A child with ASD might struggle with anticipating the behavior of others. They might fail to understand why others become upset. The lack of understanding can lead to uncooperative behavior with those around them. In turn, that may lead to feelings of loneliness. Difficulty managing frustration and emotional regulation can similarly lead to further confusion and alienation.

How Autism or ASD Affects Learning and Education

Children with ASD or Autism may have average or above average intelligence, but the disorder may still affect learning in several ways. Some of these difficulties with learning can actually be addressed effectively, especially with early interventions. In some instances, these children possess unique strengths or abilities.

Struggles with attention, narrow focus, and communication issues all present learning challenges for children with ASD. A better understanding of how the disorder may affect learning is a key step towards addressing such difficulties. Here is a more in-depth look…

Narrow Focus

Children with ASD can focus acutely on the details but be unable to see the bigger picture. For instance, the child might recall specific details of a story shared but not the story’s main idea. They might struggle to summarize their ideas or the ideas of others. To address this, educators and parents can try putting information into a pattern to reveal the larger pattern of information as a whole.

Narrow Interests

People on the spectrum can be both focused and highly skilled in specific areas such as music or math. Unfortunately, a narrow range of interests means that engaging them in other areas of learning can be challenging. The narrow and intense interests can actually manifest in repetitive motions or play.

These kids often struggle to understand that others don’t share the intensity of their interests. And they may fail to realize that they are frustrating people by either talking extensively about or asking many questions about their interest.

Fortunately, it is possible to use the narrow interests as a launching pad for a variety of learning opportunities. Children with ASD can research their interest and learn to manage how they communicate with others about it. It can be the perfect opportunity to expand the child’s “big picture” skills by placing their interest in its larger context.

Attention Issues

Children with ASD can find it challenging to pay attention. They can be easily distracted by stimulants ranging from sounds to bright lights to the texture of their clothing and more. They can also have a difficult time focusing on information that’s outside their range of interest. Caregivers, professionals, and parents can help children with autism develop their attention skills over time.

Language Development Problems

One of the main ways that ASD affects learning is in struggles with language. Problems with speech delays and language development are often the first sign that a child might be on the spectrum. Early intervention that takes the child’s interests into account is one of the most effective ways of addressing language development problems. Caregivers, parents, and even specialists can each play a role in helping children develop their language skills.

Poor Nonverbal Skills

People that have difficulties communicating verbally usually compensate with having excellent nonverbal communication skills. Unfortunately, that might not be the case for children with ASD who may also struggle with nonverbal communication, actions such as gestures and eye contact can be difficult for them to understand.

Fortunately, nonverbal skills can be developed. In some instances, you can work with the child to develop these skills before addressing the verbal language issues. Sign language can also work as an effective alternative to verbalization.

How to Help a Child Diagnosed with ASD

Autism or ASD is a condition that lasts a lifetime and affects how a person learns and interacts with others and their surroundings throughout their life. Experts don’t know how to prevent ASD, however, identifying and treating ASD early on can reduce symptoms and enhance the normal development of the child. Most importantly it can also improve the child’s quality of life.

Kids on the spectrum can deal with a lot of stress  and so can their family. The child’s primary care provider will play a critical role in supporting the child and his/her parents. Caregivers also help parents understand treatment and how to properly care for the child.

Parents whose children have been diagnosed can do the following to help:

-     Keep all appointments with the child’s healthcare provider.

-     If necessary have the child wear a medical alert device in case they have communication problems or wander. It can also be a good idea to have him/her carry an emergency form with communication symbols and contact information.

-     Check for school resources for the child. A child’s ASD can sometimes seriously interfere with his/her ability to manage regular school settings. Fortunately, the law helps protect children with special educational needs. Talk to the child’s teacher for additional information.

-     Tell other people that the child has ASD. Work with the child’s school and healthcare provider to come up with a treatment plan.

-     Talk with the child’s healthcare provider regarding other team members that are part of the child’s care. The child may receive care from a team of professionals that may include social workers, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. The child’s care team will depend on his/her needs as well as how serious the ASD actually is.

Finally, you should take care of yourself and watch out for any signs of stress in either yourself or members of your family. The emotional and physical demands of caring for a child with ASD can be overwhelming. Let family and friends help you care for the child. A break can be helpful for you and the child. If necessary, you should get professional support too.

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