AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER
“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others.” - American Psychiatric Association (1)
THE ASD BRAIN
What makes this brain exceptional?
ASD is classified as a “neurological disorder” which affects the brain’s functioning particularly in the areas of social skills, communication, and behavior (1, see references below). As its name implies this disorder is considered a spectrum, with varying ranges of severity and functionality, which include previously separate disorders such as classic autism, Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, and childhood disintegrative disorder. Each child diagnosed with ASD “will display communication, social, and behavioral patterns that are individual but fit into the overall diagnosis of ASD” (2).
Research of the ASD brain is ongoing as the study of neuroscience continues to expand and deepen, researchers have found strong connections between ASD and brain growth and development, brain function, and genetics.
It is widely accepted that brain development in individuals with ASD is abnormal, leading to what is known as the “brain growth dysregulation hypothesis” (2). A defect in genes which control the growth of the brain are believed to be behind these findings.
Researchers have found that a rapid rate of growth takes place within the first two months and between the sixth and fourteenth months of life. This rapid growth leads to larger head measurements than those without ASD (2).
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans have shown an increase in brain tissue in the cerebrum and cerebellum but consists mostly of white matter (2).
There is strong evidence to support the role of genetics in ASD as well. Researchers currently believe that gene mutations might affect the plasticity of the brain and the functionality of certain neurotransmitters. It is also widely held that environmental factors can play a key role in the how genes are expressed, known as epigenetics (3).
“Many youth on the autism spectrum have remarkable assets which are clouded by differences. The challenge is to uncover and nurture these strengths.”
Dr. Neal Sarahan & Randy Copas, Autism Assets
for the classroom and beyond
It is crucial that teachers do everything in their power to prepare their students with ASD for changes in the routine. That being said, life happens so we cannot prepare for everything but we can use what we know about the need for routine to help students during unexpected or unplanned changes.
In action: As a special education teacher unexpected is the name of the game, so when it came to supporting my students with ASD the key was proactivity. If I knew a meeting or conference might run late I made sure to give my students a head's up the day before and even the day of if time allowed. To prepare for those unexpected times I explained, from the beginning, that there may be times I might miss a group without warning, if that happened we would practice being flexible and know that we would have group the next day. I was very adamant with my students that if I missed a group it was not because I had forgotten or did not want to see them but that another student or teacher in our school needed my support. To help make sense of this I would bring up other times when they might have needed me at a different time than our normal group time. In addition to these proactive discussions I always made sure I checked in with students later in the day to let them know why I may have missed their group. As with anything we do as teachers the key to success with ALL students is open communication and (appropriate) transparency.
ITCHING TO KNOW MORE?
Check out these additional resources...
AUTISM: SEE THE POTENTIAL
Comedian Michael McCreary offers viewers a unique perspective into the nuances of living with autism in this short film. McCreary uses his wit, charm, and personal life experiences to explore the varied characteristics of people with autism, how the autistic brain works, and many commonly held misconceptions of this disorder. One of the greatest take-aways here are the words of Dr. Stephen Shore, as quoted by McCreary, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."
In this article, from Reclaiming Children & Youth, authors Neal Sarahan and Randy Copas share the positive approach to intervention and support of children with ASD by the Monarch Institute and Starr Commonwealth. This asset-based program utilizes a “Four Core Goal structure” which specifically targets relationship development, self-regulation and self-awareness, executive functions, and academic and professional competence. While these specific programs may not be replicable in every school setting the overarching themes and perspectives taken by these educators can support the daily work we do with students with ASD in both the school and home setting.
MY THOUGHT PROCESS WHILE TRYING TO LEARN
In this short video Taylor Orns describes what it is like to learn with an autistic brain. Having autism herself Taylor is probably one of the most qualified people to explain the thought process of someone with autism and she does so in a genuine and easily understood manner, with visuals too!
HOW THE SPECIAL NEEDS BRAIN LEARNS
David A. Sousa brilliantly compiles research, strategies, and implications in the third edition of his book connecting special needs and the developing brain. Not only does Sousa investigate the ASD brain but also how learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and ADHD connect to the brain. This is a fantastic resource for both teachers and parents.
American Psychiatric Association. (2016). What is autism spectrum disorder?Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/autism/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder
Sousa, D. A. (2016). How the Special Needs Brain Learns (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hall, L. & Kelley, E. (2014, November). The contribution of epigenetics to understanding genetic factors in autism. Autism 18(8), 872-881.
Please note that the following pages titled Brain Exceptionalities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder are under construction.
New information and research have come to the attention of B.R.A.I.N.'s founder and appropriate edits are being made. The new pages will reflect a neurodiversity lens - one that sees neurobiological differences as a natural element of human diversity rather than a defect or disorder.
To curate this material appropriately takes time and thus B.R.A.I.N. is asking for your patience and understanding. The following pages will remain active during this transition as they still contain helpful information. Just please know that the current verbiage may reflect a pathologized paradigm from which B.R.A.I.N. is trying to move away.
In the meantime, to learn more about the neurodiversity paradigm, click here.