Early childhood educators deal with a range of abilities within their classrooms every year. When those abilities are also impacted with behavioral or developmental disorders, it affects the dynamics within the classroom. It is imperative for early childhood educators to become knowledgeable in various diagnoses so that every child’s needs within the classroom can be met.
I have been teaching young children for more than 20 years, and I have come across immense amounts of children with varying needs. Unfortunately, there were some children I dealt with where I felt completely ill prepared. There were children who had been diagnosed with certain conditions, which I did not have enough knowledge on to feel as though I was meeting their needs; there were others who had no diagnosis but exhibited unusual behaviors in which I was not familiar. The children I am referring to had, or now have, the diagnosis of conditions that fall under autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).
The children I have had in my classroom have been diagnosed with varying degrees of autism. Some of them have been mildly affected, where they had issues with forming peer relationships. These children had atypical development and behaviors that seemed unusual, but it was hard to pinpoint or concur on an underlying issue. Most of these children were not diagnosed as autistic while in my classroom; rather, as they continued through their elementary years, the impact of their condition led to further evaluations by physicians. However, I have had one child who was severely autistic and had been diagnosed prior to even coming into a public school setting. She exhibited difficulties with pretend play, socialization with others, and all communication skills (Autism, 2012). Additionally, she became extremely upset with changes in routine, did not understand others’ feelings, became aggressive with her classmates, and exhibited self-mutilating behaviors (Signs and Symptoms, 2010).
These behaviors frightened the students, causing them to avoid all activities with her; as her teacher, I became frustrated and felt helpless due to not understanding and not having the knowledge to deal with these types of behaviors. Additionally, I felt incapable of supporting the family, as I did not know where to turn myself. I spent hours researching autism and attempted various strategies within the classroom. By the end of the year, through the various strategies that were implemented, I felt as though the other children accepted her and finally felt she belonged among them. However, it is unfortunate that it took the entire year for this to occur; had I known the information when she first entered my classroom, I may have been able to meet her needs sooner.
Autism has become more prevalent than in the past, increasing in numbers over the years. Although it is unclear as to why this is the case, it may be due to the increase in the illness or to the current ability for a diagnosis to be made. Autism is classified as a developmental disability, with this condition affecting normal brain development (Autism, 2012). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have indicated that one in 88 children have been diagnosed with some form of ASD, affecting children across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups (Data & Statistics, 2013).
With the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities, such as autism, are now included within regular education classrooms. Such practices allow children with a variety of disabilities to interact and learn with typically developing classmates. Although positive outcomes have come from such inclusive environments, it has also brought questions, comments, and behaviors that reflect confusion, bias, and stereotypes from typically functioning peers (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010). Additionally, it can bring feelings of frustration and helplessness to educators and parents. The more knowledgeable individuals become, the less confusion, bias, and frustration occur, allowing everyone to work together to support the autistic child. These factors are the reasons I have chosen to do further research on autism; I want to have the knowledge to ensure I can support autistic children and their families, as well as eliminate any negative attitudes, feelings, and behaviors brought on by other children in reaction to an autistic child’s demeanor.
As an educator, I have never had any negative feelings about working with children who have been diagnosed with disabilities; rather, I have had feelings of total frustration. This frustration does not come from being unaccepting of the different ways children learn; it stems from the lack of knowledge and understanding of how to cope and deal with specific disabilities. Without personal experience with specific diagnoses, it is difficult to understand the added stress that families develop when a child is diagnosed with a condition such as autism. It is much easier on my part to research autism and gain a deeper understanding of how to implement strategies in a classroom to support the child’s needs; the more difficult part is to develop ways to support the family. Many of the questions I have in relation to ASD deals with challenges families have when they have an autistic child. As I research and conduct interviews, some of the questions I hope to find answers to are the following:
- What organizations are most helpful and supportive for families with autistic children?
- What challenges do families face when their child is diagnosed with autism?
- What sacrifices are made in families with autistic children?
- If the autistic child has siblings, how do families help the other children understand and become accepting of the behaviors? What strategies are used in the home that help with socialization?
- What biases or stereotypes have families encountered with autism?
- What positives have come from raising an autistic child?
Autism. (2012). In A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002494/
Data & statistics. (2013). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Signs and symptoms. (2010). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html