As you may know, April is Autism Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 68 school aged children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States. Many of these children receive a diagnosis during the early learning years and participate in child care programs on a regular basis. It is vital that teachers and caregivers understand the characteristics of autism, as well as teaching strategies that can support children’s success in the learning environment.

Some of the most common characteristics displayed by children with ASD are contained within the diagnostic criteria. The American Psychiatric Association′s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition has recently been updated to include the following ASD diagnostic criteria:

Persistent defects in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts including:

  • Lack of social-emotional reciprocity – a child may not engage in turn-taking conversations, share interests & emotions, or initiate/respond during social interactions
  • Lack of nonverbal communication – a child may avoid eye contact, misunderstand gestures and facial expressions, not be able to interpret the body language of others, or not use facial expressions or other forms of nonverbal communication themselves
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships – a child may have difficulty making friends, adjusting to different social situations, or showing interest in peers

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities; demonstrated by at least 2 of the following:

  • Repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech – a child may wave their hands in front of their face, line up toys, spin wheels of a truck, or repeat words or phrases out of context
  • Insistence on sameness – a child may insist on a consistent routine, use the same greeting each day, eat only one type of food, or show distress if changes are made to the norm
  • Intense and fixed interests or focus – a child interested in trains may not show interest in any other topic, may discuss trains with others regardless of their interest in trains, or may become extremely attached to /focused on a particular object
  • May seek out, show sensitivity to, or avoid sensory input – a child may seek out or act to avoid sensations, smells, sounds, or visual stimuli

If you have experience working with children with autism, you may have noticed that each child is unique in how these characteristics manifest and impact children’s ability to interact and function in a classroom environment. (For even more information about ASD, consider taking the CCEI Course SPN101: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders.)

This means that we need to develop an approach to teaching that is intentional and focused on supporting the success of every unique learner in the environment. Having a clear understanding of what is known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can be extremely beneficial. UDL was developed by a group of researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in 1984. Please visit www.cast.org to see all of the resources they have developed over the years.

The 3 main principles of UDL are based on brain research and the process of learning, which is unique to each child:

  • Engagement – The Why of learning; refers to the interests, motivation, effort, persistence, and self-regulation of learners
  • Representation – The What of learning; refers to the perception and comprehension of language, symbols, and concepts
  • Action and Expression – The How of learning; refers to the students’ expression of what they’ve learned

The UDL Guidelines (available at http://udlguidelines.cast.org/) provide specific strategies that teachers can incorporate into activities and the learning environment. These strategies are designed to enhance the learning experience for all learners, including those with diagnosed disabilities, such as ASD.

We will explore these three areas of UDL in the next sections of the April 2018 newsletter below:

To view the article on Engagement – The Why of Learning, click here.

To view the article on Representation – The What of Learning , click here.

To view the article on Action and Expression – The How of Learning, click here.

To view the article on Director’s Corner – Helping Teachers Understand and Implement UDL, click here.