Understanding Autism For Dummies
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You can help most autistic children think conceptually by guiding them to put details together to form ideas — preferably with visual symbols. You can demonstrate abstract concepts like “more” or “less” with objects instead of explaining them in words.

To teach an autistic child fractions, for example, you can use a piece of paper or a piece of fruit that you can cut up to show quarters, thirds, and halves. And to teach the word “fraction,” you show the word with the pictorial example so that the child can form an association between the two.

Say that you want to teach an autistic child the categories of dogs. Whenever you go for a ride or a walk, point out the different types of dogs when you see them. Identify the dog as a dog and mention what kind of dog it is (bulldog, Dalmatian, and so on). State what makes it a dog and not a cat or a bird. Picture books that show many kinds of dogs may be helpful.

A person with autism functions best with literal, concrete terms, not abstractly. Explaining a concept with detailed descriptions isn’t as effective as showing a picture or the object itself. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is quite true for a person with autism. And to complicate matters, an autistic person will take idiomatic expressions like the previous quote so literally that they may ask, “What are the thousand words?”

Severely autistic children (or children with classic autism) may need to use touch as their most reliable learning method. You can walk a child with severe autistic symptoms through a new task by taking their hand and prompting them to touch the objects involved, because they may not understand the shape by sight if their visual processing is impaired.

A child with autism may also have trouble transferring a freshly learned skill, such as tying shoelaces, to a new task if you alter the situation at all. For example, if you teach a child how to tie their shoes and then give them a new pair of shoes that have brightly colored laces made of a different material, they may not be able to use the skills they recently learned to tie them. Although the two situations may seem identical to you, the autistic child doesn’t realize that the laces are still shoelaces and that they can tie them in the same way, because the laces look different than the ones they're used to.

You should also maintain touch consistency when teaching tasks such as lacing shoes to a severely autistic child. If you introduce new touches, you must take time to acclimate the severely autistic child to the change.

When introducing an autistic child to a new situation, even if only one or two details have changed, you must take care to familiarize them with new aspects that may cause confusion. If they're going to a new school, for instance, you can help by taking them there before the first day to do a walkthrough, where you explain what will happen and show them where different items are located and how to use them. Perhaps you can even arrange for them to meet their new teachers.

And always remember to be understanding and compassionate. The normal anxieties a child faces in a new situation, like the first day of school, are increased by their difficulties in transferring behaviors to new settings — settings that seem conceptually similar but appear to them to be different.

About This Article

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About the book authors:

Stephen M. Shore received a regressive autism diagnosis at age 18 months, became nonverbal, and was deemed “too sick” to be treated on an outpatient basis. Today, he’s finishing a doctoral degree focused on helping people with autism lead fulfilling and productive lives. When not teaching college-level courses in special education and teaching children with autism how to play musical instruments, he consults and presents on autism-related issues internationally. Some topics of particular interest to him include comparative approaches for helping people with autism, education, and disaster preparedness for people with disabilities. He also focuses on challenges faced by adults in terms of self-advocacy, disclosure, post-secondary education, employment, interdependent living, and relationships.
Stephen holds bachelor degrees in music and accounting and information systems from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He also holds a masters degree in music education and is on the cusp of finishing his doctorate in education from Boston University. Although he seems to spend most of his time traveling in airplanes (Boeing 747-400 preferred), he resides in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife on the rare occasions when he’s home.

Linda G. Rastelli is an award-winning journalist, instructional designer, and author with 20 years of experience in writing and designing instruction for health, education, and business topics. In her career, she has focused on making complex and technical information understandable to the layperson. Although she has covered subjects ranging from financial ratio analysis to educational reform, her most challenging inquiry to date — an undertaking that has made her other projects look like finger painting in comparison — has been autism.
Linda holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Delaware and a masters degree from Columbia University. She lives on the New Jersey coast with her husband and her cat, who have reached a blissful state of detente. She hopes to keep her day job.

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