Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects an increasingly large number of children (Schilling & Schwartz, 2004).
The prevalence of this disorder was previously thought to be rare but more research is showing that its prevalence was underestimated. According to 2006 statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention between two and six children out of every 1000 are affected by ASD (as cited in Goodman & Williams, 2007).
The spectrum of disorders incorporates categories of children with varying intensities of the disorder. Within the spectrum of disorders are autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome (AS), Rett’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDDNOS) (Jordan, 2005).
Children with autistic disorder have significantly challenging behaviors that impact their social interaction, cognitive functioning, physical behavior and overall adjustment in all aspects of their life, including within the school environment.
These behaviors, according to Goodman and Williams (2007) can actually frustrate their classroom experiences as well as the teachers and other students within that classroom. The most common impairments for ASD children are repetitive self-directed behavior, difficulties with social interaction and carrying out normal social relationships with peers as well as impaired language and communication functioning.
The Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, produced by the American Psychiatric Association, is the foremost authority in prescribing the behaviors that categorize mental, behavioral and psychological disorders including ASD.
According to the most recent revision of this manual, in order to be diagnosed with ASD a child has to first demonstrate six or more criteria from among groups of social, communicative or behavioral abnormalities. With respect to social activities a child can demonstrate impairments in the quality of their social interactions which may include inability to utilize nonverbal signals such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures.
They may have difficulties establishing relationships with others in their peer group. They may not demonstrate enjoyment, interest or achievement-sharing behavior such as pointing to objects that may interest someone else. They may favor being alone to participating in interactive activities such as games (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
In terms of communicative deficiencies a child may not develop language as quickly as their developmental age-group, some may not develop language at all. They may be incompetent in their speech and unable to maintain a conversation with others.
They may use certain phrases repetitively, some of which may be nonsensical and they may be unable to carry out spontaneous, make-believe play with their peers (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
In terms of behavioral patterns these children may become preoccupied with one particular activity, dedicating all their focus and attention on it to the neglect of other important activities. They may also adopt apparently useless but repetitive routines or rituals or other body movements such as twisting their hands and they may become preoccupied with specific parts of an object (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
Overall autistic children generally demonstrate interest in only a limited range of activities, do not for social relationships well and are unwilling to participate in age-appropriate games and activities (Goodman & Williams, 2007).
These deficiencies usually translate to problematic behavior in the classroom and are at risk for becoming disruptive in a classroom where the other children are not experiencing these similar difficulties. These problematic behaviors are also very difficult to control or to eliminate from the autistic child’s routine (Buschbacher & Fox, 2003, p. 217).
With the rates of autism on the increase, the challenging behaviors becoming increasingly complex and the changes in the structure of the classroom to be more inclusive (Schilling & Schwartz, 2004, p. 423), the management of these students in the classroom is a considerable challenge for stakeholders in the school environment, particularly the classroom teacher.
The deficiencies in behavior, language and social interaction of ASDs pose challenges, not only for the individual child, but also for the teacher and the other students in the class. Often teachers interpret these behaviors as indication that the child is uncooperative (Marks, et al., 2003).
That is why effective training is necessary so that teachers understand ASD and plan effective classroom management practices to minimize the problems that may arise with these students in the classroom.