Interacting with someone who is “different” can be tough even for adults. No wonder kids don’t always get it right.
But there’s no better place to learn how to manage differences than in school — especially now that many classrooms include kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Kids with ASD can have full-blown autism, a mild form called Asperger’s disorder, or something in between.
“ASD looks different in everybody,” says Leslie Speer, PhD, NCSP, a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Autism. “One child may be very intelligent and communicate well while another may have cognitive impairment and speech delays.”
What’s the big difference?
Children with ASD may seem different because:
They may not communicate like others. Some children with ASD have delays that make it difficult for them to talk or understand what others are saying. Some don’t speak at all. Others have a mechanical device to help them talk.
Social interaction can be difficult for them. Often, they struggle with interpreting nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions. They may not know how to respond appropriately to others’ feelings or how to make friends.
Their behavior may not match their peers’. Children with ASD may have intense or unusual interests. For example, one child may think or talk only about airplanes. Another may be preoccupied with a television character or a certain object, like the wheel on a toy car. Some children may have repetitive mannerisms, such as rocking or flapping their hands.
When children see someone who has these traits, it can be scary. They may not know how to respond. That’s where parents and teachers can help.
How parents can help
“Information and education go a long way,” says Dr. Speer, who has conducted sensitivity training in many school classrooms. “Whether or not you say anything, kids notice when a classmate is different. So acknowledge it.”
Talk about it. “Explain the child’s diagnosis,” advises Dr. Speer. “Give them words to use. Depending on the ages involved, you might define autism by name or simply say, ‘John learns differently.’”
Teach kids how to interact appropriately. Emphasize that interacting with a child who is different is a good thing. “If John loves trains, you might suggest that your child and his or her classmates use blocks to help John build a train,” says Dr. Speer. “People with ASD may have social challenges, but they still want friends. Sometimes they just don’t know how to initiate interaction.”
Make them feel safe. While violence is not a characteristic of ASD, sometimes an autistic child can become aggressive, especially if he or she can’t communicate in other ways. So, if your child feels unsafe around a classmate, establish a procedure for handling any incidents (e.g., advise him to tell the teacher if the classmate tries to hit him). Reinforce that adults in the room are there to keep everybody safe.
“Get rid of the unknowns,” says Dr. Speer. “That makes everyone feel more comfortable.”
Learning how to interact is good for everyone
Children with ASD can learn, grow and develop, stresses Dr. Speer. Many do become successful students and self-sufficient adults — maybe even where you work, shop or visit regularly.
In a world where people are not all the same, there’s great benefit in teaching young children how to interpret and interact with peers who are developing differently. Learning how to be around them and accept them can help reduce teasing and bullying at school as well as prepare them for life in the “real world.”