by María Jose Prieto, Ph.D.
Mommy, come, hurry! –said Jimena in awe– The moon exploded!
This is how Jimena, a girl with autism, described fireworks: an exciting yet scary image for her.
For Jimena, like for so many children with autism, any daily experience may easily turn into something scary or impossible to comprehend. Often, this frustration extends to the parents, who are in constant need of modifying plans to adapt them to their child’s different needs. One of the greatest challenges for these parents is to help their children interact in the social environment in a safer manner.
Since autism was described for the first time in the mid-20th century, research continues tweaking its methods for early identification of symptoms, intervene therapeutically and, if possible, prevent the development of a more severe condition. Although we cannot yet speak of a cure, substantial progress has been made in efforts aimed at ensuring children with autism occupy a decent place in society, with equal opportunities for their development. Part of that progress is the recognition of the importance of inclusion in traditional school curricula as an alternative to programs exclusively devoted to children with autism.
According to Laura J. Hall, inclusion of these children in the traditional classroom is an efficient tool in the development of adaptation skills. Many children with autism are bullied by their classmates due to their limited social skills. This leads them to remain isolated and feel greater confusion regarding how to function socially. Offering these children the opportunity to practice their skills in a controlled environment, such as traditional schools, is a big door towards better adaptation.
To better understand the importance of the inclusion concept, the book title Child Neuropsychology recommends learning how the brain of a child with autism works. The first step is to recognize that their behavior is not the result of whims, or chaotic thought processes, but rather a type of brain functioning that responds to stimulation or relaxation needs, as well as a search for order, harmony and pleasure. It is not too different from what we all seek, except that their mechanisms are more rigid and more prone to outbursts of anxiety when faced by difficulties or unforeseen events. Contrary to what many think, children with autism do not avoid social interaction, but the negative consequences the same may bring along, given the challenge posed by an overload of stimuli their brain receives at the same time. The isolation we perceive from a child with autism is often a defense and not necessarily a lifestyle option.
Different schools in Latin America carry out innovative programs (Article in Spanish) for school inclusion (Article in Spanish) of children with autism, although they face many challenges (Article in Spanish). It is indispensable to train education professionals to have a better comprehension of the needs and the specific cognitive style of the child with autism. Insufficient access to specific educational material for the children in the classroom is also an obstacle, as well as the overload in work hours the restructuring of existing educational programs implies for teachers. Inclusion demands a gradual process for some children, while others may benefit from it at the beginning of school life. Another great challenge is the constant review of the inclusion policy. For example, sometimes there is the erroneous belief that inclusion happens when the autistic child seats to one side in the classroom with an assistant that helps the child with academic work, forgetting that a primary objective of school inclusion is to promote the independence of the autistic child.
Why advocate for inclusion?
Because children with autism deserve and may achieve a sense of belonging to a group, through a better knowledge of their emotions and the way these affect the emotions of the rest. In the same way they achieve a family identity by living in it, they can also develop a collective thought by belonging to a group. This process of knowing the emotions of others and contrast them with your own requires the exercise of focusing attention, interpreting facial expressions and deciphering body language and paraverbal stimuli (intonation, volume). Experiences in structured daily activities, such as school life, give them the opportunity to decipher the information they receive, decide how to act and observe the result of their actions. In this manner, children with autism learn to feel safe and may share their feelings, express their personality and ask questions. This practice also leads them to understand other people’s points of view and value perseverance when facing difficulties.
As in the case of Jimena and the fireworks, unknown experiences that are only perceived from afar may mean an incomprehensible explosion of stimuli that are very difficult to manage and, therefore, impossible to enjoy. Inclusion allows children with autism to experiment the challenge of social situations hand in hand with others, making them feel that they may take risks and make mistakes without this stopping them from enjoying and growing.
Do children with autism in your community have access to traditional classroom programs?
Dr. María José Prieto is a clinical neuropsychologist and her specialty is Pediatric Neuropsychology. She assesses brain functioning disorders, including development disorders and brain damage.