The first time I ever experienced someone who had autism was in the early 1980’s when I was a young teenager. My first cousin, a beautiful little boy, began to show the inability to communicate, made peculiar sounds, and had some unusual gestures. My family, not aware of his condition, always had advice for my aunt on how she could “make him normal”; however, his condition never changed. I can’t imagine the difficulties my aunt has experienced with my cousin over the years. Later, my family noticed some similar, but not as pervasive, patterns in my sister. She had peculiar mannerisms (we now refer to as stimming), repetitive behaviors, and she often blurted out for no apparent reason. It was not until much later (after she graduated from high school) that she was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. So, to say the least, I have had some experience with autism in my family.
Fast forward 20 years later…
As a school counselor, I experienced life with my first autistic student. This student had parents who were professionals (mom was an attorney and dad was a psychologist) and they let me know very early in his 9th grade year that their child had special needs, but he will go to college!!! Although I was familiar with my autistic family members, I was still very unfamiliar with the Autism Spectrum. At this point in my career, I never had to try to come up with strategies for working with a student with Autism and I often felt unprepared in helping him to become college ready. For four years, I sat through contentious IEP meetings with the parents (these meetings often lasted three to four hours), met with special education advocates, and tried to work harmoniously with his often anxious parents on post secondary plans. Although he graduated and went to a two year school (whew!), I think I could have done a much better job of working with the family to assist the student in his post secondary plans.
Since it’s Autism Awareness month, I wanted to provide some information for school counselors who may not be confident when working with students who are diagnosed with Autism, like me!
What is Autism
Okay, let me preface this by saying I am not an expert and I am sure I have left out some important information. So, please be gentle…
Now, let’s define and understand the diagnosis (with my emerging knowledge). If you have ever been in an IEP meeting, you may have heard the word Autism used to describe a student’s behavior. Many educators, who are unaware of the diagnosis, often have preconceived notions which can negatively impact their perceptions about the student. As a school counselor, it is important that we understand the definition of Autism and how it may impact the student’s educational experience. From our understanding of Autism, we then can educate our colleagues in layman’s terms.
Okay, here is the definition…
According to Autism Speaks, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) “are characterized by social interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors.” In fact, one out of every 110 children are diagnosed with ASD (American Counseling Association Conference Paper, 2012). Also, ASD now poses a “significant public health risk” as males are three to four times more likely to develop ASD than females (CDC, 2011). With increasing numbers of students being diagnosed with ASD, school counselors must have an understanding of the disorder and develop best practices for helping students in their educational plans.
Want to know more about Autism? Click the courses below.
See also Autism 101 and Autism 101
Before I get into suggested interventions, when working with students with ASD, here are some common symptoms that your students may experience (honestly, these outward signs often impact our perception that the student is difficult or peculiar). Understanding an ASD student’s behavior is an important part of knowing the daily struggles that may impact his or her educational success.
Lack of attention
If you work with students who are diagnosed with ASD and don’t feel prepared, you are in good company. Many educators often feel they do not have the training or information to serve ASD students. So, from my own struggles, I have provided some tips that may be helpful for you as a school counselor (one additional thought when reading these tips, these tips are aimed at higher functioning students on the Autism Spectrum).
Now, what you have been waiting for…
Tips for School Counselors to Help Students with ASD:
1. Train peer mentors to serve as social role models who will interact positively with ASD student(s) on a regular basis.
2. Sponsor a school club of students who want to assist and serve as social role models for students with ASD.
3. Create a peer buddy system to provide social and academic support to students with any disability.
4. Teach a social skills class during lunch or once a week to students with ASD. One program is called the FRIEND Program which is a social skills curriculum which include DVDs, activity guides, informational tips, and a lot more.
5. Increase peer advocacy to reduce incidents of bullying of students with disabilities.
6. Train ASD students in self advocacy skills which includes:
- The student speaking up for himself or herself.
- The student address needs or wishes.
- The student takes responsibility for his or her actions.
- The student knows his or her rights.
- The student knows how to get help.
11. Attend a conference to learn more information and skills.
12. Check out the resources below for more information and awareness.
ASCA Position Student on Working with Students with Disabilities
Autism Month Resources
Building an Autism Sensory Room on the Cheap
Dr. Temple Grandin
Five Ways to Support Families of Students With Autism
Resources to Calm Teens
TED Talks on Autism
Teens with Autism: Apps, Ideas for Lessons, & Common Core Reading Connections for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Developmental Delays
Web, Print, and Video Sources from Autism Speaks