Scott Young, Staff Reporter
In recognition of Autism Awareness month, the JSU School of Education hosted a Lunch and Learn in the Houston Cole Library on Tuesday to discuss autism and combat some of the misconceptions surrounding what many describe as the “least understood mental disorder”.
Instructors from the School of Education joined teaching candidates majoring in special education and early childhood/elementary education to discuss about different strategies for interacting with students with autism and to dispel misconceptions about the mental disorder.
Mrs. Valerie Wheat, an instructor for JSU’s School of Education, began the luncheon by overviewing the history of autism and scientific discoveries that culminated our present understanding of autism.
“In the 1960’s, there was a period of time where Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (a child psychologist) claimed that autism was caused by mothers, and he called them ‘refrigerator mothers’,” said Wheat. “The premise for that was that mothers who didn’t bond with their infant child and were detached caused the autism. Thankfully, we now know that mothers do not cause autism.”
Wheat goes on to show figures from the Centers for Disease Control which show that the rate in which autism is prevalent in children has grown. In 2000, 1 in 150 children were found to have autism, compared to the year 2014, where it has grown to 1 in 59.
Wheat presented a definition of autism, per Autism Speaks, as “A broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as unique strengths and differences. We know that there is not one autism, but many times caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences.”
“The reason I picked this particular definition is because I like to think in terms of a growth mentality. I like for us to think about the strengths of those with autism and not just focus on what they can’t do,” said Wheat. “Let’s focus on their unique talents, gifts, and abilities.”
The first two students to speak discussed strategies regarding interaction and communication with kids with autism, particularly in the classroom.
“Students with autism spectrum disorder often times have problems with communicating. They don’t like to talk in front of people or communicate and socialize with people sometimes,” said Kaylie Edwards. “We need to implement strategies in our classrooms to help these students.”
Edwards goes on to say that people with autism do not understand idioms or figurative language such as “raining cats and dogs” because their minds often interpret things very literally. You should be more clear, concise, and to the point when interacting with someone who has autism, Edwards says.
The second pair of students overviewed the sensory aspect of autism spectrum disorder and the sensory issues that accompany autism.
“They may like very hot showers or very cold showers, because they don’t process their senses the same way that we do,” says Heather Newman. “They may enjoy the sensation of rocking in a rocking chair because it soothes them.”
Newman talks about implementing sensory diets with children with autism to help with overstimulation or understimulation to ease sensory issues. Often times, it includes regularly scheduled activities such as movement, smelling, tasting, and chewing.
Both Cassidy Romans and Jordan Moorer talked about giving respect to those that have autism and some of the social aspects surrounding autism.
“Instead of saying ‘Pete is autistic’, you would say ‘Pete has autism’,” said Romans. “We don’t want to define them by their disability. We want to say that’s something they have, not something that defines them.
Lastly, Mrs. Aimee Weathers, an instructor for the School of Education, and Emily Robertson, a student studying early childhood and elementary education, talked about how using iPads can actually help give voice to non-verbal children who have autism and for children who value routine.
Weathers presented a number of apps available that are designed to cater to children with autism such as ChoiceWorks, which helps children complete daily routines, control their feelings, and improve their waiting skills. It gives them an opportunity to track their daily activities and reward themselves for completing them. Another app called SoundingBoard allows non-verbal children to speak through their device with custom or pre-set words.
Autism Awareness Month is celebrated through the month of April and you can show your support by wearing blue throughout the month. If you’d like more information, be sure to visit http://www.autism-society.org/get-involved/national-autism-awareness-month/.