Understanding Autism: Supporting Unique Needs

I recently attended the Reimagine Australia conference, a conference for parents, education professionals and health practitioners focused on neurodivergent children and children with disabilities.

Keynote speaker Dr Peter Rosenbaum prompted our thinking with the following statement:

“Disability is a social construct.”

He went on to explain that a person is disabled if the environment doesn’t cater for them (i.e. no wheel chair ramps) or policies aren’t inclusive (i.e. we dont take people in wheelchairs) and attitudes are rigid (i.e. we won’t accomodate people in wheelchairs).

Whilst the notion of excluding someone in a wheelchair sounds immoral, we continue to observe environments, policies, and attitudes that exclude and discriminate against children and people with disabilities, especially those with disabilities that aren’t initially visible.

Neurodivergence is considered an invisible disability, since challenges and difficulties are often not immediately apparent.

Neurodivergence refers to natural variations in brain structure and function that are different from the ‘societal norms’, this includes conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, Dyslexia, and other cognitive differences.

This month is Autism awareness month so we thought it was time to strengthen understandings and continue to remove barriers.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

ASD, often referred to as Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects cognitive, sensory, and social processing, changing the way people see the world and interact with others. It is a spectrum, not a ‘one size fits all’ label, it looks, sounds, and is unique in each individual. If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person.

As of April 2024 a new estimate on autism prevalence in Australia was announced by Aspect (Autism Spectrum Australia), indicating it’s likely that at least 1 in 40 individuals are on the autism spectrum, higher than the previous estimate of 1 in 70. – Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect).

There are many misconceptions regarding Autism, but it is crucial to understand that children with ASD don’t require ‘fixing’; rather they, like all children, need understanding and support tailored to their specific strengths and capabilities.

Many of the challenges autistic children face are not self-perceived as ‘symptoms’ of their autism but as difficulties created by their environment, limiting policies or rigid attitudes: a society that either does not understand, or refuses to make accommodations for people with invisible disabilities.

Below we have listed some of the more common challenges and some support suggestions:

Nonverbal Communication: Difficulty with nonverbal communication, such as maintaining eye contact, or holding eye contact for too long (staring), interpreting facial expressions, and understanding body language, can hinder social interactions and lead to misunderstandings.

Support: Providing clear cues. All children are more likely to learn new skills when there are clear and consistent cues for the expected behaviour. This can include words, gestures, actions, long pauses, and visuals (social stories, picture schedules, and cue cards).

Repetitive Movement: Autistic children may engage in repetitive movements, sounds or behaviours, known as stimming, as a way to self-regulate or cope with sensory overload. While stimming can be comforting for the individual, it may draw unwanted attention or be perceived as disruptive in social settings.

Support: Develop understanding of stimming behaviours as a natural and valid form of self-regulation, reducing stigma and judgment.

Consistency / Rigidity: Autistic children often thrive on routine and predictability, and any changes or disruptions to their environment or schedule can cause distress. They may struggle with deviations from their established routines.

Support: Giving advance notice of changes to routines, helping prepare for transitions and unexpected events (use visual supports such as timers/clocks).

Sensory Processing: Sensory processing differences are common among autistic children, leading to heightened sensitivity or reduced sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This can result in sensory overload, discomfort, or avoidance of certain environments or activities.

Support: Ensure environments have sensory accommodations, such as adjustable lighting, noise-reducing headphones, and tactile-friendly materials (fidget toys). Respect the child’s right to retreat.

Hyper-focus: Autistic children may exhibit intense focus and concentration on specific interests or activities to the exclusion of others. While hyper-focus can facilitate deep learning and expertise in certain areas, it may also interfere with tasks that require flexibility or attention to multiple stimuli.

Support: Validate the child’s interests and strengths, incorporating them into educational, recreational and social activities. Offer variation to ‘stuck’ patterns where possible.

Supportive Interactions: Research shows that austistic children recieve less than half of the interaction that our neurotypical children recieve, yet they need twice as much. – (Autism NZ)

Support: For all of the challenges noted, the most supportive thing we can do for austitic children is be their guide. When positioning ourselves as the guide, we must start with reflection first:

  • How playful are we: When we play, we engage our face, all the non-verbal stuff, this helps children to develop awareness of non-verbal cues as well as establish predictability
    • Are we actually fun to be around?
  • Do we do all of the talking: Speaking excessively can overwhelm children.
    • Do we have non-verbal cues for children to tell us when we are talking too much?
    • Are we pausing long enough for children to think and respond?
  • How fast are we trying to move: By moving at speed we often removed predictability and routine.
    • How present are we?
    • Do we slow down and enjoy the moment or are we rushing? When rushing we or remove opportunity for children to initate play or think for themselves.
  • What do we value most: what we prioritise gets the most attention.
    • Are we making the most of everyday predictable activities? There is comfort and connection in the familiar, predictable and consistent.
  • Are we benchmarking: We dont compare the child in a wheelchair to children running when we ask all children to run a race.
    • Are we comparing autistic children to neurotypical children?
  • Do we foster an inclusive environment: Environments where peers are educated about autism promote understanding and inclusion.
    • In what ways can we create more inclusive and understanding spaces?

By reflecting on these questions and support strategies and adjusting our approach accordingly, we can better support the learning and development of autistic children, fostering an environment of understanding, inclusion, and growth.