Learning Readiness in Children With Autism

The recent retraction of the 1998 study linking autism to childhood vaccinations and the American Psychiatric Association's move to place Asperger's Syndrome under the autism category in the DSM have brought the disability to the forefront of the news yet again. Finding a cause and appropriate diagnoses are both important aspects of working with children on the spectrum. Educators and parents alike are wishing for a cause or causes to be found so as to look towards hope for the future of our children.

Reliable research and valid studies are crucial to the development of educational and health strategies relating to children on the autism spectrum but there are thousands of parents looking for help right now. Parents of a child diagnosed yesterday want guidance today. They can't wait for an answer.

Regardless of your stance on what causes autism or your belief in a specific diagnosis or term, there are four skills that all young child on the autism spectrum should acquire in order to access curriculum and develop social, academic, motor, and language skills in the future. These are skills that should be worked on through Early Intervention programs, at school, and at home.

Eye contact Teach your child to respond to her name or commands like "Look at me." Begin by sitting close to your child and calling her name. At first, she should establish eye contact for a brief one to three seconds. As she maintains success with this time frame, expect her to maintain eye contact for longer periods of time, increasing the time by small increments. Remember to immediately praise her for looking at you and always promote eye contact when she is requesting something from you, even if she is pointing to an item.

Sitting appropriatelyTeach your child to sit in a chair independently and maintain appropriate sitting behavior. Put activities of interest on the table or sit across from him and sing his favorite songs. Keep him engaged during this time. Expect him to sit for brief periods of time- start with three to five minutes- and increase this time frame slowly. Also, take his age into consideration. A typically developing two year old will not sit for an hour. Praise him every few seconds for sitting nicely and then give him a break when he has sat successfully for the pre-determined period of time.

Following simple directionsTeach your child to respond to simple one-step directions, such as "Come here," "Stop," or "Sit down." If you give the direction and she does not follow it, you may need to physically guide her to follow through. Be gentle and praise her when she completes the task. Keep these directions simple and clear - make sure you gain her attention before you give the command to ensure she heard you.

Gross motor imitationTeach your child to imitate basic movements, such as clapping his hands, stomping his feet, and patting his lap. Say "Do this" or use simple songs, such as "The Wheels on the Bus." Make sure you establish eye contact with your child before you show him the movement to ensure he saw what you are asking him to do.

When practicing all of these skills, keep in mind times your child may be hungry, tired, or irritable. Introduce skills during her "prime time," when she has just eaten and is not due for a nap.

The most important thing you can do is praise your child when he is engaging in these skills, even if you haven't given him the direction to do so. Use the "catch him being good" mentality and reinforce his on-task behavior. Keep in mind that he may be successful in these skills for one or two directions or for one to three seconds. This is still a victory and even baby steps are steps forward in your child's progress.

Remember to consult your pediatrician about developmental milestones and report any delay - or change - as you see it. Do not wait until your next appointment, which may be months away.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.