The current statistics surrounding autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder that affects social communication and behavior, are startling. According to recently released estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, currently about 1 in 36 children has been identified with ASD.
As these numbers rise, it’s increasingly important for educators to understand how this range of conditions affects the way they teach and how they can more effectively provide for students with ASD.
Rates have risen for a couple of reasons, says Shelley Hughes, OTR (registered occupational therapist) and director of portfolio management for Pearson Clinical Assessment. First, there is an increased recognition of autism as a result of a combination of factors, including greater awareness and updates to diagnostic criteria.
For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) now allows for dual diagnosis alongside autism; previously, a child might have been diagnosed only with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), whereas now they could be diagnosed with ADHD and ASD, if applicable. Second, there is better access to diagnostic services, resulting in more accurate and timely diagnosis.
Fortunately, the increase in diagnoses has ushered in an increased capacity to adequately address the needs of people with autism. With April being designated as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, educators have an opportunity to reflect on how their school or district serves students with autism diagnoses and those students who might benefit from one.
Here are some tools and strategies designed to better support students with ASD as you create more inclusive environments.
Educators play a key role in ensuring equity in diagnoses
While more children are being diagnosed with autism, many educators may not realize there is an alarming disparity in who receives these diagnoses. One recent study from Rutgers University concentrated in the New York-New Jersey metro area discovered that Black children with ASD and no intellectual disabilities were 30% less likely to be identified compared with white children. Additionally, those living in affluent areas were 80% more likely to be identified with ASD and no intellectual disabilities compared with children in underserved areas.
Additional research from the CDC finds that Black and Hispanic children are less likely to be identified with ASD than white children, although that number has recently risen. Further recent research finds underserved populations also often lack access to needed resources.
These disparities in diagnosis and treatment illuminate the critical role schools play, Hughes notes. “Screening is the first step in the early intervention and identification process, which is vital to begin identifying supports and therapy to facilitate success,” she says. Schools can also act as a gateway to the resources and services caregivers need but might otherwise be unable to access or afford, she adds.
Autism screening should be included as part of a comprehensive mental health approach, given how the two conditions are intertwined. Studies show around 70% of children and young people with autism experience one mental health condition, while 41% experience two or more mental health diagnoses.
Why early diagnoses matter
Delayed screening can have a number of far-reaching repercussions. “Early detection of autism is key in terms of improving not only academic outcomes, but social needs as well,” Hughes points out.
Once students receive a diagnosis, they can begin to access the necessary supports and therapy that will facilitate success. In addition, early detection helps families better understand their child’s needs and advocate for them, explains Hughes. “As they learn more about their child’s preferences and abilities, they can become more skilled at making appropriate environmental and contextual adjustments that underlie everyday activities.”
Conversely, a lack of diagnoses can lead to inappropriate interventions, which can be damaging, Hughes warns. “Late diagnosis can have an impact on engagement, which can potentially lead to withdrawal and failure to thrive, ultimately affecting social skills and mental health.”
The right resources create better outcomes for students and educators alike
While the benefits of screening for autism are clear, it can be challenging for schools to implement these measures amidst staffing and budget pressures. Hughes urges schools to prioritize staff education and training. “It’s vital they understand how environmental and interpersonal factors can impact the participation level of autistic students.” As one example, educators should consider the variety of learning needs they have within a classroom and understand the impact of their physical setup and daily routine, so they can make adjustments and provide the tools students need.
As with any area of child development, she reminds educators that it’s critical to embrace strengths. “Focus on where they thrive, which can set the child up for success holistically, as well as within the classroom environment,” she says.
Pearson provides a number of assessments that can be used to identify students with autism, which can launch the journey to provide the individual supports that will foster success.
For example, the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (Vineland-3) provides a standardized way to assess an individual’s social and practical skills to meet the demands of everyday living; it uses multi-faceted inputs from caregivers and teachers to triangulate those different perspectives. Another tool, the PEDI-CAT, can be used to support a key assessment goal of gaining understanding of the support needs required to participate in daily activities.
Sensory Profile 2 can be another key diagnostic assessment, as processing sensory information can be challenging for people with ASD. “By knowing where we can offer the right accommodations, educators can help autistic students become masters of their own environment and experts at advocating for their own preferences and making the adjustments they need,” Hughes says. For example, a student who struggles with visual stimuli can request handouts with fewer instructions or fewer problems per page.
“Working together, we can make sure the right processes are in place to facilitate screening and make sure it's carried out effectively and efficiently,” she says. “By learning and emphasizing a student’s strengths, we can better manage interactions and encourage participation that can help all youth live up to their full potential.”
Hughes recommends districts tap into the myriad of free tools Pearson provides. For more resources to support all of your students, check out Pearson's Mental Health Resource Center.