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Understanding Autism in the Classroom

Janelle Cox


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder of brain development which is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and verbal and non-verbal communication. Symptoms begin to emerge between the ages of 2 and 3 years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum: Ten times higher than it was 40 years ago.

How Common is Autism?

Research shows that boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. An estimated 1 out of 42 boys and 1 out of 189 girls are diagnosed with ASD in the United States. It affects more than 2 million people in the United States alone, and tens of millions worldwide.  According to, autism prevalence figures are growing, and it is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States.

What Causes It?

For many years there was no known cause for autism. Today, researchers finally have some answers. Scientists have concluded that most cases of autism appear to be caused by a combination of factors. Over the past couple of years, researchers have identified a number of rare genes associated with autism. More than 100 genes and gene mutations have been identified which increase the risk of a child developing autism. This, coupled with environmental factors, influence early brain development. Further evidence concludes that factors involving certain events occurring before or during birth can cause autism. Events such as maternal illness, advanced parental age, and difficulties during birth (especially lack of oxygen to the baby’s brain) can also cause autism. All of these factors do not cause autism alone, but coupled with genetic risk factors, they appear to increase the risk. 

Signs and Symptoms

These are just a few examples of what a person with ASD might display:

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  • May not respond to their name by 12 months of age.
  • Avoid eye contact.
  • Repeat words over and over.
  • Get upset by minor changes.
  • Not play pretend by 18 months.
  • Rock back-and-forth, spin, or clap hands.
  • Unusual reactions to sound, smell, taste, touch or look.

What’s it Like to be on the Spectrum?

Each individual that is on the autism spectrum is unique, and their symptoms vary. One person may have average intelligence and limited verbal language, while another may be gifted and have very good gross motor skills. The most common symptom of an individual on the spectrum is having social difficulties. They prefer to be alone, avoid physical contact, have trouble understanding people’s feelings, and may make inappropriate facial expressions. Communication is another symptom, 40 percent of children do not speak at all, while others may use unusual language. For example, one may repeat what you say, or speak using one word at a time. Children on the spectrum may also display unusual interests or behaviors, such as obsessive interests, being overly organized, lining up toys, or following certain routines. Other symptoms include temper tantrums, lack of fear, or having more fear, aggression, impulsivity and hyperactivity, to name just a few. While children on the spectrum may be delayed in the areas mentioned, they do have the ability to walk and move around the same as other children their age.

Experiencing Sensory Overload

For many of us, it’s hard to imagine a life with autism and to really understand the overload autistic children undergo each day. Autistic individuals can be hypersensitive to light and sound, which turns a normal environment into a chaotic one. To better understand the difficulty of living with autism, put together five autism simulations. These five videos will help the average person experience the sensory overload that children with autism feel every day. Viewers will get the chance to experience an autistic child’s view of what it’s like to be at a playground, when watching a movie, while shopping at Walmart, a typical day walking down the street, and how just getting a cup of coffee at a coffee shop can be difficult. While these videos are a great depiction of what it can be like to live with autism, we can turn them off, an autism child can’t.

Tools and Resources Available

In addition to experiencing sensory overloud through an online simulation, there are numerous tools and resources that are available for you to learn more. You can view our inspirational video about a young boy with high-functioning autism who sought to make tablets a permanent fixture in the autism community. Sites such as and have an abundance of resources that will help empower you on the subject.

If you’re looking for information on how to help an autistic child, there are also many applications on the market. Apps such as Tap to Talk, Social Skills, and Proloque 2 Go were designed to help children with autism learn how to communicate. It’s hard to understand and appreciate what’s it’s like for a child living with autism. But, by watching these simulation videos and educating yourself, you can better understand the difficulty children living on the spectrum have to go through each day.

How do you acknowledge Autism Awareness Month in your classroom? Please share with us in the comment section below.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for, as well as a contributing writer to and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators