Five myths about autism we need to banish from teaching

17th October 2017 at 12:03
In the latest post of her fortnightly Sendco column, Gemma Corby separates autism facts from the myths

Thankfully, the past few years have brought about greater awareness of hidden disabilities. This includes autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) or, perhaps more appropriately, autistic spectrum condition (ASC).

However, greater awareness of ASC has not come with increased clarity: several myths about ASC still prevail. That can be very damaging in schools; in this blog, I aim to do my best to bring some clarity for teachers. 

Myth one: Asperger's is 'mild' autism

Autism and Asperger's are the same, although Asperger's has become synonymous with high functioning ASC. As such, it has been observed that some people prefer the label Asperger's, believing it offers more cachet.

The reason for the development of the two terms is historical. In 1943, Austrian-American psychiatrist Leo Kanner published an English language paper on autism, which he labelled "infantile autism". At roughly the same time, Austrian physician Hans Asperger published his paper Die Autistischen Psychopathen (1944), which (as you have probably worked out) was written in German.

I am not sure if you know what was going on in the world in the first half of the 1940s, but without going into details, suffice to say that the English and the German-speaking worlds were not on the best of terms. As a result, these two ideas developed separately, although they are the same.

Asperger's is not mild autism, and it is important to recognise this, as neglecting to do so can have serious consequences for the young people with this diagnosis.

Myth two: Individuals with high-functioning ASC find life easier

Young people with high functioning ASC may be more adept at learning strategies to help them fit in. However, this takes a great deal of energy and individuals can experience severe anxiety and stress.

If I had a pound for every time a parent/carer told me that their child is completely different at home than at school, I would be able to retire. Similarly, if I got an additional pound for every time a teacher innocently remarked "but they seem fine at school", I would be able to see out my retirement at The Dorchester Hotel.

The truth is, many youngsters with high-functioning ASC spend the whole day navigating what is to them a puzzling, frustrating and sometimes frightening world; doing their best to fit in and not be "caught out". They may also find it hard to express when they do feel overwhelmed or anxious. When they get home, they can relax and let out all of their pent-up stresses, which can present itself in the form of rather challenging behaviours.

Young people with a diagnosis of high functioning ASC may appear fairly normal to their peers, however, their occasionally odd behaviour could make them vulnerable to teasing. They may also struggle with emotional regulation, and this could present itself in the form of angry outbursts, particularly if faced with an unexpected change.

Young people with high functioning ASC may also be very aware of their difficulties, which in turn may distort their perceptions of social situations – making them seem especially sensitive. Executive planning skills can present a challenge; homework can therefore become an area of contention.

Last but not least, all of these challenges unsurprisingly can take their toll, leading to many young people with high functioning ASC experiencing anxiety and/or depression, which can severely impact their attendance and progress at school.

Myth three: ASC mainly affects males

Thankfully this myth is gradually being dispelled, although it is the case that a greater number of males have been diagnosed with ASC compared with females.

According to the National Autistic Society, various studies in conjunction with anecdotal evidence suggest male/female ratios range from 2:1 to 16:1.

However, there is now growing recognition that different diagnostic criteria for women and girls is required. It has been suggested that the current criteria has an historic bias towards males. For example, the presence of repetitive behaviour and special interests is part of the diagnostic criteria for ASC, yet the interests of girls on the spectrum are often very similar to those of their peers and therefore do not stand out.

The National Autistic Society explains that it is the quality and intensity of these interests that differentiate these girls/women from their peers, as opposed to the nature of their interests.

Myth four: People with ASC are geniuses

This myth has been perpetuated within popular culture, thanks to films such as Rainman and high-profile people with a diagnosis of ASC, such as Stephen Wiltshire, "The human camera". However, ASC is a spectrum condition affecting people with a wide range of cognitive abilities and from all backgrounds.

Myth five: ASC is a learning difficulty or a mental health issue

ASC is a developmental condition. The National Autistic Society estimates that between 48 and 56 per cent of people with a diagnosis of ASC do not have a learning difficulty. It could be that the ability of a person with autism to learn is affected by extreme anxiety, regular periods of absence from school and/or difficulties with collaborative learning.

Likewise, autism is not a mental health issue – it is a hidden disability. It is possible that someone with ASC may find their mental health is affected if they feel socially isolated, or if they are subject to bullying. ASC can make the world seem like a confusing and frustrating place, which can naturally cause distress.

 

With these common myths now dispelled, I will be exploring some useful strategies for supporting learners with ASC in my next post.

Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk. Her Sendco column for Tes runs every second Tuesday in term-time

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