Autism and Localization of the Senses
The new hot button disability in the Special Education world, autism lies in the public domain as an easy explanation of subversive student behavior. Certainly, this stems from its prevalence and the visibility of the characteristics, yet, it is remarkable how little is still known by the general public. This pseudo interest has yielded to a subconscious discrimination against those people with autism. Frequent misconceptions give way to unease, incorrect diagnoses by laymen, and fear. Just like ADHD in the late nineties and AIDS in the eighties, the best weapon for an end to the misapprehensions is national awareness. This paper examines the inability of a person with autism to discern between local and background stimuli, and further still, how these characteristics could be misconstrued as antisocial or even aggression. The greatest question to be answered is how do these characteristics and perceptions hinder people with autism in the educational process?
Autism is a neurological disorder that affects 1 in 150 people. It strikes all races and creeds with a four times greater chance in males than females. Autism hinders a person’s ability to relate socially, specifically in communication and empathy (Autism Speaks). A person with autism has a tendency towards repetitive behavior and restriction of the body and interests (DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Association, APA 1994). It is thought that autism may be linked to 22q11 deletion syndrome in which a person is born without part of chromosome 22 (Niklasson et al 2009). Due to the seeming prevalence of autism at the turn of the century, it is important to delve into the best strategy for education and development of survival skills.
When looking at people with autism, apparent are the mannerisms and behaviors, the muscle spasms, the glazed eyes, and the frequent out-bursts. It appears the person is suffering from a visual or auditory impairment. However, most research supports that these are characteristics of neurological development issues. Xiaoyan Ke and his colleagues found an abnormality in the frontal lobe of children with autism (2009). However, the frontal lobe is not associated with sensory function (Centre for Neuro Skills 2006). In fact, visual and auditory stimuli are processed regularly in people with autism (Magnee et al 2009).
Autistic students are often associated with mental retardation. Because of their mannerisms and sometimes stunted cognitive abilities, students with autism are seen as inferior intellectual. However, studies done on higher functioning people with autism have proved the opposite. Kamp-Becker and her associates (2009) study suggest that intellectual inability of students with autism stem more from their inapproachability, rather than their intellectual capacity. It is a widely ranged contention that some people with autism are gifted and talented individuals. I contend that all students with autism have that intellectual capacity, as the frontal lobe does not control intellectual or cognitive ability (Centre for Neuro Skills 2006), Academic impairment in students with autism stems more from the difficulties from language and motor skills. Intellectual information and cognition (for example puzzle completion or problem solving skills) are only hindered by the person’s physical limitations.
It is important not to disregard language, social skills, and motor skills when talking about IQ and schooling. However, Binet’s original intention for the standardized IQ (a variation of which is still the commonly used standard for IQ) was to weed students out by determining which did not have age appropriate problem solving abilities. This is not a reading or writing test, yet, its written form suggests a discriminatory process. Students with autism have trouble reading and writing because of motor ability (ie holding a pen, moving the pen to represent the appropriate shape) and speech ability (association of the written word with language or associating language with given stimuli). IQ, more specifically the Binet test and one’s like his, really cannot give an accurate perspective on the intelligence of people with autism.
Where does this socially inacceptable behavior and apparent cognitive impairment originate then? The frontal lobe controls, “motor function . . . spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior” (Centre for Neuro Skills 2006). Given these characteristics of the frontal lobe, it might be best to look at some common behaviors of people with autism and use frontal lobe function as the possible cause of the behavior.
1. People with autism are self injurious or a danger to others
Not all people with autism are self-injurious or violent, but because of the extreme public nature of violent outbursts or self-mutilation, it is presumed that this is a main characteristic of the disability. Certainly, people with autism face more frequent and prevalent hardships than a propensity to harm others or themselves. In this author’s experience as a assisted living specialist and special education teacher, violence and self-injurious behavior is more often present than not in students with autism. People with frontal lobe injuries, or abnormal development, tend to have impaired social analysis skills and poor impulse control. However, people with autism can train themselves to cope in different ways.
Essentially, when a person with autism is self-injurious or violent, there is some unrelated stimulus driving the behavior. For example, the author worked with a student with autism who frequently was violent towards others and himself. The incidences, though, were always preceded by different sensory stimuli. If the maintenance men were buffing the floors, he would enjoy watching the buffers. Eventually, the buffers would go away, and the student would be overcome with grief and a sense of loss, throwing himself to the floor, biting himself, and screaming for the buffers to return. The intervention of his perceived personal space would be interpreted as a threat, as someone was hurting him (he could not make the distinction that he was hurting himself in his extremely emotional state) and he would lash out at his would be attacker.
Certainly, this is a huge disruption to the educational process, but it does no infer limited academic ability. It does suggest a spatial inconceivability. Spatial perception, however, does not denote intelligence, otherwise anyone who has glasses would be looked at intellectually inferior. It is understood that this is not just a perception of not seeing the door, but a belief that beyond the door does not exist, but this is an egocentric view, not one of lower intelligence.
2. People with autism have no notion of “Self”
Often, people with autism are represented as not perceiving a sense of “I”. Rather, they see themselves as a part of their surroundings. This is because they have trouble referring to themselves as “I” or “me”, instead referring to themselves in the third person. This is a fallacy. Williams and Happe’s (2009) study explored how students with autism monitor their own actions. The study found that there is insignificant difference with autism’s self coping aspects as students with similar IQs gave similar responses to the experimental stimuli.
David et. al. (2008) found similarly that people with autism have no problems distinguishing themselves from others. However, they did find that problems distinguishing other’s actions lead to problems in mentalizing.
This does pose difficult in the classroom. In English and History, more than other curricula, require the ability to conceptualize ideas and events that are not physically present. While a student with autism may be interested in the vehicles of World War II, or be able to recite the Presidents in order, they cannot associate them with the events that brought them into being.
3. Autistic students are anti-social by nature
Certainly, there seems to be a correlation between autism and anti-social behavior. The frontal lobe has been previously established as controlling social function. Students with autism do have trouble mentalizing, in spontaneity, communicating, and processing stimuli (Chiang and Carter 2008). However, the reasons are still little known. It has long been assumed that autism naturally supposes a person to these inabilities, however, Chiang and Carter (2008) suggest otherwise. They contend that perhaps it is the way in which those students are educated rather than an inferior skill set. Undoubtedly, there is an impairment, but if there is no intellectual impairment, perhaps there is a way to rectify it.
Again and again, the author would like to state that autism is not an intellectual impairment. It affects those skills which would be classified as perceptual. Perhaps this an unfair statement. If we look at autism according to Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, people with autism are inferior intellectually in social skills, language development, and physicality. However, the issue needs to be raised as to what is considered “normal” intelligence. It is this author’s contention that such standards are unfair to all individuals. Rate of learning does not have anything to do with intellectual capacity. Also, students with autism have mitigating factors that slow the development of their academic learning. However, the majority of students with autism can learn those skills and that information which public opinion tells them they cannot, it just takes them longer.
That said, the recommendation for handling the disability of autism is obviously the continued plethora of research that is coming forth daily to academia (a positive result of the hot button nature of the disability). Even as research is compiled, students with autism need to be taught differently. They need structure and stimuli training. They need longer hours than traditional students as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech requirements stunt their growth in the classroom. Also, the maximum age of graduation from high school needs to be reexamined in the special education world, as students with autism (and perhaps all students with disabilities) could benefit from a few more years of educational guidance.
Autism Speaks. (2009). What is Autism? An Overview. Retrieved April 1, 2009, from Autism Speaks Web site: http://www.autismspeaks.org/whatisit/index.php?WT.svl=Top_Nav
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Centre for Neuro Skills. (2006). Frontal Lobe Function. Retrieved April 11, 2009, from Centre for Neuro Skills Web site: http://www.neuroskills.com/tbi/bfrontal.shtml
Chiang, H., & Carter, M. (2008, April). Spontaneity of Communication in Individuals with Autism. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 38(4), 693-705.
David, N., Gawronski, A., Santos, N., Huff, W., Lehnhardt, F., Newen, A., et al. (2008, April). Dissociation Between Key Processes of Social Cognition in Autism: Impaired Mentalizing But Intact Sense of Agency. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 38(4), 593-605.
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Niklasson, L., Rasmussen, P., skarsdttir, S., & Gillberg, C. (2009, July). Autism, ADHD, mental retardation and behavior problems in 100 individuals with 22q11 deletion syndrome. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30(4), 763-773.
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