Autistic or shy?

When her twins missed their growth milestones — sitting, standing, walking and speaking — parents, teachers, doctors and others suggested they were autistic, Paula Lynn Johnson writes on Ricochet.

Image result for shy boy play Legos

Her “lifeline to sanity” was Thomas Sowell’s book, Late Talking Children. Sowell’s son, who didn’t start talking till he was 4, grew up to be a successful, non-autistic adult.

After speech therapy, Johnson’s kids began talking. But her son showed “red flags” of autism in preschool, teachers said. He didn’t want to stop building Legos and go on to the art station.

His kindergarten teacher also complained about her son’s Lego obsession.

Moreover, my son lived too much in his head, preferring to build and tinker rather than playing tag or ball with the other boys. He was clumsy. He was autistic-ish.

The school’s Child Study Team wanted to do an evaluation for autism, but the parents passed. Elementary school was tough, but he came into himself in middle school.

Academically, there were less worksheets and rote work. A lot of his teachers not only allowed, but welcomed discussion (suddenly, he was no longer “argumentative”, but “thoughtful”). He started enjoying his classes. And socially, the transition to a bigger pond with more potential friends was just what he needed. He found his tribe.

. . . they’re on the debate team and in robotics club. They like to play Risk and Magic the card game. They follow politics and like tossing around obscure movie quotes and references. You know the type. Would I call any of them socially smooth or sophisticated? No. But I wouldn’t call them autistic, either — and that includes my son. He’s empathetic and funny and engaging. He’s just taken longer than most to grow comfortable in his own skin.

“Go to a doctor, preferably a pediatric neurologist or psychiatrist who specializes in autism” for a diagnosis, rather than a special-ed teacher, Johnson advises.

She adds that shyness can be confused with autism.

For example, autistic kids often have trouble making direct eye contact and come across as socially stiff. Well, unfortunately, so do shy kids

“Professionals working for the public school system have built-in incentives to label children and put them into special programs, which often get the school system more money from the government,” she writes.

. . .  if you fear the costs of “doing nothing”, consider the costs of labeling your kid with a serious neurological condition that he just doesn’t have. Read I Had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly, in which the author recounts how his mother — an “expert” in Asperger’s! — not only diagnosed him with the disorder but had him participate in an educational video about it.

As a baby, my daughter missed the major developmental milestones — by miles. Other babies were walking before she could roll over. It turned out she was developmentally weird.

Can schools help kids who lunch alone? 


Florida State player Travis Rudolph eats lunch with sixth-grader Bo Paske at a Tallahassee middle school.

Bo Paske, a Florida sixth grader on the autism spectrum, doesn’t eat lunch alone any more. After his mother shared a photo on Facebook of a Florida State player sitting with Bo, classmates have become “super welcoming,” says Leah Paske. “He was at a table full of girls, which I thought was funny,” she said.

“It’s been awesome,” said Bo on Fox News. “It was like me sitting on a rainbow”

Laura McKenna, mother of a middle schooler with high-functioning autism, writes about how schools can help the kids who eat lunch alone.

Every autistic kid has some sort of stigmatizing behavior or social-communication impairment, which isolates him from his peers. Some flap their hands, others hum. My kid eats alone in the cafeteria because he isn’t very good at chit-chat. When I ask him who he ate lunch with that day, he mumbles, “I don’t know.”

“Most preteens are struggling with their own social development and aren’t able to reach out to others,” writes McKenna. But schools are trying to make the cafeteria a friendlier, safer place for the socially challenged.

Some schools have organized “lunch bunches,” where a school therapist or a special-education teacher will gather together a group of kids who may be sitting by themselves at opposite ends of the cafeteria. Sometimes the teacher will ask typical kids to join them at the table for a week and guide conversation among the kids. Sometimes she’ll simply create a safe place, a sanctuary lunch table, for the autistic kids to sit.

It doesn’t work without a trained adult, writes McKenna.

Autistic kids do mind sitting alone, she believes. Even if they can’t engage in conversation, they “still want to sit next to other kids and feel their companionship.”

I’m not sure that’s true of all students with autism. Thoughts?

Smart, autistic kids need challenge

Special education isn’t designed for “kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect,” writes Education Post‘s Beth Hawkins. Her 14-year-old son, who’s on the autism spectrum, “has a voracious thirst for knowledge.”

His favorite author is H.G. Wells. He loves Japanese calligraphy. Last year he produced a documentary about William Higinbotham, a member of the team that produced the first nuclear bomb and the inventor of the first computer game.

Corey also has Asperger’s. He can’t tolerate the noise a pencil makes on paper, intuit when sarcasm is inappropriate or easily turn his attention from one activity to another. Until this year, the vast majority of the interactions I had with his teachers were essentially discussions about how to make him into a compliant, neuro-typical kid.

A special-ed teacher suggested he might go to a not-very-selective college with a program for autistic students, she writes. Corey is set on the highly rated Macalester College.

To get there he’ll need help persisting when confronted by rigor. The resulting sense of mastery would be liquid gold in terms of motivation. But the only tool in many schools’ kits for managing these tough moments is to remove the challenge.

In Corey’s case, this meant frequent trips to an isolated room where, under the guise of “social skills,” he played board games. No wonder he hated school.

Corey now attends a “public charter school organized around entrepreneurship where a number of students like him are excelling,” she writes. Working with adult mentors, Venture Academy students “decide how they learn best.”

Hawkins hopes K-12 schools will raise expectations, inspired by the increasing number of colleges and universities that are offering supports for students with autism.

Most students with academic disabilities can meet the same expectations as other students, writes special-ed teacher Mark Anderson. He opposes a New York proposal to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

Acting teaches social skills to autistic kids

Acting out
Children with autism perform at Vanderbilt’s SENSE Theatre.

Acting can teach social skills to students with autistim, writes Laura McKenna in The Atlantic.

How do you join a conversation at a middle-school lunch table? What do you say when someone says hi to you in the hallway and you don’t know her name? How do you delicately correct a member of your lab group in science without calling him stupid?

. . . A set of subtle and complicated social skills is embedded into the entire school experience, from the lunchroom to the classroom.

Drama classes can help autistic students improve their ability to interact with others, concludes a new Vanderbilt study.

Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, teaches drama exercises such as role playing and improvisation to children with high-functioning autism in her SENSE Theatre program.

Drama participants are better able to recognize faces, understand others’ perspectives and regulate anxiety, compared to a control group, she found.

Researchers at the University of Kent found that children with autism could recognize more facial expressions after they participated in a drama program. Children who participated in the Social Competence Intervention Program, another drama-based intervention, improved their ability to play cooperatively, share, speak with respect, communicate while smiling, and say appropriate pleasantries, like please and thank you.

MarbleJam Kids, an after-school group in River Edge, New Jersey, provides art, music, and movement therapy to about 120 kids on the autistic spectrum. Founder Anna Villa-Bager wanted a program for her daughter.

Children can role-play responses to social dilemmas, writes McKenna, whose son is a MarbleJam kid. “Improvisation exercises are also useful because so many autistic kids otherwise rely on ‘scripts’ to navigate social situations.”

Autistic actors star in Rule Breaking, production by the NYU Steinhardt Drama Therapy program.

Autistic actors star in Rule Breaking, a production by the NYU Steinhardt Drama Therapy program.

Teaching autistic kids to act like everyone else is controversial, reports Shira Polan in ScienceLine. While Corbett values social competence, Maria Hodermarska, a drama therapist at NYU, doesn’t think autistic people need social skills to improve their lives.

“At NYU, we focus on social justice, instead of addressing these deficits in functioning,” says Hodermarksa, whose son acts in Rule Breaking: Disability as Performance. “Drama therapy gives people who are marginalized a voice, a platform, a place to be seen and heard.”

Some of McKenna’s readers think students with autism should be allowed to pursue their interests rather than being pushed into drama classes.

My nephew, who’s on the spectrum, did a summer theater program in middle school by his own choice. He had no talent, but liked hanging out with theater kids. He tried to get into drama in high school, but didn’t get through the auditions.

District not liable for drug sting arrests

Riverside County (California) schools aren’t responsible for a drug sting that targeted special ed students, a Superior Court judge has ruled. Judge Raquel A. Marquez dismissed a 2013 suit brought by Jesse Snodgrass, reports Jane Meredith Adams in EdSource.

After his expulsion was reversed, Jesse Snodgrass was graduated from Chaparral High.

After his expulsion was reversed, Jesse Snodgrass completed high school.

Snodgrass was a 17-year-old with autism and bipolar disorder when he was befriended and manipulated by an undercover sheriff’s deputy, the suit alleged. “Dan” sent 60 text messages asking him to buy marijuana.

He was arrested on felony drug charges and expelled. Later, citing extenuating circumstances, a judge gave Snodgrass six months of probation. An administrative law judge overturned the expulsion, saying that Snodgrass “has overwhelmingly demonstrated that his actions were a manifestation of his disability.”

A 2014 Rolling Stone story, The Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass, and a Vice Media video, The War on Kids, “launched a barrage of negative publicity” that persuaded local school districts to stop authorizing drug stings, writes Adams.

Disabled son was pushed out of district school

Beth Hawkins’ autistic son was pushed out of his district school in Minneapolis — and embraced by a charter, she writes on Real Clear Education.

According to Hillary Clinton, “Most charter schools . . . don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” District schools “do, thankfully, take everybody,” the candidate said at a forum.

Beth and Corey Hawkins

Beth and Corey Hawkins

Any school — district or charter — can “push out” a problem student, writes Hawkins, an education writer.

When a student’s needs are too hard to meet, a school may “discipline the student often and loudly, until the parent gets the message,” or send the student to an alternative school. Some segregate problem students in special ed programs or “flat-out tell students, ‘This might not be the school for you’.”

The district school thought her son’s problems stemmed from his “bad attitude.” She thought his “good” school was bad for him.

Her 13-year-old son now attends Venture Academy, a blended-learning charter. “Students create their own learning plans, choosing what they find interesting from a menu of online and bricks-and-mortar options,” writes Hawkins.

A few days into the school year, the charter’s social worker called to say her son “had done something tough with aplomb.” His teachers “wanted my input on how to reinforce the victory going forward.”

“It was the first time the call was about playing to his strengths,” Hawkins writes. “It was the first time I was called on as the expert on my own child.”

Autistic girl joins Sesame Street

A muppet with autism is joining the Sesame Street family, though she’s not scheduled to appear on TV yet.

Unlike most children diagnoses with autism spectrum disorders, Julia is a girl, notes the LA Times. One in 42 boys have autism, compared to 1 in 189 girls — meaning about five times more boys than girls are diagnosed with autism.

“We’re trying to eliminate misconceptions, and a lot of people think that only boys have autism,” said Sherrie Westin, Sesame’s executive vice president, global impact and philanthropy.

Julia stars in a “digital storybook,” We’re Amazing, 1,2,3. She’s is introduced as a long-time friend of Elmo.

In one scene, as she swings with Elmo, Elmo introduces her to his friend Abby. But Julia keeps swinging and doesn’t look in Abby’s direction, prompting Abby to say, “your friend doesn’t like me.”

But that’s not true, Elmo responds. “It’s just hard for her to talk when she’s swinging,” he explains.

Julia flaps her hands when she’s excited, takes a long time to answer questions, is alarmed by loud noises and knows all the words to songs.

Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children includes videos about autism; cards that use Sesame characters to teach basic skills to children with autism (such as “Elmo goes potty”) and overviews on “being a friend,” “brothers and sisters,” “see the amazing,” and “what to say to a parent of a child with autism.”

Carnival of Homeschooling

The new Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Notes From a Homeschooled Mom.

Happy Elf Mom writes about homeschooling an autistic child.

Rise in autism tied to ‘diagnostic substitution’

As autism diagnoses rose, intellectual disability diagnoses fell, reports a Penn State study on  “diagnostic substitution.” Many of the “new” autism cases reflect changes in how children are labeled rather than a rise in kids with learning or communications problems, researchers concluded.

Autism prevalence rates rose from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 children in 2010, according to a Centers for Disease Control report, reports Ed Week‘s Christina Samuels.autism_intellectual_disability_rates.jpg

The fastest-growing group of children with autism spectrum disorder are those with normal to above-average intelligence, said the CDC’s Jon Baio. It’s not likely these children would have been identified as having an intellectual disability, he said. “What has changed to put children today at an increased risk of having autism? We really don’t know.”

The CDC’s figures, which aren’t based on examination of children, may be unreliable, says David Mandell, associate director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

After special ed, what comes next?

When special-education students leave high school, what comes next? Education Week looks at the transition from special education to college, job training and the workforce.

Sixty-two percent of special-ed students earn a high school degree in four years, compared to 81 percent of all students. But some graduates haven’t met the same standards as mainstream students.

. . . a federal study that tracked youths with disabilities eight years after they left school found that 60 percent had enrolled in college, not much lower than the 67 percent reported for youths without disabilities. But students with disabilities were more likely to be enrolled in a community college or vocational school, as opposed to a four-year-college, than their typically developing peers.

Young people with disabilities are almost as likely to be working eight years later, but earn less than youths who hadn’t been in special education. A new federal law is trying to help special-ed students find better jobs.

Gloria Clark is a graduating senior at Decatur High School in Decatur GA.  Photo:  Michael A. Schwarz, Education Week

Gloria Clark, a graduating senior at Decatur High School in Decatur GA struggles with dyslexia, but is headed for college. Photo: Michael A. Schwarz, Education Week

Students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are the most likely to enroll in college. Most don’t identify themselves as disabled in college and receive no special supports.

A recent study found no difference in success rates for students who received help for learning disabilities and those who did not.

What helped was using the supports available to all students, such as tutoring, a math lab or a writing center. Seventy-four percent of students with learning disabilities who used these supports completed a degree compared with 35 percent of similar students who did not.

American Educator looks at teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.