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"Informative and engaging . . . provide[s] educators with inspiring, practical, strengths–based instructional recommendations to build literacy skills."
Enhanced with insights from people with autism and teaching tips from the authors' own extensive classroom experiences, this essential primer helps educators see literacy as a "land" everyone can share-and reveals how every learner can achieve a more fulfilling, rich, and inclusive academic life.
About the Author:
Paula Kluth, Ph.D., is a consultant, teacher, author, and advocate in Oak Park, Illinois
About the Author:
Kelly Chandler-Olcott, Ed.D., is an associate professor in Syracuse University's Reading and Language Arts Center in Syracuse, New York
COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTISM
Although no two students with autism will look, behave, communicate, or learn in exactly the same way, students with this label do share some general characteristics. We believe that knowledge of these common characteristics—and more specifically, knowledge of how each might play out in the context of literacy learning—can be extremely useful for educators seeking to design responsive literacy instruction for individuals with autism. Consequently, we share some of the most significant characteristics, including movement, sensory, communication, social, and learning differences, in this section. After providing a brief definition of each difference, we discuss how they are experienced by people with autism and how each might affect literacy.
Movement differences describe symptoms involving both excessive and atypical movement and the lack of typical movement. Individuals with movement differences may walk with an uneven gait; engage in repetitive movements such as rocking, hand flapping, or pacing; produce speech that is unintentional; stutter; or struggle to make the transition from room to room or situation to situation. Individuals may experience difficulties in starting, executing, continuing, stopping, combining, or switching movements, thoughts, or postures, and disturbances may range from very simple movements (e.g., raising a hand, pushing a button) to those affecting overall levels of activity and behavior (e.g., completing a task).
Understanding Movement Differences
For some students with autism, even the simplest tasks can be problematic. For instance, Jamie Burke, a young man with autism, has commented on his frustration with not being able to tie his shoes as a young child. This frustration was exacerbated by the fact that his teachers felt the task was not only important but also a measure of his intellect:
"So many things were hard for me to learn. I now think it was so foolish to ask me to learn to tie my shoes. My brain moved into hiding the reason for not being able to do it, but yet my school believed it important mostly as a way to tell you that you are not just greatly smart." (2005, p. 251)
Although all of us may experience minor or subtle movement differences from time to time (e.g., jiggling our feet when anxious, being unable to complete a motor task when we are very stressed out), many people with autism experience significant movement problems on a regular basis. Consider, for example, this description from Tyler Fihe, a young man with autism
"I never really know when sounds are coming out of my mouth or when my arms need to move or when my legs need to run and jump. . . . My eyes are unable to move up and down and left to right at will without me moving my head in the directions I'm facing." (2000, p. 1)
Fihe's description of movement problems helps us better understand why students engage in behaviors associated with autism such as gaze avoidance. Taking his perspective, one can understand that lack of eye contact is not necessarily about social avoidance and that, in fact, for many with autism it is a necessary strategy that helps them interact with others. Fihe also challenges the notion that all behavior is communication or that all movements are intentional. As he illustrates, to some individuals, movement problems are just problems with movement and nothing more.
According to Donnellan and Leary (1995), atypical movements often mask the competence of individuals with autism who exhibit them, with some observers attributing the movement difficulties to other disabilities or to low cognition. In the classroom, a teacher who is unaware of movement proble