Q: Our 6-year-old son has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. He's in a regular kindergarten and is pulled out for occupational and speech therapy, but we and his school need other ideas for him.
- A Mother in Shelby, N.C.
A: It takes teamwork with teachers and medical professionals, as well as immense parental insight, to be your child's best advocate.
Impulsivity is one characteristic of many children who have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. How that plays out: A child decides to play piggyback with his teacher and jumps on her in the middle of class. Or a child with no logical reasoning skills or sense of danger climbs too high and jumps, or runs into the street and needs constant supervision.
What helps: Setting goals to learn to control the impulsivity. One mom says that after years of practice, her son is starting to understand when he feels like he will be impulsive, such as when he wants to hit someone, and when he needs calming strategies. Two ideas: He now knows to ask for a 5-minute break from class or a small squishy ball to fidget with.
Your brilliant child may have a high vocabulary, but too much talking is not an effective way to deal with an inappropriate behavior. As one mom says, her son "sounds like a normal kid a lot of the time, but language fails him." Her family uses visual cue cards; for example, her son has a card with a red exclamation point to indicate that he is ready to lose it and needs help. He has cue cards in class, too, to use with an aide who shadows him. Cards numbered 1 to 10 indicate the level of his anguish.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism cases are rapidly rising. Today, the Centers for Disease Control says that as many as 1 in 166 children have autism. Ten years ago, the estimate was 1 in 2,500. It's unclear whether the increase stems from increasing incidence, better diagnostic methods or a combination of the two, according to Dr. Gary Goldstein, a child neurologist and adviser to the Autism Speaks campaign.
Running on a spectrum from mild to severe, the characteristics of autism, including Asperger Syndrome, can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations. Research has demonstrated that children in early-intervention programs make strides and can learn to succeed in regular classrooms.
For success in school, don't leave your child's relationship with his teacher up to trial and error, authors Patricia Romanowski Bashe and Barbara L. Kirby suggest in their newly revised book "The OASIS Guide to Asperger Syndrome," (Crown Publishers, 2005).
Instead, introduce your student through a detailed but succinct letter. Download an outline for the letter at www.aspergersyndrome.org.
The practical book also includes a chart of suggestions for dealing with common school problems related to Asperger's, including difficulties with transitions, making irrelevant comments and giving overly detailed information.
Both authors are parents of children with Asperger's, which falls at the high-functioning end of a broad range under the autism umbrella. Asperger's is characterized partly by a lack of social common sense, such as how to make friends, take turns, use eye contact to pick up on social cues and restrain impulses.
Recognize that with an autistic child's extensive vocabulary comes confusion over expressions, pronouns and general words, or what one family calls "slippery words." In "a while" means nothing, whereas 42 minutes makes sense. Your own understanding and precise word choices will help.
The Web site for the Autism Society of America is www.autism-society.org/.
Can you help?
I'm afraid my daughter is dealing with stress by eating too much of the wrong things. She also has shown some concerns about her body and I want to help her without making her feel insecure.
- A Father in Braintree, Mass.
If you have tips or a question, call toll-free (800) 827-1092, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Parent to Parent, P.O. Box 4270, Davidson, N.C. 28036.