ASPERGERS:   Explaining Mild Autism and PDD
An information sheet explaining milder forms of autism to others. It can be duplicated or customized to fit your needs. Please note that autism effects children differently. Some suggestions may not work for all children, despite a similar diagnosis.

Although it is similar to Autism, a diagnosis of PDD or Asperger's means that a child functions on a higher level, both cognitively and socially, than what you might expect (particularly if you've seen the movie, Rain Man). Common challenges children with mild Autism/PDD/Asperger's may face in the classroom:

Associative Memory - While many people think more logically or linearly; those with Autism, Asperger's, and PDD tend to be visual thinkers. Instead of thinking in language, they tend to "think in pictures." We have found great value in giving our child pictures to refer to when he's having difficulty with a concept, particularly those that are more abstract. It is also helpful to name a concrete object to associate with an abstract term. For instance, Temple Grandin, a noted autistic, suggests using a power plant to help a child visualize the concept of power.

Another related problem that may arise in the child with Autism/PDD is that this associative memory may give the child a false impression of his/her world. For example, on their way to school on a rainy day, an autistic child and his mother walked outside to discover the car had a flat tire. Their region had been experiencing a drought, and so the coincidence of the flat tire and the unexpected rain seemed like a cause-effect relationship to the child. For quite some time, he was terrified of going out in the rain because he thought it might cause him to become flat.

Auditory Processing - Children with Autism, Asperger's, and PDD typically have problems processing things they hear, particularly if it's a large quantity of information. Sometimes, the lack of speech comprehension is interpreted by others as an unwillingness to obey. And sometimes, it could be be just that! However, many times you may find that the child will comply with instructions if they are shortened, written down, or given with visual cues and pictures.

Fixations - Many children with Autism, Asperger's, and PDD get fixated on one subject, such as cars, trains, calendars, or maps. They may refuse to read books unless they're about their subject of interest. The best way to deal with this is to use their interest as motivation for school work and other things they need to do. Teachers often have success by alternating a book on their favorite subject with another book they want the child to read. The child gets to read the one they want as a reward for reading the one they'd rather not.

Food Issues - It is sometimes difficult to get autistic children to eat, and sensory issues play a big role in this. What we have found, is that changing the shape, color, texture, or size of the food or the plate it is served on can be quite helpful.

Creativity also helps. For instance, a child who would not eat food cut into circles would eat them when they were called "pennies." He had studied money in school, and he thought it was funny to call them that. It's amazing how humor can diffuse a tense moment. Other times his parents could name food after something their child was interested in at the time (like planets!) with similar success.

Extremely Literal - This can often catch you off guard. One child thought that the alarm for the fire drill at school was an actual drill. He thought the drilling was what caused the noise for the alarm.

Generalization - Or perhaps lack thereof. Sometimes the child with Autism/PDD must be taught the same principle in many different places. If they're taught a rule in only one location, they may think the rule only applies to one specific place. A simple example of this is thinking that he/she could only eat macaroni and cheese at grandma's house because that was the first place they tried it.

Getting Stuck - Children with PDD/Autism tend to get "stuck" in doorways. Their parents are often tripping over them because of the sudden stop. They often need to be coaxed into a room, especially when entering for the first time.

Handwriting - Delays in fine motor skills and problems with motor control in their hands can make writing more difficult. Children with fine motor delays usually receive occupational therapy to help address this; but in the meantime, the child may need to write with a marker instead of a pencil to make up for the lack of force exerted by their hands. On another note, some children may write only with upper case letters. This is probably the result of their resistance to change, but it could also be that the fine motor delays make it difficult to form the lower-case letters.

Meltdowns - Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the child may have a "meltdown" because he/she just cannot handle something. The best thing to do is give him/her a safe place to calm down and regroup. This place should be chosen ahead of time, and it should be as quiet and as soothing/non-stimulating as possible.

Random Words - Tourette's Syndrome is actually on the PDD/Autism Spectrum, so this actually isn't all that surprising. However, the autistic child usually has much more voluntary control over this, and it does seem to get better with time if you can re-direct their attention.

Resistance to Change - Maybe a better term would be, "difficulty dealing with change or anything unexpected." Something simple like calling to speak to grandma on the phone can be a challenge if grandpa answers instead. Sameness and predictability are essential in the early days and weeks in a new classroom, particularly for younger children. Later, it is always best to warn about any changes ahead of time. They may feel the need to ask a lot of questions to help themselves understand the change and how it will affect them.

Sensory Processing - Sights and sounds that are tolerated by "typical" children may cause pain, confusion, and/or fear in children with Autism, Asperger's and PDD. The best way to describe this is to imagine waking up in the middle of the night, thinking you heard a suspicious noise. All of your senses are on heightened alert; and the next sight, sound, or touch could send you through the roof. This is how many children with Autism and PDD feel when they enter a room for the first time, encounter a new situation, or experience stress. Examples of every day encounters that could prove too stressful for a child with Autism or PDD include:

    sound -- children crying, sudden noises, unidentified noises, loud noises (horns honking, fire drills), and noises that others may not hear (one child was extremely distressed when a train was parked with the engine running at the railroad crossing several blocks away.)

    sight -- the two most common examples are strobe lights on fire alarms and flickering lights (fluorescents need to be removed until they can be replaced, and some children may need fluorescents permanently replaced by incandescent lighting.) Some objects may appear scary to a child with Autism or PDD for no apparent reason -- slinkies, video/cassette tapes, and objects that look like they might have a "face" on them are a few examples.

    touch/taste/smell -- Depending on the child, other senses can become overwhelming as well. Be sure to find out from the parent how the child reacts to such things, particularly a touch on the shoulder.

Theory of Mind - Children with Autism, Asperger's, and PDD have difficulty comprehending that others don't know something. It is quite common, especially for those with savant abilities (special gifting), to become upset when asking a question of a person to which the person does not know the answer. Theory of mind refers to the notion that many autistic children do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view. They may also have difficulty understanding the beliefs, attitudes, and emotions of others.

Reprinted with permission from