I’m in the Alumni Lounge, waiting for SPECTRUM’s Social Panel on Autism Awareness to begin, and if you’re reading right now, you should definitely try to show up — there are all of 11 people right now waiting to hear from the panelists, and the event ostensibly began five minutes ago. However, if you can’t make it, I’ll be doing a liveblog to give you all the key points.
3:40 pm: Still waiting on the start, but the panelists are ready to begin. Our guests today are Jody Steinhilber, a special education teacher from the Wellesley Public School system and Joe Vedora, the vice president of BEACON Services, a Massachusetts organization of special education professionals.
3:47 pm: We’re underway, about 15 minutes late. Unfortunately, the hoped-for wave of stragglers never materialized, but it’s nice to have an intimate setting.
3:53 pm: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects every aspect of cognition — communication, learning, etc. — and its effects start showing up by the age of 2 or 3. However, autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that diagnosing it is more complex than simply “You have it” or “You don’t”.
3:57 pm: Autism is NOT a form of mental retardation; however, having autism dramatically increases an individual’s chance of being diagnosed with mental retardation as well.
4:02 pm: In 1994, autism only occurred in about 2 to 5 out of every 10,000 births. However, by 2006, that number had increased to 1 in 150. The reason for the increase are improvement of diagnostic criteria and an increased acceptance of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome as being on the autistic spectrum. Environmental variables could have an impact as well.
4:10 pm: Teaching students with autism is difficult, because it is much more difficult for them to pick up on social or environmental cues. While most people can pick up new information by observing other people, children with autism have to be told or shown explicitly how to follow instructions as simple as “come here” or “touch your nose”. This is why early diagnosis is so important; if a child with autism doesn’t begin receiving special education as quickly as possible, they could fall into a developmental hole that they may never be able to climb out of.
4:24 pm: To teach kids with autism, it’s important to break down every concept to its smallest parts, because links that seem obvious to most people aren’t necessarily apparent to them. As an example, to teach kids to wash their hands, it is first necessary to teach them how to simply turn on the faucet. Repetition is very important, and providing immediate positive reinforcement for simple acts helps immensely.
4:31 pm: Observation: Joe Vedora’s presentation style is very similar in form to the teaching methods he promotes for autism education. He uses a lot of illustrative examples and builds concepts up from a very simple basis. He’s a very good presenter.
4:32 pm: However, he’s also a Yankees fan. BOOO!!!
4:42 pm: One of the biggest problems with modern day care for adults with autism is that care is focused too much on management and not enough on education. For funding reasons, most people are cut off from education when they turn 22, and their care turns into a kind of “adult day care”. Not only are autistic individuals still able to learn at that age, but it may be even more important to continue their education because they tend to learn on a delayed timeline because teaching simple concepts takes so much longer.
4:49 pm: There’s a lot of conversation in psychological circles about officially removing Asperger’s syndrome from the autism spectrum. Asperger’s support groups are pushing back strongly against it, because they fear that it would limit the amount of services available to students. Asperger’s syndrome is now considered a high-functioning form of autism. People who suffer from it can function for themselves, but they still have particular difficultly recognizing social cues.
4:59 pm: They’re showing a video of an special education instructor working with a toddler with autism to show the teaching methods that SPECTRUM uses. Lots of repetition, lots of active stimuli for the kid, and lots of physical direction and interaction. The kid’s having a ball, and, as the presenters and audience members have noted, he’s very cute.
5:05 pm: An audience member asked if SPECTRUM offers internships for people who are interested in the field, and Joe Vedora affirmed that they do. If you’re interested, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
5:08 pm: All done. Thank you, Joe and Jody, for an interesting and informative presentation.