The Many Faces of Autism

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

pensive baby

When I began my special education teaching career, the term autism really referred to one set of characteristics, a child with the stereotypical head banging and self-stimulation behaviors (hands flapping in front of the face). It was the severe problem that everyone could identify without much trouble, at least in schools. Doctors were beginning to identify a range of syndromes that fit in the term “autism”.

The word “autism,” which has been in use for about 100 years, comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self” and describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction, an isolated self.

Autism usually appears during the first three years of life. Some children show signs as early as birth. Others seem to develop normally at first, only to suddenly exhibit symptoms when they are 18 to 36 months old. Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. It knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, or educational levels do not affect a child’s chance of being autistic.

Today, we have names for many different sets of behaviors, Asperger’s syndrome, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), pervasive developmental disorder or PDD, Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder. There are arguments among professionals as to which disorders actually represent autism.

No matter how it is described or named, children afflicted with these groups of characteristics have a tough road ahead. Theories abound about causes of autism; there was at one time a theory that an autistic child lacked enough nurturing from his mother. Scientists aren’t certain about what causes ASD, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment play a role. Some genes have been identified as potential links to the development of autism in an individual.

One symptom common to all types of autism is an inability to communicate and interact with others. Some people with autism are unable to communicate at all. Others may have difficulty interpreting body language or holding a conversation. Other symptoms linked to autism may include unusual behaviors in any of these areas:

  • interest in objects or special information – you may recall the film “Rain Man” where the autistic adult could barely function in social situations but had superb recall of details and performing mathematical calculations.
  • reactions for sensations
  • physical coordination.

Treatment for autism includes specialized training with behavior interventions, medication, or both. Each case is unique but it is thought that the most effective treatments include participation of the whole family. A specialist will come into the child’s home to develop specific treatments based on their observations of how the family interacts with the child and each other.  As children with autism enter school, they may benefit from targeted social skills training and specialized approaches to teaching.

We know that small numbers of children can eventually become socialized to a degree that allows them to move back into regular classrooms. An Asperger’s Syndrome child has a mild form of the disorder and may never need special education. He is the child who sits by himself at lunchtime or who shows no emotion during movies with animals that suffer or die. Many of the symptoms are so mild that the child is never identified.

In this blog, I will occasionally focus on a specific type of situation that children face when they are identified and recommended for special education services. The range of symptoms and educational deficits presented in classrooms are so complex, that training for teachers in the field has become the most important factor in determining positive outcomes for all students with IEP’s. Teachers may wish to divert from their education training to take a more clinical route, and select jobs in clinics and hospitals. Their training becomes more like that for a physician’s assistant and their interests may then become testing and assessment of special education in schools and other facilities.

It is a growth industry and there will always be a need for qualified and talented special education teachers. Today, with medical advances students arrive at our doors with a myriad of medical problems that in the earlier days would have killed them. An example of that is low birth weight and premature children who used to die in the first hours of their lives, but are now saved and brought into the community.

For more information about careers in special education, contact the Council for Exceptional Education.

Comment on the blog, let us know the status of special education in your schools.


Grant Name: Ross Foundation Educational Grants

Funded By: The Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation

Description: Giving on a national basis to advance the moral, mental, and physical well-being of children of all races and creeds; to aid and assist in providing for the basic needs of food, shelter, and education of such children by whatever means and methods necessary or advisable; to prevent by medical research or otherwise the mental and physical handicaps of children. Funding also for the research of pediatric diseases.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, Early Childhood, General Education, Health/PE, Special Education

Eligibility:  Private School, Faith Based, Other

Proposal Deadline:  Ongoing

Annual Total Amount: $400,000.00 – $560,000.00

Average Amount:  $1,000.00 – $15,000.00

Address: 1036 Monroe Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620

Telephone: 585-473-6006


Website: Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation

Availability:  All States

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