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Elaine Coonrod (M.S. Vanderbilt Univ.) from the Chapel Hill Center for the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children (TEACCH) spoke with us about autism. Once thought to be an emotional disorder, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that lacks a biological marker. As a result, autism is diagnosed through behavioral observations such as impaired social relationships, impaired language and communication, and restrictive interests.

Some facts about autism from the presentation:

The spectrum of behaviors classified as autistic is divided into three disorders. These divisions, while not clearly agreed upon among experts, are autism, Asperger syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). All three share the characteristic of social impairment. Autism is distinct from the other two because it is present in children under 3 years old. PDD-NOS is the typical diagnosis of higher-functioning autistics, and Asperger Syndrome is nebulously defined somewhere in between.

Elaine described the characteristics of the children that she works with, and how as educators they must structure the learning environment to accommodate the special needs of an autistic student. People with autism are very concrete thinkers and have difficulty generalizing. Consequently, educators must be very explicit when giving instructions. Procedures are very detail oriented and often accompanied by visual cues. According to Elaine, autistic students are often distracted and unable to habituate themselves to visual and auditory stimuli. TEACCH provides a workspace for the student that is walled in to allow the student to concentrate on the task at hand. In addition, each student is made aware of a schedule that helps the teachers transition the student from one task to another.

Eliane left us with some links to information about autism, and a suggested reading list. She recommends the book An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks. The title of the book comes from a quote from a high-functioning autistic woman named Temple Grandin, who holds a Ph. D. and teaches at the University of Colorado. Dr. Grandin said that as an autistic person she feels like an ” anthropologist on Mars ” as she observes the behaviors of neuro-typical people. Dr. Grandin also has a book called Thinking in Pictures. The first chapter of this book can be found here.

Websites recommended by Elaine Coonrod: