Effects of Autism in Early Childhood Education

Effects of Autism in Early Childhood Development and Education

Kristina Nofsinger
Early childhood is a time of formative development. In fact, from birth to Kindergarten could be considered the most influential years in a child’s life. From the moment infancy begins, children commence forming competencies, learning about the world around them and building expectations of how people and things will operate (Shonkoff, & Phillips, 2000). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes children to develop atypically and, along with comorbid psychopathological issues, to experience abnormal development in a classroom unless addressed promptly and appropriately.
Autism is now known as a heterogeneous, spectrum disorder meaning the symptoms range from mild (High Functioning Autism, HFA) to severe. This disorder now includes Asperger’s’ Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) (“Autism Spectrum Disorder”, 2016). As a spectrum disorder, it is difficult to diagnose children early, especially in those with HFA. A child’s obsessive fixation with trains may seem like nothing more than fascination whereas a child who does not speak by the age of 2 or self-injures when frustrated will be noticed right away. A majority of children will go unnoticed until enrolling in school (Boyd & Shaw, 2010; Turner & Stone, 2007).
Autism is also typically comorbid with issues such as anxiety and Developmental Delay (DD) (Goldin, Matson, Konst, & Adams, 2014). Anxiety stands as one of the most complained about issues and, it is hypothesized, works as an antecedent to problem behaviors. Many times it is the onset of these problem behaviors interfering with daily life that prompts a parent to seek help (Purliese, B. White, S. White, & Ollendick, 2012). Research by Gadow et al. and Leyfer et al. (as cited in Purliese et al., 2012) suggests that HFA children more often show signs of anxiety at a rate of 40 to 41%.  Moskowitz et al. (2013) even found that children with ASD have higher resting heart rates and elevated activity in their sympathetic nervous system. This means their unconscious defense system is running all the time. A child’s ability to adapt to change, participate in peer socialization, or engage in learning is negatively impacted by the concomitant disorders (Rogers, Glod, Connolly, & McConachie, 2012).
More children are being diagnosed presently than in the past at a current rate of 1 in 68 children (“Autism Spectrum Disorder”, 2016). This is in part due to a shift in public understanding of the disorder. Autism used to be considered a product of poor parenting and, even now, vaccines are being blamed (Boyd & Shaw, 2010). This created a stigma for many years motivating parents to not seek help. Using twin studies, Yates and Le Couteur reported, “genetic heritability of core autism is approximately 90%” (2008, p.5). Providing a biological basis for the disorder removed the negative stain placed on parents and opened the door for more early diagnosis and effective treatment.
Bagatell (2012) conducted an ethnographic microanalysis of children in a typical classroom setting. She found that when music and material prompts were unsuccessful in engaging ASD students, peer scaffolding provided the key to congruent participation. Accordingly, it was found that small groups proved to be a better learning environment than large groups or even 1:1 teaching (Bagatell, 2012). This specific benefit of small group learning for a child with ASD could be due to the unique deficits in socialization (Bagatell, 2012; Boyd & Shaw, 2012). Lev Vygotsky believed that children actively compose their understanding of the world, but he leaned more on the influence and benefits of social interaction. Vygotsky’s social focus has proved useful in understanding deficits in reciprocity and benefits to peer scaffolding in children suffering from ASD (Santrock, 2014). The ASD child may suffer from an inability to communicate socially, but they also suffer from isolation, so small group learning provides many skill building opportunities without the trials of one on one interaction
Early childhood is typically a rich time of growth biologically, cognitively, and emotionally. Once children enter early childhood education they begin fine-tuning motor skills, expanding their concept of socialization, and adopting expressive forms of communication (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). According to Piaget, prior to this time, children have constructed expectations about things, the world and people while at the same time acquiring necessary attachments using synchrony (Santrock, 2014). As children continue in play it helps to teach self-regulation, problem-solving, and even friendship negotiation (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). In a report by Miniscalco, Rudling, Rastam, Gillberg, and Johnels (2014), they stated that “imitation skills predicted pragmatic language growth, whereas core language did not” (p. 369) meaning those children engaged in peer reciprocity are building their developmental future.
Once considered a rare disorder, the diagnosis rate has increased twenty times what it was 2 decades ago (Boyd & Shaw, 2010). The increase in diagnoses, lack of universal treatment, and educational impact of impairment makes ASD a public health concern (Goldin, Matson, Konst, & Adam, 2014). Boyd and Shaw (2010) found predictable indicators in infants by the way they struggled with parent-child synchrony. Typical children build secure attachments through parent-child interactions and later friendships through peer play. These children become Kindergartners with foundational socioemotional, communication, and reasoning skills in place (Santrock, 2014; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).  A child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however, will struggle to productively engage with peer play and the learning environment: lacking the ability to engage in imaginative play, having limited fields of interest, and difficulty maintaining friendships. This leads to feelings of isolation and often bullying (Boyd & Shaw, 2010).
Santrock (2014) found that boys are five times more likely than girls to have ASD and Turner (2007) found race to not be a factor. As we understand that gender bias is already present in classrooms largely favoring the natural compliant demeanor of girls (Sandtrock, 2014), boys with ASD, in particular, begin school with a double disadvantage. ASD also typically presents social and communication impairments which can inhibit proper classroom engagement and positive peer reciprocity. Powers and Bierman (as cited in Santrock, 2014) reported that children, like ASD children, who display aggressive classroom behavior tend to have aggressive friends. This, in turn, becomes one more disadvantage in the classroom and socialization. Yet, much can be said about the benefit of play in young children. Inclusive classrooms with diverse teaching strategies using play allow children with ASD to build significant socioemotional skills (Vakil, Welton, O’Connor, & Kline, 2008). This time of imitation play is a time when alternative forms of communication or AAC can be taught. In a study conducted by Van de Meer et al. (2012) comparing the use of four different forms of AAC with children who were DD, they found a varied preference, but positive use. Rinis and Vlachos (2013) found in their research of a blended classroom that allowing children the ability to choose their strongest learning style, solve problems with friends, and engage in peer scaffolding improved motivation and self-efficacy.
If not addressed, these young children grow up never acquiring vital developmental skills while “symptom severity increase[es] with age” (Goldin et al., 2014, p. 952). In fact, anxiety in ASD adolescents was found to reliably predict anxiety disorders as an adult (Rogers et al., 2012). Green et al. (as cited in Purliese et al., 2012) found that HFA adolescents were reported to have the same level of aggression as those diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder.  Adolescents with ASD entering junior high will face even tougher years as social dynamics change, hormones kick in (Santrock, 2014) and ASD core symptoms produce external problem behaviors. Untreated, ASD children struggling in the classroom grow up to become adults struggling in the workplace.
I believe that Autism Spectrum Disorder is a growing educational concern considering typical classroom parameters. Although we know the biological basis for ASD, research is still needed with regards to environmental factors. What environmental factors pose the greatest risk and how do these factors impact the severity of symptoms of ASD? We do know that ASD children struggle with organization, high order tasks, and even filtering out background noise (Boyd & Shaw, 2010; Williams et al., 2006). This creates a unique dynamic in the classroom where teachers must be attentive to those children who struggle to transition, stay on task, or even participate in games with peers. As stated by Vakil et al. (2008), “A supportive environment in the early years stimulates learning, and reinforces the synaptic connections which enhance development” (p.322). If findings from previous research such as that by Bagatell (2012), Rinis and Vlachos (2013) were used in a constructive, Vygotskian classroom then every student regardless of diagnosis could be empowered to develop naturally.
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