We as a society love to look at test scores to determine success for our children. And if this were a true measure of success then a lot of children with Autism would be doing amazing! I’ve met children who can visually see every countries flag in their heads, can tell you every stat of their favourite sports team. One child once asked me what my birthdate was and then told me the exact day of the week I was born on. Clearly academics is not the base line we should be measuring growth and success by for our children with Autism.
If you’re new to the Autism community or you are a seasoned veteran, you will remember the day the professional told you they think your child has Autism (ASD). That day for many parents is as clear as what they did 5 minutes ago. Now do you remember how these professionals tested your child and came to this conclusion? Was it about math? Or perhaps whether they could read/ write? Or if they could spell their name or hold a pencil correctly? I think you can remember that the answer is ‘no’ to all of these questions. It was about their ability to socially engage with the people around them. Social Communication, Restricted Interests & Repetitive Behaviours are the categories that these professionals were evaluating. All of these categories fall under Social Skills. So let us be clear, if your child was not diagnosed based on anything academic, why then do we use this as the measure for their growth/ success throughout their childhood and teenage years?
Hopefully your child was born within the last 12yrs and was lucky enough to receive intensive autism intervention. If they did then you would know that autism intervention looks much different than what a child would learn in a classroom. Autism intervention looks like a one on one or small group setting where the professional is targeting the specific social skills deficits your child may have. Your progress reports didn’t look like A+ or C-, they looked like graphed goals showing improvement in communication, language development, sharing, eye contact etc. For 20hrs a week, at Stepping Stones autism Centre, your child would receive amazing intervention with access to a Speech Language Therapist, Behaviour Analyst, Music Therapist, Clinical Supervisors, Psychologists, Occupational Therapist, Case Managers and one on one support workers (Holy Crap!) These professionals were highly trained in areas specific to autism like (brace yourself):
Basic principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (Reinforcement, Shaping, Prompting, etc.)
Facilitating children’s language development
Teaching social-communication skills
Teaching social-emotional skills.
Naturalistic Environment Training (NET)
Teaching appropriate play interactions with peers.
Implementing behavior support plans.
Teaching socially appropriate replacement behaviours and reducing challenging behaviours.
Teaching self-help skills.
Teaching generalization skills.
Positive supports, such as visual schedules, social stories, etc.
Data-collection for individual client goals.
Then your child turned 5 and had to use the training and intervention they received to help them in one of the most socially overwhelming environments there is, school. Hopefully the learned how to initiate conversations, take turns, communicate with more than words. Hopefully they learned strategies for handling other kids saying “no” when asked if they want to play, or when another child takes your paint brush. These are the social dynamics 5yr olds face. But then they go to grade 1, grade 2 and grade 3. Now the social environment in grade 3 is much different than in kindergarten. Most of the other kids are naturally learning social skills as they grow based on trial and error and observing their surroundings, but what about the children with Autism? Unfortunately this is gap the title refers to.
When they were 5 they had intervention to prepare them for being 5, but now they are 8. Do the social skills at 5 reflect what they need at 8, 10 or 17? We all know the answer to this, no. But if Autism is a social disorder that affects a child's brain, should direct teaching and intervention stop at 5? I think the obvious answer is no If you want your child to have age appropriate social skills. This unfortunately is the start of the gap. Nowhere ever does it say, “all children with autism need to be socially successful is intervention until they turn 5”. In fact, if you look into research it says something much different. Children with Autism will learn social skills naturally, just not at the same rate as their peers without specific and intentional instruction or intervention. Yes, academics are important, but it’s not the root of difficulty for a child with Autism.
To help you understand let’s end with an example that has the same premise; Let’s say you are injured in a car accident and break your leg, your difficulty is now walking, correct? So you’re at the rehab centre and your therapist comes up to you and says, “alright Debrah, were going to evaluate your progress since the accident 2 months ago.” The therapist then puts a piece of paper in front of you and says can you solve this riddle: “A train leaves from New York City heading towards Los Angeles at 100 mph. Three hours later, a train leaves LA heading towards NYC at 200 MPH. Assume there's exactly 2000 miles between LA and NYC. When they meet, which train is closer to New York City?” Whether or not you get this right or wrong does not measure your improvement or growth in the areas you have difficulty.
If you want your child with Autism to be socially successful, start measuring their progress in social areas not academic ones. If they are falling behind perhaps go get some training in how to teach that social skill or reach out to a professional for help. These skills only get more and more complex as they get older, consistent coaching is key! Don’t take my word for it, here are a few research articles that would agree.