We had the pleasure of interviewing a middle school student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as well as his parent. Ralph (not the child’s real name) is diagnosed as having “High-functioning autism” (HFA). The term “high functioning autism” applies to people with autism who are cognitively higher functioning but have deficits in areas of expression, communication, recognizing emotion, and social interaction.
Ralph is a sixth grader at one of the District’s schools. We asked how he liked school, what he did in his spare time, and which subject he enjoyed the most. Clearly, Ralph likes routines and he began to quote his daily schedule, including the names of all his teachers from first through sixth period. He revealed that his favorite subject is math because he likes his math teacher and how the teacher interacts with him. Ralph told us that his teacher is very interested in helping him when he gets stuck and always gives him hints on how to solve math problems, which Ralph says works very well for him. Ralph exclaims, “Eventually, well – sooner or later, I solve the problem!” His least favorite thing to do is homework, which is a typical response of any middle school student.
The busy chatter of students negatively impacts Ralph in the classroom. As classroom noise levels escalate, Ralph experiences sensory overload resulting in frustration. He tells us that teachers also get annoyed with the noise levels and this too adds to his own frustration.
Ralph talked to us about taking the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) and expressed that it was not fair that his teachers could not give him hints like they do in the classroom. He prefers paper and pencil tests rather than those requiring the use of the computer. His mother shared that Ralph does best in testing conditions where there is complete silence and one teacher to monitor. Although Ralph has testing accommodations provided through his Individualized Education Plan, like many other students, he does not care for this annual testing. Ralph happens to be extremely focused on perfection in his writing and it’s important for him to have all of the time that he needs, which sometimes can turn into hours, to do things his way.
Like most teenagers, in his spare time Ralph enjoys watching TV, eating snacks, playing Robocop and sleeping. He has turned finding his favorite snacks at home into a game. His mother is cautious about the amount of sugar in his diet and doesn’t want him to eat too much of it, so she hides snacks in an effort to control the amount he consumes. Ralph takes great pride in locating his favorite treats. She said that recently, she had to lock the snacks in the trunk of her car to make sure that Ralph couldn’t get to them easily. Ralph looked at her with a twinkle in his eye at which point she realized she accidentally revealed the coveted snack location. Ralph turned the conversation to his love of animals, particularly cats and dogs, and that because of this love he’s not much of a meat eater unless the meat happens to be bacon. After this segment of the conversation Ralph decided to tune us out. He pulled out his headphones and entered his world of alternative music.
Ralph’s mother is an incredibly strong, patient, and talented woman with a passion for not only helping her son, but helping all children with ASD. She shared that her son does not see himself as being different from other children, despite the fact that he faces some challenges. She sees Ralph’s inability to “control his tongue” as one of his biggest challenges now and in the future. She says, “Ralph is honest to a fault and if he sees or thinks something, he blurts it out often times in inappropriate settings. At times, children are cruel to Ralph, but that doesn’t seem to impact him much unless he has some sort of an emotional bond that he’s formed with the person.”
Ralph does not hug and finds the human touch a great frustration. However, this past summer Ralph did something that made his grandmother cry – he hugged her for the very first time! One of the things that his mother states is a challenge for Ralph is planning and setting goals. Ralph cannot see or think beyond today. For example, he cannot plan beyond what he will do this weekend, he doesn’t envision getting older, having his first girlfriend, or developing a career interest for the future. His mom says that to Ralph the only thing that is important is “now” and he lives in the moment.
When we asked his mom how Ralph adjusted to school, she told us that over the years, Ralph has had wonderful teachers in the Putnam County School District. “Once teachers are aware of Ralph’s ASD they do a tremendous job in working with him. Every teacher found some special and unique aspect of Ralph which each used to develop a special bond with him.”
If Ralph’s mother could share anything with other parents, it would be to make sure that if a parent notices delays in verbal communication and decreased eye contact by the time a child is 2, to please have the child referred to a speech therapist. Ralph’s mom credits early speech intervention for Ralph’s ability to look people in the eye when he communicates. She says that speech therapists have constantly worked with him from the time he was two on developing eye contact which resulted in Ralph’s ability to communicate better than other ASD children who haven’t had therapy.
Ralph’s mother says that she is glad to be able to share her joys and her struggles with other parents who face the same issues. This is largely accomplished through a private Facebook group which is by invitation only that has been established for Putnam County families with special needs children. This is a great tool for support.
Through Ralph’s ASD, his mother says that she has learned that being fair does not mean being equal. To be fair to Ralph, instruction has to be adjusted to meet his needs. He is not equal to other children and making the adjustments in Ralph’s education that he needs provides him with the opportunity to develop his gifts and talents to the best of his ability.