April is Autism Awareness Month: Classroom Discussion

"Be sure to wear blue on Monday for Autism Awareness Day," my principal announced over the loudspeaker.

"What IS autism," one of my students mumbled.

A really basic question, from a kid who doesn't usually bother to ask.  I couldn't just let it go. 

How DO I Explain Autism to my Fourth Graders?

I'd had a rough week, and just got back from my 2 day hiatus with the stomach bug.  So as I took the weekend to think about what I would say during Monday's Morning Meeting, when I shared with the kids what autism is about, I found myself thinking about my recent illness, and how my husband took good care of me.

So after our greeting, I told the kids that it was great to see so many wearing blue for Autism Awareness.  I told them that I told my husband I wanted to get a new blue shirt when we were out at the mall since we'd be wearing blue in observance of Autism Awareness Day.  And he asked me, "Are you going to tell them that I have autism?"

I paused, and let that sink in for them a moment.  For some kids, it did.

"I can if you want me to," I said to my husband.

"Well, it's Autism Awareness Day, so they should be aware."

The kids chuckled.

I asked him, "Can I bring your cat book?"  When they looked confused I explained, "He has a book about the type of autism he has, which is called Aspergers, and it shows how cats act like they have it too."

"I don't want them to ruin it," my husband worried.  The pages are all nice and crisp, and I don't want them bent..."

"How about if I don't let them touch it?  I'll just read it to them."

"Well I don't want YOU to ruin it..."

The kids laughed again.

I told them that I'd show them the book after I told them a little about what autism IS, because the book tells more about how people with it (and cats) act.

When I asked my husband, "What do you think I should tell them autism is," he said, "Just tell them what I'm like.  Like how I have trouble talking to people."

So I explained that most people get better at communicating as they get older.  Babies can't talk.  So if mommy says she's sick, the baby doesn't understand, so the baby doesn't talk.

Later, when mommy says she's sick, the baby might understand that being sick is bad, but doesn't know what to say or do.  And some people with severe autism don't learn how to speak, even though they understand that being sick is bad.

Later a toddler learns how to talk, and they know that being sick is bad, they still might not know exactly what they should say to make mom feel better.  They might ignore what mom says and say, "I want juice."  Some people with autism don't know what to say when a person talks to them; they focus on something else instead.  Like the 3 year old, they're not trying to be rude. And unlike the 3 year old, some people with this kind of autism KNOW they have trouble figuring out to say, wish they could figure it out, and get very frustrated, anxious, or upset with themselves.

Later, a 5 year old kid might have learned that not only is being sick bad, but when they are sick mommy gives them their teddy bear to make them feel better.  If mommy happens to just have a headache, that is a nice gesture.  And it probably will make mommy feel better!  But if mommy needs to go to the hospital, the teddy bear isn't what she really needs.  So it's not that the autistic person isn't TRYING to help, they just have a hard time figuring out what other people need, when the other people's needs are different from their own.

Then I explained that a person with autism may be at any one of those stages, because autism is a "spectrum disorder."   An example of my husband's level is when I was out sick for 2 days, my husband kept insisting I go take a nap when I felt like I just needed to lay down and read.  Because when he's sick, he doesn't like to read on the couch, he likes to be alone in the other room. But when I told him I'd like a cup of tea, he was happy to get me a cup because he knows tea makes HIM feel good when HE'S sick too.  So he felt a lot more certain about that making me feel better.

Finally, I read the book, "All Cats Have Asperger's Syndrome," which was a huge hit.  The kids loved the pictures of the cats and kittens of course.  They said "aww" at the sad parts and laughed at the silly parts.  And they gave me a round of applause at the end.  So I hope they at least remember a little bit about why they wear blue on April 2nd next year.

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