Assisting Teachers in Recognizing Children with Autism

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013, 42 percent of 3-year-olds and 68 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in pre-primary programs. Although there is no cure for and the actual cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is unknown, there are treatments available to help children with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that early diagnosis and treatment of ASD has the potential to improve the child’s development and minimize his or her symptoms of autism. Early diagnosis is possible if daycare and preschool teachers have autism awareness training.


The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NYAEC)

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that its mission is to serve and act on behalf of the needs, rights and well-being of all young children. As an accrediting organization, the NAEYC focuses primarily on the delivery of educational and developmental services, and resources. Teachers employed by centers accredited by the NAEYC are required to follow the organization’s guidelines. These guidelines stipulate regular assessment of each child: A teacher’s experience with applied behavior analysis (aba) coupled with regular assessments can be beneficial in identifying children who have developmental delays and disorders, including autism spectrum disorder.


How the Amygdala Relates to Autism Spectrum Disorder

One theory states that an individual with ASD has fewer neurons in the part of the brain called the amygdala than an individual without an autism spectrum disorder does. The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls certain emotions, such as fear and anxiety. Another study finds that young children with ASD have larger amygdalae than children who do not have the disorder. These studies suggest that children with autism have excessive fear and anxiety, both of which may be contributing factors to the tendency for a child with ASD to withdraw from others.


The Importance of Early Identification of Autism Spectrum Disorders

The stress of feeling afraid and anxious causes the body to release cortisol (a steroid hormone). This continuous release of cortisol may damage the amygdala; thus, causing the absence of neurons once the child becomes an adult. For this reason, early diagnosis and intervention is essential.


Identifying Children with ASD in the Preschool Setting

The results of a study designed to identify children previously undiagnosed with ASD were presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). This study finds that, with little effort, daycare and preschool teachers can effectively screen children for ASD. Teachers were asked to complete the Social Communication Questionnaire or the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) form. These checklists are used to identify children who are at high risk for ASD. The CDC estimates that the prevalence of ASD is 1 in 45.


Tips to Help Teachers Identify a Child with an ASD

Each child with autism is unique; therefore, each child’s needs and intervention techniques will vary.

Signs that a child has ASD include:

  • Difficulty making friends/relating to others
  • Unable to participate in imaginative play
  • Problems with communication, some children with autism do not talk at all
  • Fears
  • Obsessions
  • Inability to recognize dangerous situations
  • Inappropriate/absent eye contact
  • Ritualistic (repeated) behavior and play
  • Spins objects
  • Hypersensitive to light and/or sound
  • Flaps his or her hands

All of these signs need not be present for a child to be diagnosed with autism and there are children who exhibit these behaviors who do not have ASD. Applied behavior analysis training can help teachers feel confident in identifying children with ASD.



Some children with ASD have little understanding of spoken language; therefore, they never learn to speak. Other autistic children do learn to speak, although the process may begin later than it would for a child without autism.


Repeating Words

Some children repeat words that have little meaning or repeat words spoken by another. For instance, if a child with ASD is asked “Do you need a napkin?” the child may use those exact words when he or she asks for a napkin. These children may also repeat phrases and words they have heard previously through television programs. This condition is referred to as echolalia. When a child with ASD develops language beyond echolalia, he or she may find it difficult to use correct grammar. These children may also misunderstand the meaning of words.


Non-Verbal Communication

A young autistic child may have difficulty with non-verbal communication. For example, simple gestures like shaking and nodding the head yes or no can confuse a child with ASD. The basic rule for teachers is to be clear, concise and consistent. Online training for autism can help teachers learn the best ways to communicate with children who have autism.


Tips for Communicating with Young Children who have Autism

Keep it Simple

Speak slow and clear. For instance, instead of saying “Michael, get your lunchbox” say “Michael, lunchbox” while pointing at the lunchbox. For a child that has better comprehension, speak in short and simple sentences stressing keywords by putting them at the end of the sentence, for example, say “Thomas, it is time for a snack.”


Individuals with ASD Usually Have Literal Understanding

Literal understanding means that whatever is said, the child takes it literally. For instance, if someone says “it’s raining cats and dogs,” the child may look outside to see if cats and dogs are coming down from the sky. Another expression that can cause an autistic child to become afraid or stressed would be the phrase “crying your eyes out.”


Use Symbols and Pictures

Use pictures, symbols or a real object to communicate with a child who has ASD. If it is time for a glass of juice, show him or her a picture of a drink. These techniques help limit the frustration a child who is unable to communicate verbally feels. Remember to avoid using busy pictures, because the child may focus on the background instead of the picture. In addition, if the picture does not completely represent the drink being offered (milk instead of juice), the child may not realize that it is still a drink.


Repeat Instructions

Many autistic children avoid looking at people and objects, this does not mean he or she is not listening; however, do not be afraid to repeat instructions. Keep in mind that when repeating instructions, use the exact same phrase that was originally used. Even the slightest variance can cause the child confusion and he or she may have to reprocess the information.


Always Use the Child’s Name

Teachers should not assume that if they say the child’s name he or she will respond immediately. Positive instruction as opposed to negative instruction is recommended; therefore, instead of saying “Thomas, stop running,” say “Thomas, slow down.”

Taking autism training courses online can assist teachers in identifying children with an ASD and providing them with the customized care they need to get the most out of their day to day activities.

Trina McMillin

Trina brings to Relias a wealth of knowledge and personal experience related to the medical field, dental issues, mental health, and physical therapy techniques. She has worked in various positions over her career which includes being a phlebotomist, laboratory assistant and medical transcriptionist.

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