Today, 2 April 2018, marks the eleventh annual World Autism Awareness Day. The entire month of April is dedicated raising awareness of Autism and the people who live on the Autistic Spectrum.
In 2008, the Centre for Disease Control considered Autism the fastest growing developmental disability. The prevalence of autism in the United States increased by 119% from 2000 to 2010 and occurs four times more in boys than in girls (CDC in Autism Speaks, 2018). South Africa has not published any statistics on autism prevalence, but it is likely that our statistics are not far off those of the United States.
While genetic factors and probably environmental factors play a role in the cause of autism, much of the disorder is still not known. We hear much about the autism ‘spectrum’. The word spectrum indicates the wide range of challenges that autistic children and grown-ups encounter. These challenges include difficulty with social interactions, speech delays, ADD, ADHD, and varied medical conditions including psychological conditions like clinical depression.
It is unlikely that any teacher today has not had a child ‘on the spectrum’ in her/his class in recent years, and while much debate has ensued regarding the placement of autistic children in mainstream schools, Montessori schools seem to have embraced the challenge and in many cases, our environments are a good fit for a child on the autism spectrum.
There are a few advantages that our Montessori classrooms may offer a child on the autism spectrum.
Mixed age classes
Having children of mixed ages not only relieves the pressure of being compared to others of the same age, it also creates a more flexible expectation regarding normative outcomes. This allows children to build on strengths and develop weaker areas at their own pace.
Freedom to choose
Having the freedom to choose work of interest and work at that activity, uninterrupted and for as long as s/he likes will allow the autistic child who fixates on a topic to run with that topic as far as s/he needs to.
Facilitators/guides who observe
A Montessori facilitator’s work includes a huge amount of observation. It is only through observation that s/he can really know the child and determine patterns in behaviour, triggers for concentration/interrupted concentration, interests shown by the child, socialisation opportunities, and so much more. Observation helps us to help the child!
Using the Montessori materials, at the child’s own pace and as her/his interests dictate, means that the child can be more focused and more driven to complete tasks. It is however up to the facilitator to be prepared for the child and have interesting and do-able activities planned.
No rewards and no punishments
This may be one of the hardest aspects when it comes to managing a classroom with a child on the autism spectrum. It is possibly easier to manage the ‘no rewards’ part of the above Montessori philosophy. No giving sweets, stars for a chart or early breaks for good behaviour or work well done is fairly simple. Less easy, is the rule of ‘no punishments’. We often tend to disguise punishments as ‘consequences’. Sadly, in the end, ‘staying in until the work is done’, ‘not joining the birthday circle until the work is done’ are punishments. We, as Montessori facilitators, need to be more creative and less punitive in addressing that ‘work not done’ or the negative behaviours. This aspect of the Montessori philosophy is indeed an advantage to the child with autism as s/he needs the safety of clear ground rules that do not come attached to threats and/or consequences.
Montessori facilitators are not qualified to diagnose or ‘treat’ autism. What they can do, however, is remember and practice the Montessori Decalogue and the broader Montessori philosophy. They should look at each child in their class as a new child every day. The child on the autism spectrum will often frustrate you, sometimes cause feelings of despair and sometimes anxiety. This child will also delight you and bring a very special element to any class. Look for that ‘something special’ that is unique to the child and be the kind of facilitator that helps that light to shine brighter.
Having said all of this, it should be noted that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ remedy for autistic children. There is a saying, ‘if you have met one autistic child, you have met one autistic child.’ The nuances, challenges, and strengths of each autistic child are just a varied as those for children who do not live on the autism spectrum. Work together with the autistic child’s therapists and parents. Montessori schools and classrooms are not a ‘fix’ for autistic children, but they may well be a safe haven where they are honoured and respected for who they are, just as they are.
– Heidi van Staden –
Autism South Africa (undated) Understanding Autism [online] available at: http://aut2know.co.za/understanding-autism/ (date accessed 02.04.2018)
Autism Speaks (2018) What is Autism [online] available at: https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism (date accessed 02.04.2018)
Burke, M. (undated) Montessori and Autism: Friends or Foes? [online] available at: https://carrotsareorange.com/autism/ (date accessed 02.04.2018)
Montessori for Everyone (undated) An Interview with Michelle Lane of The Lane Montessori School for Autism [online] available at: http://www.montessoriforeveryone.com/Lane-Montessori-School-for-Autism_ep_67-1.html (date accessed 02.04.2018)