Note: this article aims to identify the basic characteristics of the five types of autism, but remains sensitive to the fact that no child on the spectrum fits a specific mold. The understanding and definition of autism remains fluid, and that means descriptions will evolve over time.
At no point in history have educators had a clearer understanding of learning differences and the teaching strategies that coincide with them. As you work to create a more equitable classroom with more positive student outcomes, understanding the five types of autism can be a massive step toward a transformational education for every child.
Though no two students with autism will exhibit identical behavioral traits, their learning difference falls into one of these categories: Kanner’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett syndrome, or pervasive development disorder.
Students with Kanner’s Syndrome
Often referred to as classic autism, Kanner’s generally indicates your student falls on the most extreme end of the spectrum. Generally, the symptoms of Kanner’s are diagnosed around age 3, so parents are more than privy to the specifics of their child’s learning difference and can communicate their particular social–emotional and academic needs.
Teachers will be expected to circumnavigate the following symptoms:
- Dogmatic and unyielding behaviors and habits that make change extremely uncomfortable and disruptive to the classroom
- Repeating speech and actions that may disrupt communication between educator and student
- Self-harm that often includes students hitting themselves if a triggering event occurs
- Withdrawn personalities and avoidance of social situations
- Hypersensitivity to sensory experience, which may cause volatile reactions to touch, sounds, smells, and sights
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Once labeled Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder stands apart from the other four categories of autism, as the most pertinent symptom is the student’s obsessive interest in one single idea, object, or topic of discussion. Because education often involves conquering a variety of subjects in a single day, it may prove more difficult for the student to absorb diverse curriculum.
Teachers will need to look out for the following symptoms:
- A specialized vocabulary dedicated to a sole topic of interest
- Socially awkward, hyper-eccentric, or inappropriate behavior that leads to poor interactions with classmates
- Uncoordinated motor skills that can impact traditional play activities, such as biking, catching a ball, or climbing on playground equipment
- Misunderstanding of nonverbal communication and social cues
- Repetitive rituals that may seem arbitrary to an onlooker, but provide your student with comfort
Source: National Institute of Health
Students with Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
Also known as Heller’s syndrome, this type of autism may happen gradually, or in a rapid swoop that leaves young people baffled as to what is happening to them. Specifically, childhood disintegrative disorder means that your student experiences major losses in two or more of the symptoms listed below, usually before the age of 10.
Teachers with a student with childhood disintegrative disorder must remain cognizant of these symptoms:
- Slow or especially uncoordinated motor skills that may impact kinesthetic learning
- Trouble with expressive and/or receptive language skills, which makes speaking and listening a challenge
- A lack of bowel or bladder control that may require medical intervention
- Lackluster social, play, and self-care skills that may impede their relationships and interactions with classmates
- Low academic performance, poor self-sufficiency, and weakened adaptive skills
Students with Rett Syndrome
Students with Rett syndrome usually begin exhibiting behavioral patterns early in life, between one year and 18 months old. The early diagnosis will help parents and teachers communicate about individual requirements, though no two children exhibit identical behaviors. In fact, Rett syndrome symptoms will fall on a spectrum from mild to severe, varying widely from one student to another.
Teachers will want to look for some form of these symptoms and behavioral habits:
- Delayed physical growth, often denoted with a head size that’s smaller than average
- Loss of communication abilities, including eye contact and speech itself, which indicates the student will have trouble participating in traditional class activities
- A development of hand or eye movements that serve no apparent goal, including clapping, hand-wringing, staring, and excessive blinking
- Extreme agitation that can result in unprovoked screaming and crying, or uncontrollable laughter for seemingly no reason
- Medical conditions such as seizures, scoliosis, irregular heartbeat, and sleep apnea
Source: Mayo Clinic
Students with Pervasive Development Disorder
Teachers know this all too well: No two kids bear the exact same academic and social needs. This is especially true when it comes to learning differences. When a child falls under the pervasive development disorder category, it means they don’t meet all of the criteria for an autism diagnosis. These students generally show milder symptoms than the previous entries.
Teachers will need to take note of the following symptoms:
- Inappropriate or unusual social habits, which may range from quirky to damaging
- Difficulty with transitioning from one classroom activity to another
- Repetitive and goalless behaviors, such as opening and closing backpacks, positioning doors at a certain angle, and flipping light switches
- Delays in speaking and language comprehension that impact both academic performance and social development
- Harsh reactions to common tastes, sounds, smells, and textures