Dinosaurs and the Autism Spectrum
Autism is a life-long, debilitating condition that affects a surprising number of people. Research from the National Autistic Society suggests that as many as half a million people in the UK have some form of Autism or have a related condition such as Asperger Syndrome. Autism is a condition that affects the way in which people relate to themselves and the world around them. Sufferers can be over-sensitive to sensory stimuli, they can find it difficult to make sense of their environment. Asperger Syndrome is a form of Autism. People with Asperger Syndrome find it difficult to communicate and interact with others. Neither Autism or Asperger Syndrome are related to low intelligence, indeed, from our experience with children that have Asperger Syndrome the child concerned is often shown to have a higher than average IQ. For example, one of the attractions of dinosaurs to children on the Autism Spectrum are the long names and all the complicated facts associated with these prehistoric monsters. Some children on the spectrum, seem able to retain vast amounts of information related to their favourite dinosaurs and can recite an astonishing amount of factual information about them.
Detecting Children on the Autism Spectrum
These conditions cannot be detected just by looking at a person, there are no visual symptoms but they do manifest themselves in certain behaviours. If these behaviours can be identified in young children at an early age than steps and processes can be put in place to help them and their families manage their condition in an effective way. As these are termed “hidden disabilities” it can be very difficult to diagnose the condition. Fortunately, thanks to the campaigning of a number of charities and other organisations the awareness of both Autism, Asperger Syndrome and other related conditions has risen substantially over the last twenty years or so and many teachers and teaching assistants are now trained in being able to identify Autism in the school children in their class.
Children with Asperger Syndrome may have fewer difficulties with their speech and they usually do not have the accompanying learning difficulties associated Autism, but they may have specific learning issues. These can include dyspraxia and dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Fortunately, society’s understanding of these conditions has greatly improved since my own time at school. Recently a friend was diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum and having related dyslexia but as a school child her condition was not noticed and she did not (and nor did her parents), receive the help and support needed.
With the right help and encouragement, people on the Autism Spectrum and with Asperger Syndrome can lead completely fulfilled and independent lives. The important thing from our perspectives as teachers is to understand the condition and to put in place support at an early stage to help children and their parents/guardians/family members manage.
Autism is a Spectrum
When teaching a class it can be difficult to identify the behaviours in a young child that could indicate that this child has Autism or a related condition. The problem is there are “degrees” of Autism. I always prefer the term Autism Spectrum condition rather than the alternative title Autism Spectrum syndrome, but in my experience both are used. I imagine the condition of Autism like a long bar with a person with this condition fitting somewhere along this bar as each individual can be affected differently. It is true to say that whilst all people with Autism will share certain behaviours and difficulties making sense of their world and their environment, some people will be able to live independent lives whilst others, who may have related learning difficulties and disabilities will require specialist support throughout their lives.
Where do Dinosaurs Fit In?
There are certain types of behaviour associated with children on the Autism Spectrum. Not all people will display the same behaviours, Autism affects individuals in different ways. One of the mantras I use when teaching in a class where there is a child or children on the Autism Spectrum is to remember to “celebrate their uniqueness and to rejoice in the way that they are able to see the world differently from myself”. However, there are common behaviours and the subject of dinosaurs seems to lend itself to them.
For example, some children may be natural scholars and become extremely knowledgeable about a subject they enjoy. Studying dinosaurs seems to tick many of the boxes for them and they become almost totally immersed in their subject. Children on the Autism Spectrum may be able to recall information better than their peers, with so many facts and figures surrounding the study of dinosaurs they seem to be naturally drawn to this topic. For instance, being able to quote facts and statistics about dinosaurs – which was the biggest, fiercest, heaviest, fastest, longest? Vertebrate palaeontology and the Dinosauria in particular seem to be a rich source of information that is often recited repeatedly with parents/guardians being bombarded with questions and demands for more data.
In addition, young people on the Autism Spectrum may often not want to join in games with other children, preferring to play alone, immersing themselves in their favourite subject area and playing with dinosaur models and other replicas. Often they can repeat the game over and over again or insist on doing the same activity over and over again at the same time each day. The availability of videos and DVDs on dinosaurs can help with this. Children on the Autism Spectrum can enjoy watching repeated plays of the same DVD.
Dinosaur Days Out
Fortunately, there are a number of museums that have displays of dinosaur fossils and other items that can be visited. However, for a family taking a child on the Autism Spectrum out for the day can be a daunting prospect and one difficult episode can result in the parents/guardians losing all confidence.
There are some hopefully helpful tips and advice we can pass on to help parents/guardians manage the day out ensuring that it is a rewarding activity for all concerned.
1). Remember the Sensitivity
Some children on the Autism Spectrum can be over sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. If intending to visit a dinosaur attraction we recommend contacting the providers before you go to gain an understanding of any elements that may be distressing to your child.
2). Contact the Provider before you Visit
Getting in touch with the museum before the day gives you the chance to learn about any special arrangements that may be in place to help you get the most out of your day. You can also receive specialist advice and organise support on the day should it be needed.
3). Get the Guidebook before you Go
By getting a guidebook or leaflet before you visit you and your child can plan their day. This can help the child preparing them for the experience to a degree and enable you and your family to be able to get the most out of the visit
Obsessing on Dinosaurs
Not all children on the Autism Spectrum will have obsessions. Those that do may not obsess on dinosaurs and prehistoric animals. For instance, we have encountered a number of young children who become totally immersed in subjects as diverse as cars and “Thomas the Tank Engine”, but a number of children do develop a fascination for the Dinosauria. This in itself is no bad thing, as with the establishment of the creative curriculum in most parts of the United Kingdom schools are often covering this subject area within their teaching schemes of work. Learning about dinosaurs can help develop confidence, after all, many children will share this common interest and love of all things to do with dinosaurs. There are a large number of supplies of resources that can assist, everything from the local library, the regional museum and of course the internet. For parents/guardians too, learning about dinosaurs can be a rewarding experience especially if it is an area the enables them to celebrate the way in which their particular child views the world.
by Mike Walley