By CELA on 19 Mar, 2021

As we move towards Autism Awareness Day (Friday 2nd April), CELA Research and Policy Manager Megan O’Connell shares what the latest research says about autism spectrum disorder and how we can create an inclusive environment for children on the spectrum.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that can impact social skills, language and communication, increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli like noise, lights and smell, and manifest in rigid and repetitive behaviours.

Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning each person with autism may present differently. Some children need very little support, whilst others require more adjustments. While autism is a lifelong condition, there are lots of different strategies that can help develop a child’s emotional regulation skills, communication, social skills and independence.

What does the latest research say?

Research has advanced in recent years, particularly around early detection.

Autism diagnosis used to be delayed until children were at least two years of age and often aged around four. Many children were diagnosed well into their teens – missing that vital chance for early intervention. Advances in research have shown that the signs of autism can be apparent between one and three years of age.

Latrobe University’s Olga Tennison Research Centre has been leading the way in early detection research, as explained by a lead researcher Dr Barbaro:

“All typically developing babies are pre-wired to be social, look at other people’s faces, learn from them and copy what they’re doing. Children with autism are rarely doing this – and we can now accurately identify this at a much younger age and take action.”

Early signs of autism include children infrequently:

  • making eye contact
  • engaging in pretend play
  • responding to their name and
  • making gestures

A large research trial showed that signs of autism in children aged between one and three can be detected with 80% accuracy by maternal and child health nurses. In response to this, an app has been developed to help parents to recognise the early signs.

The app isn’t a diagnosis – parents with concerns about their children’s development growth need to see their doctor for further support and seek a diagnosis, but it can help parents to understand if their children is displaying multiple behaviours that make it more likely they have autism spectrum disorder.

Why is early detection important?

New research is released regularly on the importance of early detection to enable early intervention. Parents with concerns about their child’s development do not need to wait for a diagnosis – they can visit their doctor and find out more about early intervention funding. Through early intervention children can learn to develop social skills, emotional regulation and language and communication skills. The earlier children start the more likely they will benefit from the intervention.

What role do teachers and educators play?

Teachers and educators play a crucial role in the early lives of children and their families. Firstly, educators can see how children are developing alongside their peers. This is a unique vantage point for educators to know if children are not meeting their milestones, particularly in different social situations.

You have a position of trust with families – your advice matters to parents. You can alert parents to emerging issues with children’s development and recommend they see their health nurse or doctor to follow up.

Creating an inclusive environment for children on the autism spectrum

There is a wide range of training and information available to support the creation of an inclusive environment. This includes working with the NDIA, and inclusion agencies and seeking the advice of organisations like Autism Awareness, Autism Spectrum Australia and Amaze.

Whilst there are many things teachers and educators can do to ensure an inclusive classroom, here are three pointers to begin, with thanks to learning links for the prompts:

1. Scaffold social situations

Support children to engage in social situations. Model what children might like to do and say to start playing together. Help children to engage and read a social situation – for example by asking ‘how does x look – do you think he is happy or a bit bored? How can we tell? What can we do if he is bored?’

2. Establish low sensory zones

Children with autism may feel overloaded by the sights, sounds and even smells in a classroom. Think about setting up a quiet corner where a child can block out the light and/or sounds. It is worth noting some children with autism are sensory seeking, so they may need things to touch and safe things to chew.

3. Set predictable, visual routines

Many children with autism find routine comforting and like to know what is happening and when. A consistent routine is useful, such as "come into the classroom, unpack your bag and sit on the mat". Routines sometimes need to chang—a visual daily planner can help with this. You can talk children through what is happening in the day, including any new activities or changes to scheduling.

The inclusive practices you establish will be beneficial for a wide range of children, not just children on the autism spectrum. Good practice in early childhood education, such as establishing a partnership and communication flow with families, will also support children to thrive.

Helpful links:

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Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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