Autism is a developmental disability that is typically diagnosed during the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that impairs the functioning of the brain which impacts development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children with autism have difficulty relating to and communicating with others and they have difficulty understanding the body language and emotional expression of others.
While the causes of autism are still not known, research indicates there may be genetic factors as well as factors based on conditions affecting brain development before, during, and shortly after birth. There are still on-going discussions as to whether autism can develop later and whether allergies or dietary intolerances play a role in its development. The Montessori classroom is an environment which can help children with autism and other special needs explore and learn experience success in education.
Information on How Autism and Special Needs Children Can Experience Success in the Montessori Classroom
Children with autism are not physically disabled. As such, it may be difficult to understand and children are often thought of or labeled as naughty or difficult. Even more alarming is the fact that there is no proven cure or no standard treatment for autism. In her article "The Autistic Spectrum: Autism, Asperger syndrome "AS) and Semantic Pragmatic Disorder (SPD) – a practical Montessori response, Wendy Fidler states that children diagnosed with autism experience, to some degree, impairment in the following three areas:
- Communication- "language impairment across all modes of communication - speech, intonation, gesture, facial expression and other body language"
- Socialization – "difficulties with social relationships, poor social timing, lack of social empathy, rejection of normal body contact, inappropriate eye contact"
- Imagination – "rigidity and inflexibility of thought processes, resistance to change, obsessional and ritualistic behavior, lack of creative, imaginative play"
- Insistence on sameness (resistance to change)
- Difficulty in expressing needs and relying on gestures instead of words
- Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (bright lights, loud sounds, unexpected touch, taste, smell)
- Echolalia (echoing or repeating words spoken to them)
- Laughing/crying/showing distress for no apparent reason
- Prefers to be alone
- Sustained odd play
- Spinning objects or self
- Over- or under-sensitivity to pain
- No real fear of danger
- Uneven gross/motor skills
- Noticeable physical under- or over-activity
- Unresponsive to verbal cues
Research shows that early intervention (from birth to age 3) dramatically impacts and reduces the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. These "Absorbent" minds are the most flexible and open to change. The prepared environment and the predictable daily routines of the Montessori classroom offer stability for children with special needs. The Montessori materials provide hands-on learning and continuous stimulations which promotes multi-sensory engagement from all students.
Special care should be taken to create an environment that is friendly to those with sensory hypersensitivity. Some considerations may be:
- Soften bright lights or remove fluorescent lighting (fluorescent lights flash many times per second which can be overwhelming to a child with autism)
- Sudden loud noises are frightening to a child with autism
- Take care when selecting and presenting fabrics, metals, or woods.
- Have a variety of eye masks or silk scarves to use as blindfold for 'tactile' or stereognostic activities
- The sound boxes and Montessori bells can also be upsetting. Take care when presenting these to children with autism.
- Carefully respond to all "accidents" as children with autism have a very high pain threshold.
- The Montessori classroom should be secure so children cannot wander into unsafe areas.
- Children with autism do not like change. Precautions should be taken when organizing field trips or other activities which stray from the predictable daily routine. Discuss the changes with the children well in advance so they are not taken by surprise.
Because the Montessori curriculum is by its nature, inclusive, the child with autism should feel safe and secure in the Montessori environment. It is the perfect place to learn and grown at his own pace.
For more information on Montessori and Autism, please visit the Montessori Autism Services website.
As listed in NAMC’s Montessori 3-6 Classroom Guide, further resources on Autism:
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Sunday, April 20, 2008.