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Dinosaurs and Their Appeal to Children on the Autism Spectrum
Dinosaurs and the Autism Spectrum
Autism is an unpleasant lifelong condition that affects a surprising number of people. Research from the National Autistic Society suggests that around half a million people in the UK have some form of autism or have a related condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome. Autism is a condition that affects the way people relate to themselves and the world around them. Sufferers may be hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, they may have difficulty understanding their surroundings. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome have difficulty communicating and interacting with others. Neither autism nor Asperger syndrome is associated with low intelligence, in fact, in our experience with children who have Asperger syndrome, the child in question is often shown to have a higher than average IQ. For example, one of the attractions of dinosaurs for children on the autism spectrum is the long names and all the complicated facts associated with these prehistoric monsters. Some children on the spectrum seem able to retain large amounts of information about their favorite dinosaurs and can recite a surprising 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 are manifested in certain behaviors. If these behaviors can be identified in young children at an early age, then steps and processes can be put in place to help them and their families manage their condition effectively. Since these are called “hidden disabilities,” it can be very difficult to diagnose the condition. Fortunately, thanks to campaigning by a number of charities and other organisations, awareness of Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and other related conditions has increased significantly over the past twenty years and many teachers and teaching assistants are now trained to be able to to identify Autism in school children in their class.
Children with Asperger syndrome may have less difficulty with their speech and usually do not have the associated learning difficulties associated with Autism, but they may have specific learning problems. These can include dyspraxia and dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Fortunately, society’s understanding of these conditions has improved greatly since my time at school. A friend was recently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum with associated dyslexia, but as a school child her condition went unnoticed and she (and her parents) didn’t get the help and support she needed.
With the right help and encouragement, people on the autism spectrum and with Asperger syndrome can lead fully fulfilling and independent lives. The important thing from our perspective as teachers is to understand the condition and put in support at an early stage to help children and their parents/carers/family members manage.
Autism is a spectrum
When teaching a classroom, it can be difficult to identify behaviors in a young child that may indicate that this child has Autism or a similar condition. The problem is that there are “grades” of Autism. I always prefer the term autism spectrum condition to the alternative title Autism Spectrum syndrome, but in my experience both are used. I imagine the condition of Autism as a tall bar with a person with the condition fitting somewhere along this bar as each individual can be affected differently. It is true to say that while all people with Autism will share certain behaviors and difficulties in understanding the world and their environment, some people will be able to live independent lives, while others, who may have learning difficulties and disabilities, will require specialist support. throughout their lives.
Where do the dinosaurs fit in?
There are several types of behaviors associated with children on the autism spectrum. Not all people will exhibit the same behaviors, Autism affects individuals in different ways. One of the mantras I use when teaching a classroom with a child or children on the autism spectrum is to remember to “celebrate their uniqueness and rejoice in the way they are able to see the world differently than I do.” However, there are common behaviors and the subject of dinosaurs seems to lend itself to them.
For example, some children may be naturalists and become extremely knowledgeable about a subject they enjoy. Studying dinosaurs seems to tick a lot of the boxes for them and they immerse themselves almost completely 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 that they seem naturally drawn to the subject. For example, being able to cite facts and statistics about dinosaurs – which was the biggest, toughest, heaviest, fastest, longest? Vertebrate paleontology and Dinosauria in particular seem to be a rich source of information that is often recited over and over again with parents/guardians bombarded with questions and requests for more data.
In addition, youngsters on the autism spectrum may often be reluctant to join in play with other children, preferring to play alone, immersing themselves in their favorite theme area and playing with dinosaur models and other replicas. . Often they may repeat the game over and over or insist on doing the same activity over and over at the same time every day. The availability of videos and DVDs on dinosaurs can help with this. Children on the autism spectrum may enjoy watching repeated showings of the same DVD.
Dinosaur Day Out
Fortunately, there are a number of museums that have exhibits of dinosaur fossils and other items that can be visited. However, for a family taking out a child on the autism spectrum during the day can be a frightening prospect and a difficult episode can result in parents/carers losing all confidence.
There are some hopefully useful tips and advice we can pass on to help parents/carers manage the day ensuring it is a rewarding activity for all concerned.
1). Don’t forget empathy
Some children on the autism spectrum can be hypersensitive to loud noises and bright lights. If you intend to visit a dinosaur attraction, we recommend that you contact the providers before you go to understand any elements that may be of concern to your child.
2). Contact the provider before visiting
Contacting the museum before the day gives you the chance to find out about any special arrangements that may be in place to help you get the most out of your day. You can also get specialist advice and arrange support on the day if needed.
3). Get the Guide before you go
By picking up a guidebook or leaflet before you visit you and your child can plan their day. This can help prepare the child for the experience to some extent and enable you and your family to be able to get the most out of the visit.
Obsessed with dinosaurs
Not all children on the autism spectrum will have obsessions. Those who do may not be obsessed with dinosaurs and prehistoric animals. For example, we have come across a number of young children who become completely immersed in subjects as diverse as cars and Thomas the Tank Engine, but a number of children develop a fascination for dinosaurs. This in itself is not a bad thing, as with the establishment of the creative curriculum in most parts of the UK, schools often cover this subject area within their schemes of work. Learning about dinosaurs can help develop confidence, after all, many children will share this common interest and love of all things dinosaur. There are a number of resources that can help, everything from your local library, regional museum and of course the internet. For parents/carers too, learning about dinosaurs can be a rewarding experience, especially if it’s an area that allows them to celebrate the way their special child sees the world.
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