- For children on the spectrum, behaviors that may seem similar to their neurotypical peers can be attributed to varying underlying mechanisms.
- A profile offers clarification into a child’s experience and how the environment can support them.
- Profiles are helpful tools for facilitating understanding and communication.
Here, in Australia, a new school year has recently commenced.
Every year at the start of the school year, I religiously put together a profile for each of my children and give it to their teachers. It offers an overview of their strengths, the challenges that are likely to come up for them in the classroom, and the coping strategies that work for them at home. I was first introduced to this concept in a parenting program run by ASPECT, and I made use of it ever since.
Profiles offer a clarification into my children’s experience (which they may find difficult to communicate), their needs, and how the environment can support them, in a succinct format. They are effective communication tools that give insights into the underlying variables that come together to shape their behavior.
Behavior, like a tip of an iceberg, is what’s most visible. For children on the spectrum, behaviors that may seem similar to their neurotypical peers can be attributed to varying underlying mechanisms.
One scenario that I often come across is carers' concern about their child’s difficulties with concentration being interpreted as a lack of effort or intentional naughtiness, while the underlying factors (not obviously apparent) that contribute to their concentration difficulties may include atypical sensory processing, difficulties with comprehension, or atypical auditory processing.
Profiles are helpful tools for facilitating understanding and communication, and can empower parents to support their children’s teachers and advocate for their loved ones’ needs.
What to include in a profile
At the time of the DSM III (1980-1994), autistic characteristics were classified into three areas: severe impairments of social interaction, language abnormalities, and repetitive stereotyped behaviors (Wing & Gould, 1979).
Since 2014, social communication and restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior were regarded as the two key characteristics of ASD. The DSM V also included a rating of severity of symptoms, and acknowledged the impact of sensory differences.
The categories of social communication, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, and sensory processing are good starting points. For every category, I like to clarify my child’s strengths, challenges, as well as the support strategies that are working for us at home (presented, where possible from their perspective).
Below is an example of a profile. Please note that due to the heterogeneity of autism as well as individual personality and temperamental differences, the below examples will not be relevant to every child.
- I love connecting with classmates.
- I am direct and honest.
- Joint attention: I may find it hard to read your signals about where I should look.
- Understanding of social rules: I may feel confused about what is expected of me in social situations.
- I may have a different understanding about what is relevant/irrelevant in a conversation with a classmate.
- I may find it hard to understand another person’s experience if they are communicating indirectly about how they feel.
- I find it difficult to tell the difference between whether someone is joking or is serious.
- I prefer if others communicate their inner experience explicitly and directly.
- I appreciate clarification in understanding how other people experience me.
- I feel comfortable in group activities that have clear rules.
- I love exploring the visual details of objects and find lights (such as lava lamps) calming and soothing.
- I find it hard to concentrate when there are competing sounds around me.
- I prefer it when others tell me one thing at a time and use simple language.
- Movement breaks help me to concentrate.
- Sitting close to the teacher helps me to filter out background noise and improves my ability to process instructions.
- Adding and mathematics put a smile on my face.
- I find it difficult to cope with unexpected disruptions to routine.
- I like to talk about things that interest me, even if most people don’t share my enthusiasm.
- I am very motivated to learn if the learning activity includes my special interests.
- Visual schedules help me to know what to expect next and help me feel at ease.
- I tend to pay attention to details as opposed to the big picture.
- I find it difficult to plan and organize my tasks.
- Auditory processing: I prefer to be shown what to do than only told verbally; visuals and demonstrations help me to understand instructions.
- I appreciate support with breaking down larger tasks into smaller steps.
- I feel worried about teachers not seeing how hard I am trying to stay on task. I appreciate positive feedback.
I feel very inspired by the positive feedback I usually receive from teachers about how helpful a profile can be for clarifying coping strategies for my child, especially in challenging situations that demand fast responses.
As I hand in a (laminated) profile to a teacher, I feel a surge of relief about bringing to light the underlying characteristics that influence my child’s behavior, while giving suggestions for how the environment can support their needs; all the while supporting their teacher in nurturing an optimal learning environment in their classroom.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4.Washington, DC American Psychiatric Association; 1994.
Wing L, Gould J. (1979). Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: epidemiology and classification. J Autism Dev Disord, 9, 11─29. https:doi: 10.1007/BF01531288