Lately there have been a lot of news articles about violence and autistic children and violence, and a lot of parents concerned for their children when an autistic child is around them. As a parent of an autistic child, I have had some of these concerns brought to my attention with little reason other than the news media hype. So, as I have explained to other parents about my child, I think it's a good time to make it public.
Autism is, as I have posted before, a genetic predisposition for increased brain size. There are currently 10 suspected genes, with six of them being identified, that can each individually cause autism, and the effect is accumulative if more than one gene is predisposed. These genes cause swelling and enlarged brain gray matter, which increase the processing of data in the brain to an overwhelming point, causing meltdowns. For instance the data that is read from looking at one's face is so intense that many autistic children cannot look anyone in the eye.
Because of this condition, autistic children are slow to develop social skills. They don't like to play with other children, they don't want to be bothered with other people. They are intensely focused on their task and if interrupted, they get angry.
They also do not process auditory responses or body language separately as do "normal" children, but need a combination of both in order to understand. Hence, just waving your finger silently will be ignored, or calling out the child's name alone will be ignored. Sarcasm, anger, jokes.. these things are generally lost on autistic children because they don't understand the subtle, non-verbal hints that identify these subtle social situations. This is the basis of what autism really is. With this foundation of understanding, perhaps you can better understand the social situations that occur around autistic children.
Autism and Violence
Autistic children are not any more predisposed to violence than any other child. Period. They can get angry, hurt, frustrated, and feel hated just like any other child. They also are more prone to getting frustrated and angry if they are forced into social situations that interrupt their current task. But that doesn't make them more prone to violence. As a matter of fact, they are more likely to do injury to themselves than to other people.
So why are reports of autistic children and young adults engaged in violence more prominent in the news? Because autism is scary. We don't know what causes it directly, we don't know how each autistic child will react in a social situation, because every autistic child is different. But keep in mind that there are plenty of reports of violence among young children that are not autistic. It's just not news because they are normal children.
What's interesting is that no one has crunched the numbers to see, statistically, whether or not autistic children are more prone to being bullies than normal children. My guess is that if someone actually did crunch the numbers, they would either find little evidence to prove that autistic children are any more of a danger than normal children in any given social situation.
Autism and Fear
So why do we have this conversation? Why are school boards around the country being threatened by parents of "normal" children to take autistic children out of schools? Because parents are scared. Idiots and fear-mongers have whipped up myths about autism in order to profit by it, and as such parents want to justify their actions out of fear. But instead of wanting to learn more about autism and children with autism, they prefer to label them as they would a thing, and dehumanize them in comparison to their children.
I recall a made-for-TV movie with George C. Scott and Judith Light called "The Ryan White Story", about a young hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from a transfusion. The young boy was kicked out of school because of the perceived danger to other children, and when he was allowed back into school because of a lawsuit he was forced to be segregated. All because parents were panicking, afraid of the then misunderstood disease. It is now happening all over again with autistic children.
What To Do As a Teacher, Parent, or Caregiver
So what do we do if we find behavior that is not appropriate? It does need to be addressed, and yes, autistic children CAN learn new behaviors. Autistic children are not stupid. Quite the opposite, in fact. You just need to address them with both a physical motion (not hitting or restraining, please! We are not in the Middle Ages), and a verbal command. Often times simply placing a hand on the shoulder or arm can get their attention if they are not in the middle of a meltdown. If they are, you may just need to wait until the child looks at you.
Also, do not use subtle body language. You need to be as direct as possible. They will not understand the "silent treatment", being shunned, or being sat in a corner. Be clear, be authoritative, and be firm. Do not yell, do not be threatening, and do not try to restrain the child. Treat them as you would any other child, but without the subtle comments, sarcasm, cutting remarks, or other methods of "humbling" children. They will either not be noticed, or do more damage than you can imagine.
Something else that would be of great benefit for children around the autistic child is education. Have an autism specialist visit the class and explain autism to the entire class. Help them understand what their peer is going through, what they mean by their comments and actions, and how best to address them. Education is generally the best method for all concerned.
If parents are concerned, have a special parent student meeting to help them understand the science behind autism. Let them know that autistic children are just like all other children, they just process information differently. They still have feelings like other children, they think, laugh, love, hate, envy, and live like other children, just in a different world.