Reasoning Behind the Importance of an Individualized Approach 

I vividly remember the meeting where I learned my first lesson about how different each child on the autism spectrum is. My family entered an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting for my four-year-old autistic brother to discuss how the school could best serve his needs. My mother informed the teacher that they needed to make sure to keep an eye on him or he would climb the bookshelf.

“They don’t climb,” she said as she sat him on the floor with some games and ushered us to the table. My mom continued her protest and was systematically ignored. As the teacher turned around to calm my mother one final time, her face turned bright red. My father and I tried not to laugh as my mother walked over and coaxed my little brother down from the top of the bookshelf where he proudly sat. “They” may not climb, but Michael Patrick showed them that he sure did.

To date, there exists no medical test to “confirm” an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis (ASD). Early screening based on certain criteria (lack of eye contact, lack of responsive play, etc.) leads teachers and parents to seek the help of pediatricians and neurologists. A neurologist (or often a team) then carefully screens the child to find out more about how he or she is developing. The neurologist looks for responsiveness, temperament, language development, and a host of other characteristics. Two children could be diagnosed with Severe Autism and have very little in common. A child who is severely autistic may have strong eye contact and a child who is high functioning may have severely limited language skills. Having certain characteristics may predict where a child will be on the spectrum, but they do not dictate who that child is or what will help that child reach their full potential.

These differences are important to both appropriate treatment and keeping a child safe. Many children with autism are attracted to water and their parents have to be very careful of allowing their child near pools, lakes and other bodies of water; but many are afraid of water and that presents a different series of challenges for events, family gatherings and social settings. Parents can learn what to fight for in IEP meetings, what therapies stand the best chance at being effective and where limited resources are best spent. Treating children with autism as stock members of a group leads to mediocre results at best. Art therapy gave Michael a medium to communicate and collect himself, but music therapy often made him more anxious. Thus my parents fought hard to get art therapy into Michael’s IEPs and made sure he received the promised classes.

Treat each child with autism just as you would any other child: as an individual. Take careful notice of the symptoms and factors the neurologist used in determining their diagnosis. Create a plan that prioritizes treatment of each of these. The most effective plan will be the one that is best geared toward the individual child- the whole child. If a school or body refuses to do so, parents and educators alike must know their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).