Mind and Body in Autism Sheds Light on Spectrum Disorders at Teachers College
After spending years feeling that something was “off”, Karl Wittig was almost relieved when he was diagnosed with a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome at age 44. Asperger’s syndrome is one of several Autism Spectrum Disorders and is characterized by obsessive behavior, an impaired ability to interact socially, and often an average or very high IQ. “When I was a kid I was obsessed with taking things apart to see how they worked and I would repeat things constantly,” said Wittig. “Being diagnosed helped me understand myself better…Autism is not a label, it’s an explanation.”
As a panelist at the 2-day conference, Mind and Body in Autism, hosted by Teachers College and College of Physicians and Surgeons in Columbia University, Wittig added his voice to the voices of others promoting a greater awareness of the Autism Spectrum Disorders. Together with an interdisciplinary panel of experts including educators, psychologists, pediatricians, child psychiatrists, and pediatric neurologists, they also encouraged the development of strategies for addressing the challenges facing individuals with autism and their families.
The first day was dedicated to understanding and addressing the educationally relevant characteristics of autism. The second day focused on the role of genetics in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, approaches to the pediatric office screening and evaluation of autism, and ongoing issues in research studies and clinical research.
In a breakout session, “Bridging the Gap from Research to Practice”, Dr. Harriet Golden from AHRC - New York City discussed several teaching strategies for students on the Autism spectrum. She covered a range of methods (e.g., Applied Behavioral Analysis, Picture Exchange Communication System, and Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-Handicapped Children) that are effective in helping autistic students grasp new concepts. She later pointed out that more research is still needed to understand the distinctions between learning disabilities in order to identify the right educational approach. “This conference was the first time I had ever heard that Fragile X, Retts, and Prader Willi were part of the spectrum disorders. In every textbook they are still listed as disabilities under the umbrella of cognitive disabilities and mental retardation,” commented Golden.
Parents whose children are on the Autism spectrum often feel that they learn something new about their children every day. Lisa Dille, Young Seh Bae, Susan McCormick, and Tim Woodward joined Karl Wittig in a panel discussion to describe their experiences in raising children with autism. Tim Woodward explained that seeking educational assistance for his twin sons who both have an autism spectrum disorder has taught him the importance of being insistent. “It is remarkable what education can do today but we have to be vocal to ensure that our children get the help they need,” he said. In response to an audience member’s question of what can he do as a teacher, Lisa Dille’s response was simply “Listen.”#