Autism is on the rise at an alarming rate in the United States. It is estimated that there are approximately 259,425 children (ages 3-22) who have been diagnosed with autism.

Autism is typically diagnosed during the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that impairs the functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children with autism have difficulty relating to and communicating with others and they have difficulty understanding emotional expression.

The word “autism” is blanket term which includes  many disorders within the “autism spectrum.”  Sometimes called “Pervasive Developmental Disorders,” autism spectrum disorders include such diagnoses as: Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s  and Rett  Syndrome.

Some characteristics of Autism are:

– Communication- language impairments- speech, difficulty expressing language, relying on gestures instead of words. Also unresponsive to verbal cues and displaying Echolalia (echoing or repeating words or phrases)

-Socialization – difficulties with social relationships, poor social timing, lack of social empathy, rejection of normal body contact, inappropriate eye contact

-Imagination – rigidity and inflexibility of thought processes, resistance to change, obsessional and ritualistic behavior, lack of creative and imaginative play

-Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (bright lights, loud sounds, unexpected touch, taste, smell)     May be Over- or under-sensitivity to pain alone

-Uneven gross/motor skills, noticeable physical under- or over-activity, spinning objects or self,

– Laughing/crying/showing distress for no apparent reason,

While the causes of autism are still not known, research indicates there may be genetic factors as well as factors based on conditions affecting brain development before, during, and shortly after birth. The Montessori classroom is an environment which can help children with autism and other special needs experience success in education. 

The Montessori Environment for Autistic children

To understand why this method of education is so valuable for the success of Autistic children and other special needs children, one needs to understand the history of the Montessori Method.

Montessori  studied pediatrics and psychiatry. She worked in the pediatric consulting room and emergency service, becoming an expert in pediatric medicine. Montessori graduated from the University of Rome in 1896 as the first woman doctor in Italy.  She worked as an assistant at the University hospital and started a private practice.

As an assistant, Montessori continued with her research at the University’s psychiatric clinic. In . Part of her work was to visit children in theses asylums in Rome. I was there that she observed children with mental disabilities. These observations became very fundamental to her future educational work.  Montessori  also read and studied the works of 19th-century physicians and educators Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin. These two men greatly influenced her work. Maria was intrigued with their ideas and created a more specific and organized system to apply to the everyday education of children with disabilities.  Upon discovering  the works of Jean Itard and Édouard Séguin it gave her a new direction in  her focus on children with learning difficulties. In1897, She audited the University courses in pedagogy and read all the major works on educational theory from the past two hundred years.

n 1900 the National League opened the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica, her first school for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children with an attached laboratory classroom. Montessori was appointed co-director. They studied psychology, anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, as well as causes and characteristics of mental disabilities.  During her two years at the school, Montessori developed methods and materials which she would later adapt to use with mainstream children.

The school was an immediate success, attracting the attention of government officials from the departments of education and health, civic leaders, and prominent figures in the fields of education, psychiatry, and anthropology from the University of Rome. The children in the model classroom were drawn from ordinary schools but considered “uneducable” due to their deficiencies. Some of these children later passed test given in the public schools that were given  to so-called “normal” children.

The Montessori Environment for Autistic children

The prepared environment of the Montessori classroom provides a consistent (children with autism do not like change), safe environment where children can benefit from watching other children choose and participate in activities before they get involved themselves.  This is very important for Autism-spectrum kids; they will usually prefer to observe many times before they make their own attempt.  In the Montessori classroom, this is acceptable, even encouraged, and children are never forced into an activity that they have not had time process at their own pace.

Autistic children benefit enormously from the Montessori learning experience. The daily routines gives them  the chance to watch and mimic socially appropriate behaviors like taking turns in conversation, eye contact, speech inflection, and understanding facial expressions. Autistic children acquire concepts through watching their classmates and to participate in their own, comfortable, time frame.

Research shows that early intervention (from birth to age 3) dramatically impacts and reduces the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.  The prepared environment and the predictable daily routines of the Montessori classroom offer stability for children with special needs. The Montessori materials provide hands-on learning and continuous stimulations which promote multi-sensory engagement from all students.

Farmview Montessori has had several Autistic children, Asperger children  in the classroom over the years as well as many children with special needs.

“To aid life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator.” ~Maria Montessori