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What is Autism?

It’s April, World Autism Awareness Month, so let’s talk about this wide-spread pandemic which affects nearly Autism prevalence globally is about 1 in 36 globally and maybe 1 in 24 depending on sex. That’s about 2.7% of children being affected. So, exactly what is thing called autism?autism

The word “autism” is blanket term which includes the many disorders within the “autism spectrum.” Sometimes called “Pervasive Developmental Disorders,” autism spectrum disorders include such diagnoses as: Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrom, Rett Syndrom, and the less specific PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified.)

All of these autism spectrum disorders have commonalities in the way of communication impairments, socialization difficulties, lack of physical coordination, need for ritualistic behaviours, and hyper-sensory sensitivity.

In my experience, children with these special needs benefit even more than ‘normal’ children from the interactive, sensory-utilizing, calming, Montessori Method of learning.

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.

A Story From My Own Experience

When my “spectrum” child was three years old, I signed him up for a mommy-and-me type gymnastics class. He, like most three year olds, was a very active, energetic child, and I thought he might enjoy jumping on the trampoline and walking on the balance beam. Honestly, it looked like a blast from my point of view.

The class was very large and broken up into stations so that the children spent about 10-15 minutes at each of several different activities. Unfortunately, this rigid schedule proved to be too much for my child. He would stand on the sidelines watching the other kids for the whole 10-15 minute session (or longer.) Just when he would finally be mentally ready to participate, the instructor would direct our group to the next station. This was disastrous! Now, my child was absolutely unyielding; he must try this activity! He had pondered it, he had processed it, and he was ready now.

The instructor was equally unyielding in his insistence that everyone in the group “stay on task.” And so it went, autismmeltdown after exhausting meltdown, until the class was over. In the end, the instructor pulled me aside and asked (in an exasperated tone which implied that he thought I was a woefully inadequate parent) that I “please not bring my son back to class until he had done some growing up.” I was devastated; and this was not the first (or last) time that my youngest child would be “dismissed” from some kind of program.

Imagine my trepidations when it came time to enroll my son in school. Thank goodness for Montessori!

My son benefited enormously from his Montessori learning experience. The daily routines gave him the chance to watch and mimic socially appropriate behaviors such as taking turns in conversation, eye contact, speech inflection, and understanding facial expressions.

He was allowed to acquire concepts through watching his classmates and to participate in his own, comfortable, time frame. Practical life activities helped him learn to perform various tasks with confidence, while improving motor skills and coordination.

The open shelves of the prepared environment (an integral part of every Montessori classroom) encouraged him to make independent choices and to carry out a process to completion.

Needless to say, there were very few meltdowns during his Montessori school years. He blossomed and was happy to go to school each day. While he did continue to cling to some of his ritualistic behaviours, such as carrying his lunch box around with him all day long, his teacher was able to use strategies which worked for each child in her class, including my special little guy. And d’you know what? She never, ever, asked me to take him out of her class…not once!

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


Whether as a parent or teacher, many of us benefit enormously by a better understanding of our spectrum children. Here is a great place to start, follow this link to Age of Montessori’s Professional Development Webinar entitled: What You Need to Know about Rising Rates of Autism and Dyslexia. Learn from Master Teacher Mary Ellen Maunz as she presents an in-depth view of these problems and explains how the brain can heal itself.

What You Need to Know about Rising Rates of Autism and Dyslexia

Boy behind screen

Description: Twenty to thirty percent of our children struggle with learning to read and one out of every 50 may be afflicted with Autism. Both are neurological wiring problems with multiple causes. These troubling statistics are compelling reasons to learn how to recognize these problems and what we can do about them. Master Teacher Mary Ellen Maunz will present an in-depth view of these problems and how the brain can heal itself.

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have a 6 (almost 7) year old son who has had an awful early childhood experience in school. He has been kicked out, told he was as pain in the a$$, annoying, and many other things that have left scars on him. Now for the kicker: all of this happened at Montessori schools (2 different ones) AND I am a Montessori teacher. My heart was broken and so was my spirit. After 6 long years and several jobs later, I have finally gotten news that makes sense to me; my son is on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum-pdd nos.
    I was angry and frustrated with the teachers and schools that gave up on my son. Now that I know what we know about him, I wonder if people would have been more patient, accommodating, and understanding if they had the information too. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying special treatment, just staying true to Montessori and honoring and following the needs of the child.
    Again, thank you for sharing. It’s good to know the true Montessori spirit lives strong and burns bright!

  2. Hello Stacy,
    How my heart goes out to you and your little son! No child should ever, ever be treated with such hurtfulness, and no parent should have to endure such a long, frustrating period of dead ends and no answers. Hopefully, along with the diagnosis, you were also given some contacts and resources for guidance. There ARE ways to help these kids!
    I must say that I am very disappointed to hear that schools that claim to be “Montessori” are not living up to what that name really means!

  3. The word Montessori has been misused all over the world just like democracy etc.
    It is not Montessori but a dedicated teacher who cares about children.
    Hope you will find a caring person in a pure Montessori environment.

  4. I have been concerned about sending my son who is on the high end of the Autism spectrum to Montessori as I have heard that the other children put so much pressure on them to preform that the children with these problem just stop functioning altogether. Your article was great but how do I know that all of the Montessori schools are equipped to handle these children who are very smart but struggle with issues that make it difficult to see from their perspective let alone help them to learn and experience success..

  5. Hi Debbie,
    I strongly recommend that you go and observe the classroom, talk to the teachers, and judge for yourself. I can completely understand our concerns, it is not always easy to know what is the best thing for our children. I think if you go and meet the people at the school or schools in your area, and watch how the classroom is run, it will help you to be more confident and comfortable with your ultimate decision.
    Best wishes to you and your precious child!

  6. Do you know of any Montessori type middle/high school programs? I am a retired teacher working as a paraprofessional with a high end spectrum autistic student who is home schooled. I’m concerned he isn’t truly learning in the program he is in. Any advice?

    1. Hi Kristie,

      Yes, there are several middle school and high school Montessori teacher
      education programs and many Montessori schools for older children.
      Depending on whether there are Montessori upper schools in your geographic
      area, they might be worth a visit. There is a well-respected Montessori
      program for all levels in Dallas, the Shelton School, for children with
      various kinds of developmental delays and learning problems. They might
      have some specific pointers for you. – from Mary Ellen Maunz

    2. Dear all, happy to present my thoughts here regarding Montessori education method. This is a proven method in 17th and 18th century By Itard and Edward seguin respectively deaf & mute and mentally defective children at france. Dr.Maria Montessori inspired in Dr. Edward Seguin education materials. she made wonders in 1907 (19th century) in educating mentally disorder children and they wrote exam with normal children. further Dr.Montessori expand seguin method in various aspects by observing children in scientific method.

      Montessori education lives in principles. it is not just dumping materials in classroom. it target Independece, concentration, coordination of movements, skills in activities, refinement of senses etc. Montessori schools can help autism child where The silent Game, Walking on the line. Practical life activities make the child calm and pull him in to concentration. Sensorial area give the sensorial key to the child to refine and explore the senses.

      Am sure a good Montessori environment can help Autism child.

      Michael Raja
      AMI Trained (3-6)

      1. Hello
        I am also AMI trained..i want to ask about autism..what do u think what’s the causes of increasing autism day by day…my son also a autistic child…i am worried about this mental disorder….is there any chances to cure them to survive as a normal child in this world? Plz reply me back

        1. Hi Saba,

          Thanks for sharing your interest in doing the best for your son and the autism spectrum. So many Americans are being affected by this health crisis. Age of Montessori is not really an expert in this area, but we did have a wonderful mom of an autistic son who wrote blogs for us for many years. Here is one sharing some of her research: http://dev.ageofmontessori.org/autism-empathy/.

          You may also find this book by Dr. Joyce Pickering helpful: https://www.montessoriservices.com/montessori-strategies-for-children-with-learning-differences

          All the best,

  7. Your first few sentences contain an error. Autism prevalence globally is 1 in 36 approximately, maybe 1 in 24 depending on sex. That’s about 2.7%, not 20%. Please fix your math error. It’s misleading parents with limited exposure to the stats.

    1. Joe, Thank you so much for correcting this. We have updated it and apologize for our mistake. Thanks again! Deborah

  8. Good day I’m dong a course to become a Montessori Directress and was wondering if you could please help me. I’m busy with a research assignment for Autism at the moment. One of the questions are what strategies can be put in place that Montessori Teachers can use in a classroom to support the autistic learner?…Your help is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    1. Hi Alvina,
      Congratulations on pursuing your Montessori education!

      We do have a great 2 hour webinar: What you Need to Know about Autism and Dyslexia … you can find more info here: http://dev.ageofmontessori.org/webinars-replays-prof-dev/#Autism

      And our founder, Mary Ellen Maunz, M.Ed. has written a review about Temple Grandin, an autistic professional who shares here journey in this biographical movie. http://dev.ageofmontessori.org/temple-grandin/

      Hope this helps,
      Deborah, Social Media Manager

        1. Hi Saba,

          Here is an explanation of dyslexia from Montessori in the Public Sector: https://www.public-montessori.org/resources/montessori-in-the-public-sector/montessori-as-an-intervention-for-children-with-dyslexia/

          Our founder, Mary Ellen Maunz, M.Ed., has recommended this compelling video where Montessori concepts are used to dramatically help a child who suffered from dyslexia. You can read her blog here: http://dev.ageofmontessori.org/stars-on-earth/

  9. Hi:
    I am a mother of a five year old who is on the spectrum. She is currently attending the AUTISM program at the local school district which has good and bad times as it is dependent on the teacher for the most part . She is so bright and reads books from cover to cover and counts to 100. She continues to need prompting to stay on task and stay in one station.
    I am strongly considering switching her to a Montessori school but am worried if it is too late to get into that system and succeed. Also there are a few Montessori schools in our area , what is the best way to judge which is better than the others?


    1. Hi Nosa,

      5 is not too late for most Montessori schools. Go visit and observe the schools in your local area. When you find one that you feel would work, ask for an appointment and share your situation and the many victories your child has achieved.

      Hopefully you will find a good match!
      Mary Ellen Maunz, M.Ed.

  10. Was so encouraging to see this is a recent thread as I found a lovely Montessori school which offers free pre-k to 4 year olds-the age of my autistic grandson. But my son is reluctant to place him there. He’s at a public school now and is always in time out. He told me “I don’t want to go to time out grandmom. I cry. A lot”. Is there a video you could recommend to my son that shows how the Montessori method is so helpful to younger autistic children? He feels that because it’s a private school, they wouldn’t be willing to handle him getting out of his chair and speaking out of turn.

  11. Also maybe I should ask: is my son correct in saying that a Montessori school would be less equipped to handle that sort of autistic behavior-getting out Of his seat a lot, etc? How does Montessori handle that?

    BTW My grandson is not violent, he’s very verbal but about a year delayed. Hard for others to understand him.

    1. Hi Lo,

      Sorry to say that there is no video to tell the story of autism and Montessori. I have delivered a webinar on the subject that includes many classroom pictures. In case you are interested, here’s a link http://dev.ageofmontessori.org/webinars-replays-prof-dev/#Autism

      Children don’t sit in chairs all session but are free to move around and select activity that is of interest.

      Montessori is probably the best choice in that it is movement oriented.

      — Mary Ellen Maunz, M.Ed.

  12. Thank you so much for this article.

    My daughter has not yet been diagnosed but she is being assessed for high functioning spectrum disorder. She has been going to Montessori since she was three and is currently five years old. She will be going in to grade one next year.

    There is a Montessori elementary program here and I have been told that Montessori might not be right for her for elementary because it is self-directed. But I love Montessori and how it has helped her. I am scared of what will happen if she is in too structured an environment with too many transitions. Do you know how the self-directed nature of Montessori might affect a child’s learning in elementary?

    1. Hi Alex,

      To see if the Montessori school is a good fit, I suggest that you go visit and observe the schools in your local area. When you find one that you feel would work, ask for an appointment and share your daughter’s situation. Hopefully this will give you enough information to determine if will be a good match.

      Here is a webinar replay about the elementary program that will provide information on the curriculum and Maria Montessori’s profound and practical ideas that make the program so robust and make it so children love school!


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