I have always wanted to write a post about Autism because it holds a near and dear place to my heart. Seeing as this month is Autism awareness month there is no time like the present. What is Autism? I am referencing this definition from the Geneva Centre, an agency that supports and assists families who have loved ones with autism.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), also called ‘Autism’, is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how people communicate and relate to others. The range and intensity of disability varies, but all people affected by ASD have difficulty with communication, social interaction, and restricted or repetitive interests and actions. Many have difficulty responding appropriately to their environment.
Since working with families and children in daycare, childcare, child/family agencies and now education, I have worked with many children affected by this disorder and it seems to be on the rise from my experience. While all the strengths and needs of the children are very unique, there seems to be one common trait, difficulty with relating to others and in social situations. Some may call this social deficits or awkwardness.
When I did a school placement and worked for Resources for Exceptional children years ago, a part of my job duty entailed helping a young man about twelve years of age in social practice settings. We would often pretend to be at a birthday party or on the school playground. It could be anything from how to respond when someone asks, “what are you doing on the weekend?” to asking such questions as well to practice receptive conversation. This boy, I will call “Eddie” became very anxious when people asked questions in a way he wasn’t accustomed to, such as, “what’s up on the weekend, guy?” He would put his hand in a balled up fist and hit his head when nervous. I would have to remove him from the “practice trial” situation and explain that sometimes people ask the same questions, but in different ways. Eddie found this infuriating and said, “why can’t people just ask me in one way?!!” He was aware of his social inadequacies and really wanted to try to improve so he could talk with his peers at school. Eddie also did not like play on words or any type of metaphors or sarcasm. He just didn’t get it. He was a very literal child. For example, one time I told him I was so hungry I could eat a horse. He opened up his big brown eyes in amazement and said, “how can you eat a whole horse?! Eddie made me very aware of my language and how people may take in what I say. I learned a lot from him and often think of how he is doing today.
Another girl I worked with whose name was “Shoreah” was six years old. Shoreah had a lot of auditory issues and sensitivity to noise and was non-verbal. She could not stand noise and this prevented her from focusing in school where loud chatter is a part of the school community. She also had a sensitivity to bright lights. Shoreah really made me aware of just how sensory-filled the world is. I began to think about my visit to Mexico city. Being in the over-populated, noisy and smog-filled environment where there was something happening on every single street corner, from construction, to talking, to a fire-eater, to honking cars, to noisy taco carts. This made me think of Shoreah. This is most likely how she felt in the crowded halls of her busy elementary school. Shoreah would often scream and run away if there was a change in her schedule and she could not cope.
Then there was “Adler.” A very verbal and active eleven year old, he could be compared to a little scientist. Ask him anything about the solar system or life cycle of frogs and he would not stop talking. Ask him how his family was, and he could not respond appropriately or often just shrugged his shoulders. Adler enjoyed talking about his passions. The problem was he had little to no interest in what the other speaker had to say, especially if it did not have to do with his passions. Adler’s goals were to improve his listening skills and receptive language, to be aware of the other speaker but this was very challenging for him. If you watch the Big Bang Theory, Adler was definitely a little Sheldon Cooper. I am sure that he is studying science or medicine today.
One piece of advice I would give to parents is to get a diagnosis if your childcare provider or child’s teacher is expressing that they have observed some red flags as soon as possible. Know developmental milestones, and if your child is where he or she should be at his/her age. Sometimes, but not always, a lack of verbal communication over the age of two, a lack of interest in playing with other children, little to no eye contact, difficulty with self-expression and parroting or continually repeating words or sayings out of context are often signs of this disorder. There is a lot of help and support agencies out there, but early intervention is crucial for these individuals to have a successful academic, social and quality of life in general.
Autism speaks and we must listen. The next time you are at the mall, park or your child’s school and notice another child hand-flapping, hitting themselves, tantruming or screaming, this could be a child with Autism. These are just coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, anger or stress. Let’s face it, we all have our ways of coping with stress. Who doesn’t go for a big glass of wine or have a bubble bath to decompress? Fine, maybe that’s just me. This is also something I learned from these children. Never again will I judge a parent if I witness a screaming child in the mall because I have no clue as to what they are going through.
We can all help through compassion, support and education. Autism speaks, so it is our job to listen.
*If interested in learning more about Autism, I would highly suggest watching the docudrama about Dr. Temple Grandin, staring Julia Ormond and Claire Danes. It is excellent!*