Children with autism can be perplexing. They can tax your brains and abilities to the utmost of their limits, and they can leave you scratching your head just when you think you've "figured it out". They can also be some of the most wonderful, enriching people you will ever meet.
Autism is a "spectrum disorder" which means that even identical autistic twins will exhibit unique behaviors. Similarly, every caretaker will need to develop ways to work with each child as an individual. While there is no "one size fits all" approach, there are some behavioral similarities amongst autistic children and a few of them are highlighted in Ellen Notbohm's book "Ten Things That Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew".
- It's a Child, Not a Condition - You are an adult. You have many facets to your personality. You are an artist, a parent, you are thin, you are heavy, you are religious, you are philosophical, you like chocolate cake, you like barbecued chicken. Just as these things are only a part of the whole, so too is this condition. A child with a spectrum disorder is about more than their diagnosis. They are still developing, still learning what they can do, and by defining them by this one characteristic, you risk stifling their growth. See the child beyond their condition.
- Sensitive Senses - An autistic child may have his or her senses on overload. They could have hyper-acute seeing, hearing, or olfactory senses. Every thing they see, hear, touch, smell, or taste could be amplified to a level that would drive anyone without this disorder insane. If they seem to be "acting up" at the supermarket, for example, think about the environment, the smells, the sounds, etc., and how it would feel to you if those things were assaulting your senses.
- Won't vs. Can't - For people without this condition, to hear their name across a room is an everyday thing. We hear our name and we listen to the words around it to determine what is being requested of us. A child with this disorder should be addressed directly and in as plain a manner as you can. Let the child know that they are being addressed and what is expected of them. Just because they don't comply doesn't mean they are misbehaving. It could just mean they didn't understand you.
- Be Literal - We hear idioms and slang all day long. "Barking up the wrong tree", "hit the road", "punch the power button", we know what these things mean when someone says them. An autistic child, however, may not make the connection between the imagery and the actual event being described. If you ask your child to "hit the light switch", don't be surprised if they ball up a fist and take a swing at it. They're not being silly, they're not being smart-alecky, they are attempting to carry out your request!
- Limited Vocabulary vs. Echolalia - Many people marvel at how an autistic child may not be able to express themselves verbally very well, yet can repeat an entire section of a movie word for word. "Echolalia" is something that many autistic children do to make up for their verbal shortcomings. They know, as all children do, that when they are spoken to a reply is expected. To make up for a limited ability to express themselves, they memorize things they have heard. They may not understand the context or eve the subject matter, but they know they need to say something. Pay attention to body language and signs of struggling or frustration and be patient.
- Show, Don't Tell - Autistic children tend to be very visually oriented. When you are teaching them to do something, show them how to do it, show them what to do. Give them the visual cues that lets them know what's expected. Knowing what's being asked of them can relieve a lot of frustration from the child and reduce behavioral melt-downs.
- Build On What They Can Do - Every child has their strengths and weaknesses, and when learning anything new, many children are hesitant because criticism, no matter how "constructive", is something they want to avoid. An autistic child can misinterpret constructive criticism as "there's something wrong with you!" Instead, try to play to their strengths and see if those strengths can help them achieve what you are asking of them.
- Social Coaching - Many children with a spectrum disorder seem to be loners. It's not that they don't want to socialize. Children tend to want to be with others and play and have fun. An autistic child may not know how to socialize. They may not be able to read the body language that others read as an invitation to play. They may not know how to start a conversation. Try to include the child in structured activities where it's clear what's expected of the participants, and try to encourage other children to interact with an autistic child. This will not only help the autistic child, but it will help the children without autism understand the condition better.
- Identify Triggers - Some behaviors may not have their roots in this condition such as food allergies, sleep disorders, and gastrointestinal problems, though they may seem like it. However, sometimes a child's senses can go on overload and they have a melt-down. Places, sounds, sights, and other stimuli can trigger a tantrum. Keep notes on such things and see if you can identify a pattern. It will then become easier to avoid those situations.
- Agape - Agape (ah-GAH-pay) is Greek for "unconditional love". A child with a spectrum disorder needs this same basic level of support that all children need. They are not autistic by choice. They would much rather be running and screaming their lungs out in healthy play like all children. Remember again that this is a child, not a condition. As adults we can look back and acknowledge that we didn't meet every expectation our parents laid upon us, and an autistic child is no different. This doesn't mean that an autistic child will always need someone around to get them through life. All this means is that they deserve the same love and guidance, and perhaps a bit more patience, than we received when we were growing up.
This is a condition that requires patience. An autistic child is not necessarily handicapped by the condition any more than the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is handicapped by his neuro-muscular dystrophy. It has affected only one part of a truly amazing human being.
Likewise, Albert Einstein and Vincent Van Gogh had autism that affected only that one part of who they were. In fact, the ability to focus on fine details, an aspect of their disorder, may have been a good part of what propelled them to greatness! Some historians even believe that former President Thomas Jefferson had a form of this disorder. He went on to lead his nation and invent several items we take for granted these days, such as the swivel chair. He is recorded as one of the great geniuses in history.
When working with autistic children, remember these three words; patience, patience, patience! You may find yourself enjoying the company of a truly amazing human being.
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