People with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) face enormous challenges. In many cases, autism flies under the radar. But if sufferers get the right kind of support and encouragement, it can make an enormous difference.
In the UK, about 1 in 100 people are liable to suffer from this incurable condition, while the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in the USA estimates that 1 in 68 births may have this disease. Some experts say that as many as 66% of adults with autism are not getting adequate support.
If you have a family member suffering from autism—which also includes Asperger’s and other co-morbid conditions—here are 15 ways you can love them and support them.
1. Learn about autism
Look out for some of the early symptoms so that you can get a diagnosis and make sure your child is on the fast track for better treatment and support at home and at school. The earlier, the better.
Some babies seem abnormally focused on certain objects and do not make eye contact. Toddlers may develop normally, but around the age of three you may notice that they are paying no attention to the normal social signals. The main problems occur when they display a lack of social interaction skills and will not want to share toys and mingle with other kids. They become obsessed with repetitive movements or behaviour which is often referred to as “stimming.”
Severity of symptoms will vary widely and some kids may only be mildly affected. But early symptoms usually center on a language delay, or the ability to relate to others and behave in a flexible way. Once you start learning about the disorder, you will feel more empowered and better able to cope as the child grows up.
A must-read novel is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, which provides a wonderful insight into the strange world of an autistic child who decides to become a detective!
2. Understand your child better
A key to great support will come from studying the child closely and realizing what makes them uncomfortable and badly behaved. Notice what makes them feel at ease and more co-operative. Listen to the sounds they make and notice their facial expressions especially when they are hungry, irritable, or tired.
3. Discover your child’s talents
We should keep in mind that 30% of these kids have an IQ which is in the normal range. About 10% of autistic children have rather special intellectual abilities and skills which are remarkable. This certainly makes up for their lack of social skills. Let me list a few for you:
- Powerful memory skills
- Musical talent
- Artistic skills
- Math skills
- Intense focusing skills
Many children can read fluently, memorize large chunks of texts, do calendar calculation, and dismantle or assemble things. Help your child discover his or her niche by letting them explore their passions and interests.
If your child loves animals, get him to help out a local animal shelter.
4. Help them overcome language difficulties
Autistic children may have problems with understanding idioms and metaphors, not to mention sarcasm and jokes. Time to simplify things by speaking clearly without using fancy metaphors.
Don’t tell a child that something is “a piece of cake.” Just say, “this is really easy.” Similarly, it is better to say you are “really busy” instead of “busy as a bee.”
5. Resist labelling your child
Everybody loves a label because it defines the problem and the boundaries. On the other hand, this can be negative because it classifies a person and this is too limiting. Full acceptance of what autism involves can help us to accept our children as they are. They will have quirks, oddities and limits. Accept the differences, celebrate little successes so that your child will gain self-esteem. Resist using ‘normal’ children as a yardstick for your child’s progress.
6. Break down instructions
Teachers of autistic children need to concentrate on the students’ strengths in concrete thinking and learning by heart. They can effectively use visual aids in helping students learn, gain self-esteem, and improve self-control.
Both parents and teachers need to break down instructions into individual units instead of giving too many in a short space of time.
7. Use more visuals
Using pictures and drawings in the home can often avoid problems and accidents. They are also an invaluable aid to bridging the communication gap between the child, parents, and teachers.
The great thing about visuals is that they do not disappear, like words do, into thin air! They can help the child to put things in order so that they can learn a skill step by step. They are a great aid for rehearsing and practising, whether they are school tasks or household chores.
8. Use routines and schedules consistently
Children and adults suffering from autism thrive on well-established routines and schedules.
Having an organized schedule when meals, school, treatment and play time happen with unfailing regularity is a great help. It is advisable to keep interruptions or changes to a bare minimum, and as far as possible you should warn the child in advance. Kids tend to become fixated with one object or task and when this is removed, all hell can break loose.
9. Reach out for support
Find a local organization in your area which helps and supports families who are coping with autism. Sometimes they have a helpline and you will be able to exchange experiences and get advice from other people who are living with this condition.
10. Help with sensory issues
One of the things we learn about autism early on is how kids and adults can be hypersensitive to most sensory perceptions. This will include touch, light, smell and sounds. Researchers at UC San Francisco found that autistic children’s brains are wired differently, which partially accounts for their sensory perception issues. Basically, they have difficulty in processing all stimulation coming from the senses.
Attending shows or watching TV with its garish colors and loud crashing sounds can be traumatic for kids. This explains the success of The Lion King which was hailed as the first autism-friendly production in history!
Common problems arise when kids scream uncontrollably if their faces get wet or they try to eat inedible things. One possible solution is to note what usually triggers these responses and make an effort to avoid them. It must be said that autistic kids are not always consistent in their reaction to certain stimuli.
11. Decide which treatment plan is best
No one size fits all when it comes to the best treatment. It is alarming to learn that there are over 400 treatments according to the WebMD site. Each treatment has to be tailor made for your child. It will certainly include a very predictable routine, your child’s interests, and activities which are highly structured. Teaching tasks are always step by step. In addition, there are features in place for rewarding positive behaviour and celebrating successes. Behavior therapy is the one treatment which has shown the most promise.
12. Get up to speed on your child’s rights
A child who suffers from autism or a similar disorder has certain rights at school and in society. The parents may be the only advocates they have so it is important to know what is available and how it can benefit your child. Again, your local support group will be able to help you out on this one. It will also depend on which country or state you live in. It is important that you know whether special education services or IEP is available in your state and you need to be actively involved in it. It will also help you deal with issues at home, and teamwork here can be of great assistance. You may have to insist on getting a second, independent opinion about your child’s diagnosis. You can also request an IEP meeting if you feel that your child’s needs are not being catered to.
13. Build in sensory breaks
Some repetitive actions and movements are a comfort to the autistic person. He or she will find solace in them and it is recommended that they have a sensory break every few hours. Individual needs will vary. But activities like rocking, spinning, rubbing something, or even wearing a weighted blanket can help. Getting exercise too is a great way to help with calming down. There is some excellent advice in the book by Martha Herbert, a researcher at Harvard, called The Autism Revolution: Whole-Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be.
14. Helping teens and adults look for jobs
Employment prospects for people with autism can be a problem. There are encouraging signs that nonprofit organizations are leading the way in making employers more aware of the unique talents that autistic people can bring to the workplace. One of these is Specialisterne USA which was founded by Thorkil Sonne whose youngest son has autism. Their organization is hoping to create 100,000 jobs in the next year or so in the USA.
15. Brad’s story will encourage you
Brad suffers from autism and cannot speak. But from an early age, his father spotted his enormous talent for putting things together, like model aeroplanes and furniture. He now has his own furniture assembly business. Watch the video to learn how autism can lead to great opportunities and creativity.
Let us know in the comments how you have supported a loved one with autism.