Five Things I Didn't Know About Autism
I’ve been told that having a child with Autism will change your life. Things will not be the same as they were before. I was also told that having a child will change things. But if you only have children with autism, you don’t know just how different things become. So here is my list of things I don’t know are different:
- Raising Children: I’ve always been told that raising children would be challenging, and when we had our first child I wondered what all the fuss was about. Sure, he would need attention (which meant less time on the computer games), but other than that I had a great first child. My oldest was generally quiet, curious, and loved to play. Everyone told us we were lucky, until we found out that he had autism when he had turned three without saying even two words together. Then things like his inability to sleep at night unless he was held, his fascination with mechanical things (wheels, fans, etc.) and his desire to stack and order became clear. But until it was pointed out, I didn’t know I had a challenge raising my son. We just worked with him as best we could without pushing too hard, and ended up with a generally well behaved child with the exception of the occasional melt-down when something triggered his autism.
- Approach to Teaching: I’m a teacher by trade (or instructor, as I’m at a university), and an instructional designer. I spend a lot of time trying to think of ways to better approach my students, reach out to them, and help them retain the knowledge they want from me. Most of this is done on the fly while teaching in front of a class, with a lot coming from past experiences with different types of students. So when it came to teaching my son to write, read, or practice math, it all came down to the basic skills I use with adults that I try to apply to him. And I would get results that tended to last for a while, though they would occasionally regress (which is normal with autism). The thing is, I didn’t know this was an issue. I thought this was what all parents did with their children. I mean, don’t all parents like to sit down with their child during their play and try to see what they do, how they react, and how you can tie in what they are doing with what they should be learning? Apparently, that’s not the case. Many parents out there trust in their children’s natural instinct to imitate their peers and parents to get a lot of their learning done. If you are a parent with a child on the Spectrum, you know that imitative learning is not common. So everything, from reading, to writing, to speaking becomes an exercise in trying to learn via other means. We’ve found that digital methods (multimedia and games) tend to work well with our sons, and we let them go with an iPad or iPod Touch. But again, this was something we just did, and didn’t know we had a unique and difficult situation.
- Bolting: When my oldest was younger, we would constantly walk with his hand in ours. Perhaps it was because I was over-protective, but he would often just take off and run without looking back. Occasionally I would let him get quite far before I would race after him, but I didn’t think much about it. We just learned that when walking with our kids, we held their hands. They felt secure, and we felt secure. We didn’t know about bolting. Bolting is an autism trait that most kids on the Spectrum go through up to the age of 4. They will just take off an run without looking back, forward, or to the sides. Their wanderlust is pretty well documented, and many children on the Spectrum have been endangered or lost because they have been unable to keep close to their parents. We naturally wanted to keep our kids with us, and so we always walk with their hands in ours. We didn’t know you were supposed to, we just did it.
- Diet: Our sons are picky eaters, but not in how you would imagine. One son will only eat meat, dairy products, eggs, and some breads (not white, but wheat, sourdough, rye, etc.). The other son prefers salads, dairy, all breads, and eggs. Occasionally we can get them to try something new at a restaurant or buffet, but they usually keep to their specific likes and dislikes. So, we kept them on the diets they like, making sure they get as much from the four food groups as possible within their constraints. What we didn’t know was that persons with autism tend to have specific likes and dislikes because of the type of food. Not so much because of taste (though that is in the equation), but rather texture, color, and smell. My oldest likes his textures more firm like cheese, or crunchy like chips. My youngest loves soft breads with crunchy chips, crisp lettuce and veggies, and firm cheeses. It wasn’t until we learned that other children learn their likes and dislikes more from social queues (I don’t like lima beans because they are not popular in my cartoons!), as well as flavor. Rarely is it because of texture. That’s unique to autism.
- School: Our boys both go to a special education class where they focus on the skills necessary to become mainstreamed within the classroom. We have regular meetings with the teachers, keep in daily contact with them through notes in a notebook, and try to reinforce what they do at school in the home. I had assumed this is what every parent did when they were concerned about their child’s education. Apparently I have been wrong. Teachers look to the day when working with parents becomes the normal, established way to reach all children. Teachers can only do so much, particularly when you have 20 to 30 kids to one teacher (and no aides). They want all parents to come to them for a plan, and back them up when it comes to trying to find ways to get their child to learn. But apparently parents get defensive when teachers suggest goals with which parents could help at home, and teachers are slowly getting jaded or hesitant to suggest anything. I can often pick out a teacher who has been in the business for a while, because they are hesitant to mention anything negative about your child. It shouldn’t be that way. Teachers should be telling the parents where their child is struggling, and with the parents help make a plan to help their child achieve their potential.