What CanWe Do For the Autistic Children?
For a child with autism, life can be stressful, scary, and downright hard to cope with on a daily basis. It’s not that there is so much anything wrong with an autistic child, it’s just that their brains function differently, as well as receive & respond to things differently. When it comes to the “world” of autism, it’s about perception; how they perceive the world around them & how they respond to it. There are different levels or degrees of autism; those that are considered more “functioning” are sometimes diagnosed as having Asperger’s or “High-functioning autism”. Some autistic children may seem overly sensitive, some may not be able to speak or communicate, some may have outbursts or meltdowns, some may do things that seem strange to a “normal” person, etc. Many autistic children don’t know how to express their feelings, emotions, frustrations, or fears. For a parent raising an autistic child, there are many challenges to face, many unanswered questions, many fears and doubts, and so forth. To make matters worse, you have to deal with society’s ignorance & issues surrounding autism. People who don’t know what it’s like to raise a child with autism, or what it’s like to have autism, are quick to judge, make rude comments, criticize, and even cause more problems. However, there are many things that parents can do to help an autistic child. There are also things that others can do when in the presence of an autistic child. You must keep in mind, though, that when it comes to autistic children, or anyone with autism for that matter, each one is different. There is no one right or wrong way across the board to interact or work with a person with autism, and it’s imperative that you treat the person as an individual; not as a disease.
Children with autism are commonly known to have a variety of sensitivities; light, colors, temperature, sounds, smells, touch, etc. Some children may not like to be held or be touched, and some may crave touch on a constant basis. Some children will insist on wearing layers of clothing during the day, and can only sleep if they have “weight” or layers of bedding on them at night. Some children have a hard time in rooms with certain types of lighting. For the first example, many offices & grocery stores use fluorescent lighting. This can be a nightmare for some children who are sensitive to certain lights; it can cause headaches, dizziness, or sometimes outbursts. These outbursts are not the child “acting out”, but merely a way for the child to express their emotions & feelings. For the parent of an autistic child out in public, if your child begins to behave strangely, or some may even tell their parents, it is best to remove the child from that environment as quickly as you can. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you take a child who has a sensitivity to light into that environment, they never completely “get used to it”. Another common sensitivity is temperatures; they either get really cold easily, really warm easily, or some even aren’t sure when they are either. Some children, for example, who insist on the layers during the day won’t recognize the fact that their bodies are getting sweaty & warm. At the same time, there are many children who will wear as little clothing as possible. This can be a great battle for the parents because there may be times that your little one running around in his underwear may not be the best; especially if you have company. One of the more common issues for autistic children are sounds, especially for those considered “non-verbal” (those who can’t verbally communicate). There are children who can hear the slightest sounds & it will frighten them. There are also children where specific sounds will startle them; vacuums, horns, doors closing, a loud bang, traffic, water running, and even thunderstorms. For children like these, a good idea is to use ear plugs or headphones. Playing soft music or “white noise”, especially at night, can help to drown out any noises that may cause issues for the child.
If you have a child that is sensitive or has issues with ear plugs, use headphones that sit lightly enough on their heads to not cause a problem, but cover the ears enough to where the sounds around them won’t be heard.
Something else that is very common for children with autism is issues with bedwetting. Again, this is not something that the child is doing on purpose, nor is there something necessarily medically wrong with your child. A lot of it has to do again with sensory & how the brain processes things. Many children do fine with bladder control throughout the day, but when they go to sleep at night, they can’t control it anymore. This can be a very frustrating time for the parents. It’s a good idea to at least have your child seen by their Pediatrician to be sure there isn’t any medical reason for this; kidney or bladder infections, and so on. If there is no medical problem or reason, then try to understand that it’s just part of your child. Most children grow out of it eventually, but as with anything else, each child is different. Make sure you don’t scold your child, or make your child feel guilty for his accidents. Don’t make your child “clean up his mess” thinking that is going to cause the child to stop having accidents. As with many parts to raising any child, especially an autistic child, patience & compassion are crucial. Let your child know that you love them, and that they’re not in trouble for what happened. The more you can build confidence in your child, the better. A frequent suggestion in this situation is to make sure your child is drinking plenty of water (not juice, soda, or milk) throughout the day. If you can, start to diminish the liquid intake more towards the evening & nighttime. Also, be sure your child uses the bathroom before lying down to go to sleep at night. And if you get up in the middle of the night, have your child get up to use the bathroom as well.
Communication has always been one of the basic guidelines & symptoms to diagnosing a child with autism, although now they have found that there are children (and adults) who are highly intelligent, can communicate, and can function like most people. These are the ones who are considered “high functioning”, or Asperger’s. For the rest of the autistic diagnoses, a child who isn’t able to verbally communicate brings about many challenges for parents, teachers, and counselors. Most of all, it’s quite a challenge for the child because they’re not able to communicate their wants, needs, feelings, fears, etc. There have many studies related to non-verbal autistic children, and there have been many therapy-related programs to help these children find a way to express what they’re trying to say. Some are taught a type of hand signals or sign language, some use picture boards, etc. It can be very frustrating & disheartening for a parent with an autistic child who can’t speak. You want to help your child, be there for your child, provide your child’s needs… but you just aren’t sure sometimes what they are. The most important thing you can’t do as a parent is blame yourself, the other parent, OR your child. Just because your child may not be able to verbally communicate doesn’t make them any less special, unique, and deserving of all the love & attention possible.
Anyone who grew up in the 80’s remembers the movie, “Rain Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. It was a movie loosely based on an autistic man (considered idiot savant back then), with a twist & humor mixed in. Many of you probably remember different instances in that movie where the character “Raymond” would go off in a tangent & start banging his head, swaying back & forth, or even banging on doors & screaming. Some of Raymond’s behaviors in the movie were considered funny by many, and to an extent, they were meant to be. Yet that didn’t take away from the truths & reality that were in that movie. For example, there was a part in the movie where Raymond’s brother, Charlie, was in his room at the hospital. Charlie was walking around Raymond’s room, going through his things, moving them around, looking through them. That made Raymond very uncomfortable. In this instance, Raymond didn’t physically act out, but you could tell that he was beginning to panic, as he began to call for the worker that was supervising. One of the most intense scenes was towards the end when Charlie brought Raymond to his home in California. Charlie was in bed sleeping, and Raymond got up & headed for the kitchen intending on making something to eat. After a few minutes, the smoke detector went off; Raymond severely panicked as Charlie jumped out of bed & come running to the kitchen to see what was going on. When Charlie arrived, he found Raymond beating his head against the door trying to get out. Then Charlie went over to let Raymond know it was okay but attempting to put his arm around him; that wasn’t a good idea.
As intense of a scene as that was, it gave a great example of how autistic people react to various triggers, fears, and situations. A response such as this is often called a “meltdown” or “outburst”. To most people, these reactions or responses seem funny, strange, unnecessary, and even uncalled for; many people who don’t understand usually judge, criticize & even stare at a child going through this. Many parents get told things like, “you need to discipline your child more/better”, or “you need to control your child”. Judgment statements like these do nothing to help the situation, the parent, or the child. There are a variety of things that can be done to assist an autistic child/person in a situation like this. One thing you shouldn’t do is automatically run up to or towards the autistic child having a meltdown. If the response is due to fear, having someone running towards them will only heighten the fear, and in turn worsen the outburst. You want to find out what may be causing the reaction; a sound, something they feel, etc. Remove whatever is causing the response from the area first, then attempt in a calming & comforting way to reassure the child. If the child has an item or sound that comforts them, bringing that to them might help calm the child. Just remember that screaming, scolding, and physical discipline do nothing but make matters worse. Many of us parents grew up in an era when grabbing, grounding, spanking, and even ‘beating’ was a common way our parents disciplined us; so naturally it is our “go to” method for our children. These forms of discipline can’t be used on an autistic child in anyway. One of the biggest reasons goes back to how their brains process things; cause & effect isn’t something that makes sense to an autistic child. Most kids are raised to know that, “you do the crime, you get punished”. Autistic children, in this manner, aren’t able to put 2+2 together to understand why they’re receiving the punishment. That is not saying that you can’t discipline your child, but it takes special care & ways of going about it. To them, physical discipline is just an attack, and could send them into a meltdown, or cause even more fear of those inflicting the discipline-their parents.
As mentioned before, many autistic children have strange behaviors, habits, or things that they do that only make sense to them. Some of the behaviors could even resemble those of a person suffering with OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, some children may have certain items in their room set up a certain way. A child could have a row of Hot Wheels cars lined up on their dresser; maybe they believe those cars are there to protect him. To the parent, it is a mess or unnecessary item out & should get put away. To the child, it may be done for security. Or a child may have their stuffed animals surrounding them in bed when they sleep. The parent looks at the situation & thinks that it’s too much & the child needs to narrow the number of toys in the bed. To the child, it helps them feel safe. There are children who will go around the house in nothing but their underwear & a heavy winter coat. Again, to a parent this seems totally uncalled for, weird, and even embarrassing. To the child, it’s not only perfectly normal, but it’s necessary for the child to feel safe. Many of the behaviors, rituals, and habits of an autistic child are usually done for security. It’s not necessarily that the parents are doing anything to make the child not feel safe; again, it’s just how the autistic child perceives things. If the behavior or habit isn’t putting anyone in harm’s way, isn’t causing major problems, then it’s best to just leave it alone.
Autistic children have a very unique, creative, and interesting way of viewing the world around them. They should be treated with the same love, respect, and support as any child; although how you give this love & attention may have to be done a little differently depending on the child. For example, you may have a child who doesn’t like to be held or hugged. This isn’t easy for a parent to deal with, but there may be other ways to show your love to your child. In no way do material things replace the love of a parent, but if you have a child who doesn’t like to be touched, maybe cooking their favorite meal or playing their favorite game might do the trick. If you have a child who likes layers on them when they go to bed at night, be sure that you have plenty of blankets. It’s also a good idea to have a couple backup comforters & blankets. That way, no matter when “laundry day” is, your child always has enough to make them feel safe & secure. If your child insists on certain toys sitting out in their rooms, try to negotiate with them without making them feel threatened. For parents & families with an autistic child, life doesn’t have to be a stressful nightmare. And no matter what specialists, therapists, or doctors your child may be seeing, NO ONE knows your child better than you… you are their greatest ally and advocate.