World Austism Awareness Week begins today and the aim is to help make the world a friendlier place for those affected by the condition.
For life can be pretty challenging for both autistic children and their parents – even when they take the view that autism just means a child has a different brain and skills that are no better or worse than those of non-autistic children.
Jessie Hewitson, who has a seven-year-old autistic son, is well aware of the challenges, and after successfully tackling them herself, she’s written the book Autism: How to raise a happy autistic child to help other parents trying to deal with the condition.
Here Hewitson, whose son was diagnosed at the age of two, outlines six ways to make life easier for autistic children.
1. Fix the environment, not the person
In the past, parents tried to help their children by reducing autistic behaviour and training their autistic child to mimic non-autistic children, says Hewitson. who believes this, among other issues, has led to the current mental health crisis among autistic adults.
If an autistic child is engaging in self-stimulating behaviour (‘stimming’ – spinning around, flapping their hands) because they’re anxious, she says there are two possible approaches: stop them stimming, which can also happen when they’re excited or happy, or stop what is causing the child anxiety.
“If having a happy child is your goal, it’s best to focus on stopping what’s causing them anxiety,” she says.
“Take away the stimming and you take away their coping mechanism. Try to reduce the anxiety by taking your child out of a bad situation, and build up from there.”
2. Learn about sensory differences
The social difficulties, or differences, that accompany autism are well known, but what’s perhaps less well understood are the sensory difficulties autistic people face. They process sound, sight, touch, smell and taste differently, and get too much or too little feedback from these senses compared with non-autistic people.
“This is why a trip to the supermarket or a music group can be hell for an autistic child,” explains Hewitson.
“Imagine what it must be like for a child who can’t filter out background noise, seeing everyone else coping when they can’t and unable to explain that they’re in pain and distress.
“The modern world wasn’t designed with your child in mind, so adapt it to their needs.”
To do this, don’t expect them to join you at noisy get-togethers if they don’t enjoy them; give them noise-reducing earphones if you’re going to the supermarket, or just shop online; and consider why tooth brushing leaves your child screaming.
She suggests any adaptations parents devise to help their autistic child cope with their sensory differences should be shared with their school.
3. Sort out your own issues
Hewitson admits it took her years to come to terms with her son’s diagnosis, and points out that most parents have to battle for an assessment and then fight cash-strapped local authorities to get the right support at school.
This leaves many, if not all of them, stressed and unable to properly support other people, she says.
“When I go to parents’ groups geared towards learning more about our children, I encounter parents so in pain they talk only about their own experiences, rather than those of their kids.
“Seek support to get to the point where that pain recedes and you can look at what your child needs more clearly.”
She says regularly seeing a therapist has helped her deal with these issues.
4. Structure your life
One of the biggest difficulties for anxious autistic children – and most autistic children are anxious – is uncertainty, and while you can’t eradicate uncertainty in life generally, you can minimise it at home.
“Structure and preparation are your friends,” insists Hewitson.
She suggests using visual timetables, or if your child’s older or less visually inclined, write a plan for the day. Create routines – do the same things in the morning in the same order – and do the same activities in the school holidays.
If you’re going somewhere new, look up pictures on the internet or ask for photos to be emailed to you so your child knows what to expect.
5. Pick your battles with school
Hewitson says inadequate government funding means schools are finding it tough to support autistic pupils property, so parents should make sure that what needs to happen is actually happening.
“You also need to pick your battles,” she warns.
“The school is unlikely to be able to do everything you want them to do, or that they should be doing, so focus on what’s going to make the biggest difference to your child.”
She points out that many autistic children need support during break or lunchtimes, so parents should make sure their child is okay at these times.
6. Speak to autistic adults
The people who really know about autism are autistic adults, stresses Hewitson.
She spoke to many autistic adults when researching her book, and says it’s made her think about difference in an entirely new way.
“Now, when I’m unsure of how to approach something with my son, I message an autistic friend and unfailingly receive brilliant advice.”
She suggests parents visit relevant Twitter or Facebook groups to gain an invaluable insight into what experiencing autism is really like.