Autism Awareness: For Teachers and Parents

Recently I attended an autism awareness session organised by Pushpa Khanna Memorial Centre where I heard many experts talk about children on the autism spectrum. As an early years educator, I did have some knowledge about autism, the session was an eye-opener for me. The talks by specialists, parents of children with autism, and panel discussions by experts gave me insights into the key factors early years practitioners should consider when working with young children.

The responsibility of a teacher to identify children with special needs

As an early years teacher you don many hats. From settling a cranky child to resolving brawls in the classroom over a pencil and of course to covering the syllabus in the classroom. By the end of the first week of school, teachers in the early years classroom have a strong sense of each child’s personality, strengths, weaknesses. During this crucial period teachers also notice those children who are disconnected and need special attention. Do these children have autism? A lot of times when I interact with seasoned teachers they say “I know this is a case of autism. I can tell.” However it’s always better not to jump the gun and take a balanced approach to figure out the problem. Approaching an expert is advisable if you suspect red flags in a child in your class.

How to identify children with autism?

A few red flags to look out for – if the child:

  • Does not respond to his/her name
  • Does not take interest in activities other children are engaged in
  • Wants to be left alone
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Does not speak at all / does not speak clearly
  • Gets upset by minor changes
  • Does not express emotions / does not react to people’s feelings.
  • Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins in circles
  • Has trouble making friends
  • Has unusual reactions (over or under-sensitive) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions
  • Demonstrates little safety or danger awareness

What should you do after you identify children with autism?

If you identify one or more red flags, it’s always better to talk to the parents of the child about it and ask them to see a specialist. This may be tricky for it’s hard for some parents to accept that theirs is a child with special needs. At first, they may be in denial. They may even lash at you or make excuses, claim that they too were “like this” when they were growing up. It is always best to give them time to absorb the information, accept it and then act upon it. As an early years educator it is essential for you to insist that “early intervention” is key and that every second spent in denial is costing the child.

A lot of times parents in denial lose out on a lot of precious time. Research shows that early diagnosis and interventions have a long-term positive effect in a child on the autism spectrum. The brain of a young child is malleable and there are better chances for the child who gets a good start to develop to his/her full potential. The sooner a child gets help, the greater the chances for learning and progress.

Autism is not an illness

What was said over and over again in the session was that autism is not an illness. It is not a taboo and that one must accept it and then help the child learn how to cope. The mistake that parents, caregivers, family members and the society in general often make is to try and get an autistic child to become ‘normal’. One must realise that being autistic is their normal and why compel them to fit in?

Parents: Accepting your child with Autism

It’s not easy to accept that your child is autistic and that your life will be very different from the life you had imagined. Bringing up a child with special needs comes with its own set of challenges. For starters, it is absolutely essential to come to terms with the fact that your child has autism. It’s normal to go into denial and look for mistakes in the diagnosis. It’s normal to experience a range of emotions, get angry and lash at the one breaking the news to you, and even completely deny the diagnosis. However once you overcome the initial shock, it is important to take your entire family on board for you and your child need every little support possible.

It is essential to remember that autism may be diagnosed at any stage of the child’s development, depending on the age of your child; you will require different methods and approach to ensure they receive love and care. Research shows that early diagnosis and interventions have a long-term positive effect in a child on the autism spectrum. The brain of a young child is malleable and there are better chances for the child who gets a good start to develop to his/her full potential. The sooner a child gets help, the greater the chances for learning and progress.

Autistic children too grow up into responsible adults who contribute to the community in their unique ways. It is essential to change the definition of normal. Autism is not an illness. It is not a taboo. The one common mistake that parents, caregivers, family members and the society in general often make is to try and get an autistic child to become ‘normal’. One must realise that being autistic is their normal and why compel them to fit in? Accept that this is your ‘new normal’ and find ways to raise a happy, well-loved and emotionally cared for child.

7 Tips for parents dealing with children with Autism

Learn all you can about your child’s case

Children may have been diagnosed with autism, but the features of the condition will differ. Autism is a spectrum and your child may be anywhere on it. This means it is important for you to know all about your child’s condition and how it will affect your child in particular, as well as the recommended treatment.

Educating other family members

It is important to educate your spouse, parents, in-laws and the child’s siblings about autism. They have to understand what it means and the role they must play to help the child thrive. Make it easy for others to ask questions about autism and ensure the answers you are giving are correct.

Communicating with autistic children

This is not difficult. Many parents have found ways to connect and communicate with their autistic children. You can start by watching and observing the child, notice their attempts at communication and learn. Over time, you will be able to communicate with your child well.

One day at a time

Give your child the space and time to develop at their own pace. With proper guidance and support, there will be gradual improvements, encourage them and praise their efforts. Do not compare your child. Remember all children are unique.

Create a schedule

Children with autism thrive on routines, so find one thing that you can do together that is structured. It is a great idea to create a schedule that your child finds comfortable.

Fix a time for everything. Time to eat, sleep, take a walk, or have a snack. This routine makes a child with autism feel comfortable. Creating a schedule will also help you know when your child is ready to push their limits. For example, your child may indicate they want to try something new during the day, like drawing on a sketchpad, using the computer, making a sandwich or something simple as grooming the pet. These are positive signs of development.

It takes a lot of patience, over time, you will find ways to build your child’s interest in different things, but don’t force them to participate in any activity.

You are not alone

It is also a great idea to join support groups where parents with autistic children meet and share tips that have worked for them. It’s always good to hear another person’s story and hugely reassuring to know that you are not alone.

Take care of yourself

To be able to raise an emotionally cared for, well-loved, sensitive and independent child, you need to take care of yourself. Whenever you feel overwhelmed take a break and ask a family members to step in. Remember that if you want to take the best possible care of your child, you must first take the best possible care of yourself.

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