Two weeks ago, it was Autism Awareness Week; there were references to autism throughout the media and, happily, as a result of things like Chris Packham’s excellent programme last year, there is much greater awareness – and understanding – of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than there used to be.
I had a discussion recently about Special Educational Needs with some university students taking an Education degree. They were questioning whether the incidence of ASD has gone up. I personally don’t think it has: I think we are just better at recognising it and attributing behaviours to ASD rather than simply labelling children and young people as ‘naughty’, ‘lazy’, ‘unintelligent’ or ‘disruptive’ and so on when, in fact, they are showing characteristics of autism.
How will my child turn out?
Which brings me to the title of this blog. In my capacity as an Educational Psychologist, the parents of a child in a Nursery had asked me to see their son who had recently been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. After I had observed him in the nursery and spent some time working with him on a 1:1 basis, I had a meeting with his father. We discussed my observations and recommendations and then the father turned to me and asked, “Will he be alright?”
That could have meant many things: will he be able to live independently when he’s older? Will he be able to form and sustain relationships with friends and, eventually, with a partner? Will he be able to get a job? It was hard to tell what the dad’s frame of reference was. What he wanted were reassurance and answers, answers that it’s very difficult to give.
All I could do is help him understand that children diagnosed as being on the spectrum are individuals and each develops in his or her own way. They may share certain features in common, such as sensitivity to noise or light, but this may well manifest itself very differently. For some it may be crowded noisy places like shopping centres; for others, it could be the noise of a vacuum cleaner or hand dryer, while for some children, it may be noisy public transport such as the Underground.
Equally, many parents of children with an ASD diagnosis tell me that their child has a ‘restricted diet’, only eating certain foods. For example, I have met children who will only eat carbs, only eat brown or beige food, only eat crunchy food, only eat soft food, only eat bananas, and so on. So they may have a restricted diet, but the commonality ends there, with each child being as individual as the next.
All children, both autistic and “neurotypical” are individuals
By its very nature, as the name suggests (Autism SPECTRUM Disorder), children diagnosed as autistic will be very different to each other. The important thing to remember is that they are individuals and while some approaches and strategies may be helpful across the board, not all will be relevant with all children with an ASD diagnosis. It is simply a matter of trying to understand each child, how their ASD presents itself and what can be done to assist them in making sense of their world. At the same time, it’s about giving those around them an insight into and greater understanding of what that world is like.
At the end of the day, coming back to the father’s question to me, none of us know what is in store for our children. We may have our hopes, dreams and aspirations for them, but we can’t predict with any certainty how things will turn out for them and what the future may hold. And that’s as true for children diagnosed as autistic as it is for “neurotypical” children. All we can do is guide and advise them, help open up opportunities and ideas for them, listen to them (both what they say, how they say it and the things that are unsaid but suspected) and be there for them.
Being a parent is tough – and, as they say, children don’t come with a manual!