Accepting the Gift of Autism
The Power of Perception
When you hear the word "autism," what comes to mind? If you're like most people, you've probably seen TV interviews of autism activists or browsed past an article or two on the topic... but what is it exactly? In a nutshell, autism has been defined as a disorder that disables a person's ability to communicate socially and linguistically. Children who are diagnosed with autism early enough can be explicitly taught how to interact with other people. They don't learn these skills naturally. I had never given much thought to autism before April 2013. I didn't know anyone who was autistic, didn't really understand it, and had no opinions on it.
On April 12, 2013, our doctor first mentioned that our daughter is showing signs of autism. Sitting in the doctor's office, I nodded along compliantly. I had no real thoughts going through my head except immediate plans to start the inevitable Google process: "What is autism?" "What causes autism?" "How to treat autism?" and so on. A simple Google search answered all of those questions and more, but it's hard to relate the dense information to an actual human being. No one with autism is exactly alike; there are forms of severity since autism is a spectrum disorder.
Here are some red flags that might indicate autism for a child aged 12 to 24 months. It's important to remember that all children develop at a different pace, so many items on this list can apply to any child with or without autism. It's the accumulation of the red flags that warrants a possibility of autism.
1. Less than a two word vocabulary by the age of one or lack of two word phrases by 24 months.
2. No response when name is called.
3. Lack of eye contact.
4. Does not look where you are pointing.
5. Does not seek help when frustrated.
6. Rage of emotion when something changes.
7. Walking on tip toes.
8. Lining things up, such as toys or any small objects.
9. Staring into space or walking aimlessly.
10. Lack of sharing.
I saw many of these characteristics in my child and realized we wouldn't be able to get through this alone. At the end of any and every article about autism, it was recommended to seek professional help. The usual autistic treatment involves a speech pathologist, clinical psychologist, and a behavior therapist, among many others. Despite the long road that started to lay out before me, I believed we could seek these people out for help. She would be normal again. She just needed a little therapy. Everything would be fine, and her autism would be cured.
However, if this is your way of thinking, you are not going to help your child. The truth is, our children do not benefit from the belief that everything is going to be cured. Contrastively, a more productive approach is the absolute acceptance of your child for who they are. Parents of autistic children need to be strong, supportive, and willing to help in any way possible... and the most important part is the power of thought. Your child is not damaged, broken, or wrong in any way. They are perfect. Remember, parents, autism is happening to THEM not you! They need every positive support possible.
Autism is a gift. Think of it as a way you can love your child even more. It makes the special moments you connect with them even better. Triumphs, no matter how small, feel extremely rewarding. Needless to say, it takes a long time to pass through the stages of denial ("They'll be fine."); guilt ("What did I do to cause this?"); and anger ("Why MY child?"). It's only normal to go through a grieving process when anything happens to our children. But remember, your child is special. The love and attention you give them are what they're going to need the rest of their lives so change your perception on what autism is before it's too late. Autism is not the definitive characteristic of your child. It's simply the way your child learns and relates to the people around them. It's not always their job to learn how to change their behaviors. It's our job to learn how to better relate to them.
If you are suspicious that your child might be showing signs of autism, it's best to seek the advice of your child's doctor. If their opinion doesn't satisfy you, seek a second one! Your natural instincts are probably right, and you should pursue them. On the other hand, if your doctor tells you that your child might be autistic (or you have received a diagnosis recently), here are some things to help you and your child at home.
1. Keep a constant routine with them. You can use a visual schedule to help your child know and understand what will be happening each day.
2. Practice saying the name of everything around your child, especially when you have their attention. For example, when giving them something to drink, say "Juice!" or "Milk!" You can even add some sort of action with it. You might be surprised to find that when you continue doing this and suddenly your stop, your child might try to say it themselves!
3. Read to your child as often as possible.
4. At first, your child might be resistant to any type of change: a different cup, a new toy, etc. Sometimes it takes persistent effort for your child to understand that it's safe. For example, we had to hold our daughter tight, put a new sippy cup to her mouth with some juice coming out, before she realized what it was. Other times, your child might just need their own time to come around to something different. You won't know until you've tried different options. So just remember to be patient with them, learn what really sets them off, and take their lead.
5. Finally, it's important to remember that you are not alone. There are many parents going through the same thing. Take time to talk with them, whether it's your partner or a support group.