Rosie White’s son was diagnosed with high functioning autism two years ago. She found going back to school herself – in the form of taking autism courses – has been a great help in managing his condition.
Having a child diagnosed with a Special Educational Need can be an emotional rollercoaster; but a diagnosis also brings with it the opportunity to make changes that can help a parent support their child to be successful in life.
The rise of social media has made reaching out to communities and support services easier. And attending free parenting courses run by autism charities taught my husband and I effective strategies, that once implemented, have made a huge difference to the happiness and well-being of our son.
By understanding autism we have been able to understand our son’s behaviours and how to use structure to manage them.
Viewing the world through his eyes allowed us to assist in managing anxieties and challenging behaviours. These are some of the most useful tips and strategies we have employed at home and school:
Are you talking to me?
Always use your child’s name at the beginning of an opening sentence. You are not being ignored, but a child with autism may not know you are talking to them. It can take up to 30 seconds for a child with autism to process information.
Visual, visual, visuals...
Individuals with autism are visual thinkers, and visuals aid their ability to process, understand and accept information. We use visual supports (symbols, timetables, social stories and sand timers) to help our son understand what is expected of him, to structure his days, and to help manage his anxieties.
There are several great apps available for scheduling activities or helping put together social stories. These can be used on mobile devices to feel less obvious and more socially acceptable. FTVS HD is one I would highly recommend, it stands for First Then Visual Schedule HD which is not particularly expensive but has a lot of functionality and can be personalised in terms of the images used. But equally an old fashioned whiteboard and pen and an alarm clock is just as effective. The point is to make it visual.
The use of short sentences, less language and not using too many questions, especially at times of high anxiety, aids processing, limiting overload which can lead to a meltdown.
We have become aware of our son’s environment. It may be affecting how much your child can process, especially if your child is highly sensory and anxiety levels are rising. These environmental factors can take many forms; smells, sounds, lighting, the size of the space, be it too large or too confining. Even the bombardment of packaging, advertisements and logos in a supermarket may be enough to cause sensory overload.
We use iPods/music players and ear defenders, these can be useful sensory mufflers and make environments more manageable.
Be a detective
A child with autism’s anxiety levels are directly impacted by difficulties with communication, social interaction or sensory difficulties. After a meltdown or episode of challenging behaviour, we now try to analyse what was going on at the time, or leading up to the outburst, so that we can be prepared in the future.
A jug half full
‘Jug half full’ is a powerful analogy that shifted our perspective of our son’s behaviour. Imagine yourself as an empty jug, as the day progresses, small pebbles, in the form of annoyances and tensions may be thrown into your jug. By the end of the day, depending on how full our jug is, we may feel relatively relaxed or tense. For a child with autism, interacting in the everyday world means that they often wake with their jug already half full. That is before any boulders, in the form of changes to routine, demands or sensory input have been thrown in. When it reaches the top you have entered meltdown territory. By measuring ‘how full’ our son’s jug is we can pre-empt the impact of the pebbles/boulders we, school or his environment may be throwing in.
First and then
The word autism is derived from the Greek word for self. Children with autism will be motivated by both their own interests and their desired outcome. As part of our learning we were given two powerful words to use, ‘First and then’. For example, ‘First reading, then Lego’, and yes it works!
Adopting these strategies has made our home life a much happier one.
There are days when we forget and occasions when the schedule has to go out the window, we certainly don’t get it right every time - being a parent to a child with a SEN is a lifetime learning curve. Life may have given us a different destination than the one we thought we were headed in, but we now have the beginnings of a tool kit of strategies, allowing us to support our son and each other, on the journey.
Rosie White is parent to an autistic son, and works in marketing for special school The Sheiling School, Ringwood.