As a parent and tutor working with children on the autistic spectrum, I have been asked, many times, to provide parents with solutions to their daily struggles. I have a very simple answer: start as you mean to go on. This is what I mean: you are raising a future adult who happen to be small right now. Keep your eyes on that goal, while celebrating each and every small victory.
On a more practical level, here are 10 tips for dealing with special needs children in general and autism in particular:
- Focus. One of the hallmarks of autism is obsessive and/or repetitive behavior. There is a tendency to discourage children from focusing exclusively on a narrow activity. However, this same activity, like a deep interest in history or taking things apart, might be your child’s answer to a successful and fulfilling career. For example, the child who, at 18 months old, is obsessively stacking cans might become a successful builder or architect.
- Become a detective. Observe your child’s minute reactions to change, social interactions and triggers. As a parent, you are best suited in finding the thinks that make his life harder. For example, bright days and loud environments add too much stimulation. Have a pair of sunglasses for bright days and a safe hiding place (bedroom, closet or cardboard box) to use in case of over-stimulation.
- Kinesthetic Learning. Teaching children, as young as 18 months old, to work with their hands is paramount to their future development. Order small size buckets, mops, brooms, dust pans and duster. Boost his self-esteem by showing him how to be your “helper”. Use a four step process to train your help: show, share, observe and check. The hands-on approach will help with teaching math, in a couple of years.
- Generalization. Generalization is not an easy concept for children with autism. For example, teaching a child to use a spoon for the ice cream might not help the same child in eating soup. As frustrating as it sounds, keep calm and repeat the instructions. If it does not work this time, back off, wait six months and try, try again!
- Food Allergies. Allergies, like wheat/gluten, dairy, eggs, corn and soy, seem to be quite common in children with autism. Work with an experienced allergist/nutritionist team to help detect and correct possible allergies.
- Food Portions and Variety. Food problems in autistic children mimic, at some extent, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. They are very picky eaters with delicate stomachs, a reduced menu and/or a skewed notion of portion size. Replace dinner plates with small dessert plates to cut down on the amount of food consumed by an over-eater or to encouraged a child who has no interest in food. Introduce new foods from the same botanic family to reduce the chances of allergic reactions. Wait a week between trials to give the digestive system a chance to react and/or heal.
- Sleep Deprivation. I am not talking about the parent’s sleep deprivation, so prevalent in families dealing with special needs. The inability to fall asleep and stay asleep is directly related to the successful production of Melatonin. Some Melatonin is produced in the brain. Five hundred times more Melatonin is produced in the intestine. Therefore, an ill-functioning digestive system can’t produce the needed Melatonin for a restful night. Discuss with your family doctor the possibility of using small doses (1 mg) of Melatonin to alleviate some sleep problems.
- Hearing Consonants. Kids seem to hear everything, especially the things we don’t want them to hear. Autistic children are no different with one exception: consonants. An easy test for this problem is asking the child if he can hear water running or the sound made by an old-fashioned watch. Most kids have problems with t, th, ng, z and v. To help them hear better, try to lower your voice while pronouncing problem words. If you have a high-pitched voice, like me, ask for help or use audiobooks read by a bass, baritone or alto.
- Speech and Facial Expressions. If you watch very closely, you’ll notice that kids with autism produce a “flat” speech (without any intonation). Also, their facial expressions are unchanged. Help them improve facial expressions by using exaggerated facial expressions to show the difference between happy, sad and angry, for example. Start a daily reading time when enunciation and intonation are stressed to help a child modulate his speech.
- Communication. There is a very wide continuum in the autistic group when it comes to communication. Some kids talk non-stop while others are non-verbal. Non-verbal or very young children should be encouraged to communicate by using sign language. The kids who are already talking should be taught to put their thoughts in order by narrating, with or without help, the events of the day. This will set the stage for future success in reading and writing.
Good luck in your new adventure: discovering the gift of a different view!