This week we are focusing on Autism Spectrum Disorders. On Monday, we heard from a mom who has a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. She shared with us what she wishes others would consider before judging her situation, and how parenting her son has been a blessing. Today we will hear from a speech-language pathologist who will give us some helpful hints in teaching your children to be more sensitive to individuals who are on the Autism Spectrum.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:13-14
By: Laura Merriman*
As a middle school speech-language pathologist, I have worked with numerous children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). The spectrum encompasses everything from the non-verbal child with severe Autism, to the highly intelligent child with Asperger’s Syndrome, and everything in between. No two children with ASD are alike, but they do share some similar characteristics. Over the past few years, God has given me a passion for working with these children and their families.
Working with middle schoolers, I see how children with Autism are treated on a daily basis. Some of their “typical” peers are kind and compassionate, while others are bullies. Some of the compassionate ones will stand up to a bully or talk to a teacher, while others will stand aside and watch it happen. Often, I think the “typical” peers just don’t know what they can do to help! They know that the student with Autism is different, but they don’t understand why or how to interact with him/her.
If you or your children have ever wondered, “How can we be more sensitive to individuals on the Autism Spectrum?” here are a few things to think about:
- Social skills: Making friends, joining games at recess, having lunchtime conversations, making eye contact — all of these things can be very difficult for children with Autism. A friend of mine, who has an amazing son with Asperger’s Syndrome, shared this insight with me: “Teach your child that kids with ASD are just like them in so many ways. They want to be loved, have friends, and feel comfortable… it just often takes a little more effort to get to know them. But when you do, they can be the very best friend you ever had! They tend to treasure their friends because they often have precious few. A child that is willing to reach out to a child with ASD is nothing short of a hero. Sometimes kids assume that when they see a child alone on the playground, or eating alone at lunch, that it is their choice and they just prefer to be alone… but in many cases they just simply don’t know how to be with others socially, and they may have failed so many times, that it just hurts too much to try anymore. Go ahead and ask if they mind if you sit with them or play with them.” Wise words.
- Blunt comments: Sometimes kids on the Autism Spectrum can be very blunt. They might say things that sound rude, but they aren’t intending their words to come across that way! In fact, you will often find that children with Autism are extremely honest. They say what they are thinking (which might be what you are thinking too!), and they haven’t learned what sorts of comments should be kept to themselves. They may have to be told explicitly, “It is not nice to tell someone who their hair looks weird. It will make that person feel sad.” Don’t let the blunt comments hurt your feelings – just keep in mind that the child with Autism has trouble thinking about how someone else feels, and he/she is still learning how to interact with others. He/she is learning how to “do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19) with his/her words.
- Limited interests: Some children on the Autism Spectrum love to create things with Legos, some are experts on dinosaurs, some may be fascinated with ocean animals… or trains… or cars… or Star Wars… you get the idea. At times, children with Autism can become so absorbed in their activities that it can be hard for others to find a way “in.” If you are finding it hard to break into the child’s world, learn to be GENTLY intrusive. Don’t touch or take away the item of interest, but sit down next to the child and ask about what he/she is playing with – you might get a monologue of the various detailed parts of a train engine, but be patient! If you can talk about the child’s interests with him or her, then you are IN. That child will remember that you listened and will probably seek you out in the future.
- Meltdowns: When a child with an ASD is very upset, the instinct for a sweet-natured peer is to console the person and see what is wrong. While this is a very compassionate reaction, the child with Autism probably needs some time to calm down and regain his/her composure before he or she will be able to talk about the issue. In fact, approaching him/her in the middle of a meltdown might make things worse! The child with autism may not be able to express exactly what caused him or her to get upset in the first place, and being confronted about it (even if the intention is kind) might elevate the stress level. Once the child with the ASD has calmed down, then he or she might be ready for someone to say, “What made you so upset?” or “I’m so sorry you were sad. Do you want to play with me now?”
- Sensory issues: Often children with autism have a difficult time processing the world around them, including what comes in through their five senses. Strong smells may upset them, bright lights might scare them, environments with too much noise or light or movement may cause them to become stressed (imagine school cafeterias… or children’s worship time at church, for that matter!). Since Autism also affects the child’s ability to express himself, he might get very upset about the noise/lights/movement and then not be able to tell you what is wrong! I have seen full-blown fits erupt from situations like this. Every child is different, but be a detective. Try to discern what part of the environment is stressing the child, and then calmly try to remedy the situation. If you can’t seem to help, then ask his or her parents. They have undoubtedly dealt with the sensory issues in past situations and can be a wealth of knowledge on how THEIR child needs to calm.
- Differences: While people with Autism share common characteristics, remember that each person is unique with his/her own strengths and challenges. As a parent, it seems obvious to teach our kids that they should be kind to people who look differently than they do. However, children with Autism do not look any different than their typical peers! Be sure to teach your children that people are different on the outside AND on the inside. The mother I previously quoted states it so well: “Some people are different in the way they see the world, the way they learn, the way they act and the way they think!” If your child is old enough to read chapter books, check out Rules by Cynthia Lord. It is a great teaching tool, from the perspective of a girl whose younger brother has Autism.
- Love the puzzle: No one understands everything about Autism — that’s part of the reason that its symbol is a puzzle piece! Here’s the good news: you don’t have to understand everything about Autism in order to be kind, compassionate, and Christ-like. “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” -1 John 3:18
*Laura is a speech-language pathologist at a middle school in Bentonville, AR. She has been married to her husband Larry for 11 years, and they have two beautiful children – Lucas (7) and Lydia (5). She graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2003, worked for a little over a year, and then stayed home with her children for four years while they were young. Laura went to work for the Bentonville school district in 2008. She says, “I love Jesus, I love my family, and I love my job! I am blessed beyond measure.”