What is Autism?
Autism is a condition which involves persistent challenges for a child in many areas of development. Parents and teachers begin to notice characteristics such as shyness, withdrawn and moody behaviour, among others, at the early stages of onset of autism. A continuous observation of the child’s behaviour and a professional assessment is required to understand the challenges the child is facing. People feel that an Autistic child is an enigma. These children prefer to stay aloof, do not play or interact with other children or adults, cling on to the person they feel comfortable with, and stay away from the crowd or any ongoing activity. Thus, they can be noticed easily while observing their interactions with other children in class, on the playground, at home or in any social gathering. An autistic child is unable to communicate, show or express feelings or emotions of any type. When they are exposed to other children who are talkative, expressive, and independent, they tend to get confused and anxious. The other symptoms include repetitive behaviour. While they experience many challenges, they may also have many strengths like a strong memory, excellent auditory and visual learning ability.
During my 30 years of profession as a Special Educator, Trainer and Consultant, I have had the opportunity of working with children of different abilities, nationalities and communities, socio-economic backgrounds, aged 3 years and above.
One of the major initial challenges that I had to overcome involved counselling parents of autistic children to accept that their child needs special care and attention as compared to a normal child. Their lack of willingness to put in extra effort for teaching and caring for their autistic child was a big hindrance. Secondly, the teachers would feel helpless as the autistic child would not express anything. If at all the child spoke or interacted, it would be in a flat, robotic speaking voice or singsong voice. Thus, teaching basic concepts which are age-specific, was difficult.
The most challenging experience I had was with a 4-year-old preschool boy who was diagnosed with Autism. He would cry in the classroom most of the time. He would hesitate to enter the school compound or the classroom, where an integrated approach was the norm. Right from accepting the social atmosphere of a school, the child had to be trained. He would stick to one teacher. He was clumsy in fine/gross motor skills. He was very scared of getting into water during swimming classes. A language barrier further restricted him from interacting with others. He had good listening skills but the extent to which he could perceive, retain and recall had to be assessed. He would repeat one word of whatever was trained, the repetitive behaviour of rocking, hand movements, problems with using pronouns like ‘You’ and ‘I’, pointing or gesturing had to be dealt with. However, he was a wonderful kid who would obediently follow whatever instructions were given to him. It was a pleasure to train him to make him an independent, confident, social and academically stable boy.
In order to do so, a special Individual Education Programme (IEP) was formulated while keeping in mind his basic immediate needs – from simple to more complex tasks. This was done by providing simple step-by-step instructions and training with the help of specially designed education/training materials. He had to be trained through touch, auditory, visual, taste and olfactory stimulation. He responded well to Auditory and visual imagination training. Social interaction through role play, puppet shows, demonstrations, and one to one child interactions helped the child to become a fun loving, outgoing 11 year old boy, who loved playing soccer with his friends. Academically he achieved above average grades. He eventually played a leading role in organising classroom activities and participating in swimming/other athletic competitions.
His parents were amazed and in awe of the remarkable progress their son had made.
They supported him through his journey, through the pains, conflicts, competitive pressure to perform, the insecurities, and depression, during his years of training and development. It gives me immense pleasure and professional satisfaction to learn that he is now an undergraduate student in a reputed foreign university.
I wish to advise parents, teachers and trainers to never treat an autistic child as someone who is different or abnormal. Timely assessment, identifying the child’s needs, developing a specialised simplified program and training the child will go a long way in making him or her independent, confident and a socially acceptable human being. It is of utmost importance that parents and teachers exercise a lot of patience and perseverance while interacting with their child, avoid comparison with other children, encourage interactions amongst the same age group, pay individual attention and appreciate them whenever required. It is also essential to highlight the positive strengths of an autistic child and to encourage them to develop those skills as a hobby or a career.
With modern day tools and advanced learning and teaching methodologies, autistic children can be assisted and trained to live an independent and secure life. We as a society must protect their rights, spread awareness on autism amongst communities, form autism support groups and ensure that they have access to required medical and therapeutic resources. Children with autism are gifted and have immense potential to contribute to society and therefore it is our responsibility to guide them towards the path of development and success.