Everybody knows the rules at an ATM, right? When there is somebody in front of you using the machine, you are supposed to stand a couple feet behind them to give some extra privacy. There's no sign or line on the ground that tells you where to stand, you just do it.
Now, imagine you are using an ATM and the next person is standing right behind you, completely unaware of that invisible line. It's more than likely that person is on the autism spectrum.
April has been designated Autism Awareness Month, with April 2 named Autism Awareness Day, to help create understanding that the person standing right behind you at the ATM is not being rude or weird or invasive. They don't have the capacity to pick up on the unwritten social cues and standards that we take for granted.
We knew something was up with Alex when he was two years old, mostly because he had a hard time making eye contact with people, a simple act which his speech development. He was also prone to inconsolable tantrums when the slightest thing went wrong, such as a tower of blocks falling down.
Our pediatrician directed us to the good people at BARC Developmental Services, which designed an intervention program that started with one-on-one interactions in our home with a speech and occupational therapist. Later, Alex went to preschool at Friendship Circle in Croydon, finishing up at the BARC classroom located at the Warminster WREC Center after we moved. He had progressed well over those years, getting a good foundation for his speech development and social interactions.
The autism diagnosis came when he was in kindergarten. After some lengthy testing, our developmental pediatrician said Alex had Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), one of five diagnoses on the autism spectrum. It's kind of the Chinese menu of the spectrum, with a little bit of autism mixed in with a little bit of Asperger's. He is considered a mild case on the autism spectrum, and when I see families dealing with more severe cases, I count myself lucky.
After the diagnosis, we were introduced to the world of individual education plans (IEPs), with regular meetings with teachers, therapists and counselors who carefully monitor Alex's progress. Now in the fourth grade, he has come a long way. He copes much better with change and has learned to be a little more flexible. His social interactions have improved dramatically.
We still have the occasional tantrum, but they don't last nearly as long as they used to. He also still struggles with being interested in what other people are doing. If you don't share his love of Angry Birds or Spongebob, he tends to ignore you.
I am by no means any expert on autism, but I am an expert on my own experiences. Based on those, I can offer some tips about dealing with autism:
Diagnose it early: The earlier you know what is going on, the earlier you can put an action plan together to deal with it. Resist worrying about any stigmas that come with having a "child with special needs." Ignoring the problem and thinking the behavior is just a phase that they will grow out of will only make it harder to counteract later. Early intervention will help develop routines and best practices without having to break bad habits.
Get help from the autism community: There is lots of information out there and it is next to impossible to read every single thing and understand it on your own. There are also plenty of organizations and resources out there willing to help you out. Check out this page of links from the Bucks County Autism Support Coalition, for starters (full disclosure, I volunteer some time to help this organization).
Be patient: This is probably the hardest thing to do. When your child erupts into a tanrum and throws himself on the ground in the middle of the supermarket because the loudspeaker came on too loud, he is not being bad, he does not know how to cope with the unexpected noise. This kind of behavior cannot be punished away. With the proper intervention plan, it can be chipped away and altered, but it takes time.
For a long time, Alex could not bear the "Happy Birthday" song. There was just something about that song tha rubbed him the wrong way. It started out with him running from the room screaming with his hands over his ears, then he would just go into the bathroom before the song started and come out when it was over. We let him slide until last year, when we decided it was time for him to get over it. With the help of his autism support teacher, he got over his anxiety with the song and can now sit and listen to it sung (softly).
It's still okay to parent: On the other hand, autism can't be a constant crutch and excuse for a child to get away with bad behavior. It's really a matter or knowing your own child and recognizing when he or she is reacting to the environment or just misbehaving.
Those are just a few of things I've seen these past 10 years. I'm sure there's plenty more for me to learn as we approach the teenage years, getting a job and college.
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