Reaching the Autistic Child
By Brandi Barnett
Work & PlayApril 2007
By Jenna Ball
April is Autism Awareness Month. So, what is Autism? The Autism Society of America defines autism as a neurological disorder that impairs the development of a person’s ability to communicate with others. autism is a spectrum disorder—meaning the symptoms can occur in any combination and with varying degrees of severity. There is no known cause of autism, however it is accepted by the medical community that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the belief that some children are born with a higher susceptibility to develop autism, but have not identified a "trigger" that causes autism to develop.
i am the resource director for the autism Society of Northern California, a socialization instructor, and respite care provider for individuals on the autism spectrum. you hear about autism more and more in the news and the rate at which autism seems to be growing is exponential. In America today, one in every 150 children is diagnosed with autism. it is four times more common in boys than in girls and occurs evenly throughout all ethnicities and backgrounds.
People with autism have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.my job is to help children, teens and adults with their social skills and leisure activities. i do this through structured play groups for the children, and social field trips for the teens and adults.
One of my favorite jobs is working with a 16-year-old boy on the spectrum.When he was younger, he couldn’t communicate well and had behavior issues.His mom started him on intensive intervention including speech therapy, behavioral intervention, and sensory integration. Now my 16-year-old buddy has his driver’s license and can drive.He is currently fully included in his classes with an aide to help him with organization.He is trying to prove he can do it himself and is hoping that next year he will be on his own. This kid is one of the funniest people i know; he cracks jokes, quotes the funniest movies and can always make me smile.
One of the most devastating myths about individuals on the spectrum is that they cannot show affection.While sensory stimulation is processed differently in some people, they can and do give affection. it may require patience to accept and give love in the child's terms. another young boy i work with is the epitome of this myth. to some, he may seem like he shows no signs of interest in anything, he cannot speak and usually communicates with a variety of angry grunts and slaps. after getting to know him, i feel i have figured out what makes him tick. i can always get a smile out of him.The first time i saw him smile, my heart melted—i thought to myself, there is a kid in there dying to get out. Since that day, i have created “giggle games” where the goal of the interaction is to get him to respond with a giggle or smile. These are helpful in decreasing undesirable behavior, and teaching him to initiate play, which is a very difficult thing for a child with autism to do.
Some children with autism have an “inappropriate” attachment to or fascination with objects; a young boy i know loves electronics. anything with buttons that makes sounds and has flashing lights can keep him entertained for hours. although it’s wonderful to see him happy and interested in things, part of my job is to get him interested in activities with social interaction. He has recently learned to play board games. This requires a little help waiting for his turn.He repeats rules out loud (also known as echolalia). When he knows he is doing something that i will correct, like when he reaches for a card out of turn, he will say “Wait your turn” when he picks up the card because he knows that is what i will say. One simple phrase that helps him is “First this, then that.” a child is given a sequence, and the opportunity to do what they want after they complete a task that the instructor wants. Most children with autism are willing to do just about anything in order to get that specific reward, in his case, a talking V-tech computer.
my job is not always smiles and progress; there are days when i go home with bite marks, scratches and bruises; one child even broke my sternum. it is, however, the smiles, the progress, the little steps forward and the attachment i feel towards these children that keep me coming back for more. although there is no known cure for autism, it is believed that with a combination of treatments and therapy a child can become more efficient in social interactions, communication and live a more self fulfilling life.