This is our second week at looking at tips devised by my colleague, Davida Hartman, Senior Educational Psychologist in conjunction with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) to support children with autism through puberty, adolescence and beyond.
Whether you are a parent, grandparent, family member, teacher or other professional working with young people with autism we hope you will find these tips useful.
Public and private
Teach the difference between public and private. All children need to learn the difference between what is public and what is private, including places, body parts, conversations, behaviours and online information. Learning this difference helps children behave in appropriate ways and is a protective factor in abuse. However, be careful about hard and fast rules and remember to teach that rules can change over time and why. For example, it makes sense to teach children that sex is a private topic that they can only discuss with their parents, but what are they to do when all of their peers are talking about it in the yard in school? Avoiding such conversations or worse telling the teacher will be even more isolating for them.
Teach how to say ‘NO’. While compliance is highly valued in special education, it does little to support a child’s safety skills.. The first step to being able to protect yourself is to know your rights and to know that your body belongs to you, and that you have control over it and what you do with it.
Don’t do anything that they can do independently. Often, people get so used to making decisions and doing things for a child with special needs that they start to do so automatically. However, this inevitably leads to the child being less and less able to do things or make decisions for themselves. Instead, set up situations where the child can experience success and constantly push slightly beyond these boundaries. Allow them to do daily tasks independently, even if it takes them longer to complete. Involve them in decisions about their lives. Give them meaningful choices throughout the day.
Help develop friendships. If teenagers are to develop the skills needed to enter adult relationships, they will need practice and support getting there. However, people on the spectrum often need and enjoy spending time alone and may actively avoid social situations. Don’t be mistaken, this does not mean that they do not also need or want friendship in a way that is meaningful for them or that they do not experience intense loneliness. Teach them the social skills involved. Link them in with other similar children. Find socialising events where there is a common focus, e.g. the cinema. The internet can also be great for linking together likeminded people with obscure interests.
Help build self-understanding. Developing a healthy and realistic self-concept means understanding your own personal weaknesses as well as your strengths. Children on the spectrum have many fantastic qualities, including being honest, reliable and having a strong sense of social justice. They need to learn that they are valuable human beings with valuable contributions to make to this world.
However, they also need to learn about their diagnosis, the challenges that come with this diagnosis, what they need to overcome these challenges, and how to go about getting them (e.g. being able to tell their teacher “I find it difficult to listen to you when that light is flickering, can we please turn it off?”.
This does not have to be done in one big difficult conversation. Start talking about difference early. Read books about autism with them geared for their age and ability level. Make links with groups like the Autism Self Advocacy Network. Introduce them (through books, TV or the internet) to role models who have a disability. Read books by authors on the spectrum, they have a lot to teach us.