As a mum to a 10 year old boy with ASD, I am forever grateful for the hints and advice of those that have come before me. Those with children a little older than my son and those that have successfully come out the other side of similar experiences. Because of their generosity, I am also acutely aware of my own responsibility to pay it forward to those less advanced in their journey and in particular the individuals and groups I depend upon for the education and care of my son.
Professional development in such things as diversity and inclusion have certainly paved the way to a greater understanding of children with unique and special needs. However, it’s the number of workshops currently available in ‘managing challenging behaviour’ that has me especially worried for my son’s ongoing psychological development.
The reason for my concern lies in the fact that very few of the workshops available discern between the challenging behaviours of a child with ASD and that of their neurotypical (Child without ASD) counterparts. This, I feel, is where the system falls downs for both the educator and the child with ASD, because the behaviour itself cannot be managed without an insight into the reason behind it. The behavioural management of a child with ASD is not a one size fits all scenario. As such, the tools and strategies you would employ to address the behaviour of a neurotypical child would be a great deal different to those used to address the behaviour of a child with ASD.
In the following article, I challenge 5 of the most common myths surrounding the behaviour of a child with ASD and in return attempt to illustrate the truth behind them as a result of my own experiences.
Myth: Children with ASD are just plain naughty.
Truth: This one breaks my heart. You see, when children with ASD behave badly, it is, in my experience, not that they are being naughty, but rather a case of them reacting to something within their environment that has overstimulated them. My son, for example, goes ‘bananas’ whenever we are near a fun fair. Sure, he loves the idea of the rides and arcade games but the environment itself is just too much for his senses. It’s too loud, too fast, too colourful and there are too many contrasting smells for him to behave in any other way than seemingly out of control. That said, young children are rarely able to articulate how they are feeling, let alone understand why they are feeling like they are, so it’s up to us as adults to stop, look and listen and make some educated guesses in an attempt to bring about some form of control. In his younger years, I needed to do a lot of looking and listening in order to bring about some form of peace and control, but now that he’s older, he is starting to know when he is feeling a little off balance and removes himself from the environment. A couple of big things to remember is that no two environments are the same and these children have almost super human powers when it comes to their senses. For example, some children with ASD feel physical pain as a result of the surface they are sitting on, whilst others are greatly bothered by the hum of a fluorescent light tube in the ceiling above them. Some children can be upset by the smell of cooking coming into a room or flowers on the bench, whilst others find the acoustic properties of the room so hard to handle, that they would rather sit outside in the rain than feel the deafening pain associated with a room that is simply too loud for them. What I’m trying to say is that the reasons behind the challenging behaviour of a child with ASD are usually quite different to those of their neurotypical counterparts. And in the vast majority of cases the behaviour can be easily managed by removing the stimulant causing the issue.
Myth: A child with ASD has a ‘meltdown’ every time they don’t get their own way.
Truth: If only that were the case! Generally speaking, a child with ASD will only exhibit signs of a meltdown when they are physically no longer able to deal with their immediate environment. For example, the colour, excitement and number of people associated with a children’s birthday party used to always cause my son to have a meltdown. Over time, however, we worked out that it was better to limit the amount of time we spent at each party, rather than limiting the number of party invites we accepted. In this way, we all knew what was happening and when, and we all got to experience the best bits of the party without any unnecessary angst.
The thing with meltdowns though, is that they are caused by any number of things so you cannot always make provisions for them. The big meltdowns come on unexpectedly and involve lots of yelling and crying as the child desperately attempts to reclaim themselves and make sense of what’s happening to them. In my experience, I've always found it best to remove my son from the environment where he is having the meltdown and take him into a darker, much quieter, stimulus free room where he can gather himself and regroup his senses. I've also found that direct pressure, like a firm hug or weighted blanket, can also be of great assistance in calming my son down. Sure the triggers change from time to time, as does my son’s ability to withstand certain environments, but one thing I can categorically say is that meltdowns are not the resultant behaviour of a child with ASD not getting their own way, rather a physical expression of sensory overload.
Myth: Children with ASD are ‘picky eaters’.
Truth: To be clear, not all children with ASD have issues surrounding their eating preferences, but I can say with a great deal of experience, that those that do, are NOT your traditional ‘picky eaters’. To my way of thinking, a picky eater is someone who ‘doesn’t like a lot of foods, preferring instead to eat whatever they want, whenever they want’. A child with ASD, on the other hand, has a very restricted diet due, in large part, to the fact that they are simply too anxious to try a new food, or have sensory issues relating to the look, sound, smell or feel of certain foods. Some children with ASD can only eat soft food for example, while others can only eat green food and in this way the list of sensory issues relating to food stuffs is endless. To make meal time even more interesting, each child has a certain brand that they prefer over another, or each different food has to be dished up on a different plate or, at the very least, presented with absolutely no chance of each item touching. My son, for example, only eats around 10 different foods and very few of them are what I’d consider healthy. To make matters worse, of these 10 foods, he only eats around 5 of them at any given time. But you know what, he’s healthy and he’s growing and developing at a rate consistent with his age, so I just have to keep ignoring the snide comments and disapproving looks from other parents that suggest that I’m a bad parent because of the things I allow my child to eat. I’m told by physicians that my son’s diet will improve over time, but as the mum who has dished up southern spiced chicken tenders to their son every night for the past 8 years, and allows their child to eat teddy bear biscuits and cheese slices for lunch every day, this change cannot come around quick enough.
Myth: Children with ASD do not always understand everything that is said to them.
Truth: This is true to a degree. You see, children with ASD are very literal. For example, if you were to use the common saying such as ‘it’s raining cats and dogs outside’, children with ASD would expect to literally see cats and dogs falling from the sky. For this reason, it is always best to explain things to these children in as succinct manner as possible, without the use of acronyms, puns or pop culture references, and most certainly without the use of slang. A great many children with ASD are also visual learners, so if you are trying to teach them something important, I would highly recommend the use of visual aids, such as charts and storyboards, to get the point across.
Myth: Children with ASD do not amount to anything in life.
Truth: For a start, I think this statement is significantly flawed, as it assumes that all children with ASD are similar and that they are all afforded the same encouragement, care and life experiences. Given that this is not the case, it is very difficult to ascertain the percentage of children with ASD who go on to thrive in their respective careers, compared to those that have not been afforded the same opportunities. One thing worth noting about children with ASD, however, is their single mindedness towards very specific things. I note this, as more often than not, it is this single mindedness that provides the child with ASD with a gateway to greater things. From my own research, I've found that some of the world’s most influential people were once children with ASD. These were children that were perhaps considered odd or weird by their teachers and peers because of their commitment and single mindedness to very specific interests and hobbies. Children who, because of that single mindedness, went on to do great things as an adult, like Steve Jobs, Hans Christian Anderson, Jim Henson, Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.
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