I was delighted to have an absolutely fascinating conversation with national and local Autism specialists Dr Ian Ensum and Andrew Powell for my 6th #DomIn60Minutes webinar.
There was so much to talk about, and so many questions from the audience, that it will be hard to capture everything here, but I will do my best to pick out my top takeaway points which might be useful for all parents and teachers.
We started by briefly touching on terminology and sensitive use of wording. It is best to say ‘autistic child/ person’, rather than ‘child/ person with autism’, and avoid use of words like ‘disorder’, as autistic people prefer not to be labelled as different from ‘normal’ or having an illness, but rather just being another type of person, with different abilities. As a society we are perhaps becoming more sophisticated and sensitive about discussing such topics.
Ian explained what behaviours parents might notice that could suggest that their child is autistic, and he felt that there were actually few differences between boys and girls, despite much debate on the topic (Ian has spent years assessing and diagnosing Autism as a senior clinical psychologist and lead of the Bristol Autism Spectrum Service).
He clarified that Autism is present from birth, and often runs in families, and it is part of a group of neurodevelopmental diagnoses, along with ADHD and dyspraxia among others, but he suggested not to get too caught up in the subclassifications of Autism (like ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ which is no longer officially used but used to refer to people who had Autism but had no learning disability).
How do I know if my child is autistic?
Ignore those TikTok videos that state, ‘15 signs your child has autism’ and instead look for the following:
1) significant problems in forming and maintaining reciprocal peer group relationships
2) non-verbal communication difficulties e.g. facial expression, eye contact and hand movements. Tone of voice is not modulated and used to communicate appropriately, so they may speak too loudly, or avoid eye contact.
3) There will also be repetitive routine behaviours and obsessive interests e.g. talking about their favourite interest all of the time, and will be an expert, often in niche topics.
4) They have real difficulty with change, which is beyond the normal, a genuine aversion to change. Routine is obsessively sought.
Therefore, Autistic people can find it hard to understand other people’s behaviours. Other people can seem unpredictable, and autistic people can also be hyper or hypo-sensitive to sensory experiences like touch, lights and sound. Understandably this can make life very stressful, so other mental health conditions can be very common.
Mental health issues
Autism often exists alongside anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (mainly obsession and rumination, e.g. remembering past slights and not letting things go) and depression is more common, but the latter may be more because of the social exclusion, discrimination and bullying that autistic people experience.
Addressing the social exclusion is one of the biggest transformational impacts that can be made, for example by educating school children about their autistic friends. A lovely example that was shared was inviting them to events even if they might say ‘no thank you’. It just means so much to be included.
My final and favourite bit of the webinar, which was actually quite moving, was hearing about how parents and carers can support their young autistic person. Andrew shared some wonderful top tips.
Top tips for supporting your autistic child
· Embrace Autism and autistic people.
· Never stop fighting for them.
· Build their self-esteem wherever you can and create a ‘circle of trust’ - people around them that they can turn to throughout life.
· Provide social support throughout life, they will always need you, at some times more than others.
· Review the sensory environment at home and try to make is as calming as possible for them.
· Look after yourself too, you need to be well to care for others.
· And finally- Be on their side. They need you.
I hope this helps!