April is Autism Awareness / Acceptance Month – a month in which members of the United Nations raise awareness of people with autism spectrum disorder. Therefore, this month is a good idea to educate yourself about your neurodiverse peers and empower the autism community.
What is Autism?
Autism, autism spectrum disorder or ASD is an umbrella term that refers to various neurodevelopmental conditions. According to DSM-5, people with ASD often have restricted interests and repetitive behaviours, verbal and non-verbal communication difficulties, and other symptoms that affect their ability to function in everyday life.
There is not one type of autism, but many subtypes, influenced by a combination of social, environmental and genetic factors. It is also a spectrum. Therefore, each individual is different, with distinct challenges and strengths. While some people need additional support in their daily life, others can lead a totally independent life.
Signs of autism typically appear when a child is about 2 or 3 years old. The earlier the diagnosis, the sooner support and services can begin. However, it is important to note that some people learn that they have ASD when they’re older. This is trickier, as ASD symptoms in adults can overlap with other disorders, such as depression, anxiety and ADHD.
ASD is not a medical condition that can be cured. On the contrary, it means your brain works in different ways. This is why many autism rights advocates prefer the term “Autism Acceptance Month” as opposed to “Autism Awareness Month.”
In fact, Judy Singer, a sociologist with autism, coined the term “neurodiversity.” This means certain developmental disorders are normal variations in the brain. Therefore, neurodiverse people also have certain strengths that neurotypical people may not have.
Caring for a Child with ASD
First off, it is important to learn how to communicate with them. Some autistic children can be non-verbal. Therefore, as a parent or guardian, you need to come up with non-verbal, visual and creative ways of communication.
Autistic children function best when they work within a structured schedule. Therefore, stick to a consistent timetable and tasks that the child is used to. If there is a change in the schedule, inform your child beforehand.
Positive reinforcement goes a long way towards encouraging children with ASD. Reward their good behaviour and praise them when they do something good. You can also create a safe haven at home where the child can feel safe and comfortable. Use visual cues such as coloured tape and label items with images to make the child feel relaxed and accepted.
Finally, it is important to schedule time for play. Between school, therapy, and homework, autistic children can easily feel overwhelmed. Schedule a time when the child can relax and do something that they are really passionate about.