April 2nd has grown from one day into Autism Awareness Month across the world. Uganda is not yet at this point but it is important to think about some take away points. Autism is a combination of social, communicative and behavioral problems. Language and the ability to communicate with others is what helps everyone to thrive in society, do well in school, learn appropriate behavior, and express their thoughts and feelings to others. Children with autism think and thus communicate differently which limits their ability to interact with others. Temple Grandin, a famous designer and professor at Colorado State University described her experience to Dr. Oliver Sacks as feeling like “An Anthropologist on Mars”. Imagine this for a second. That following the discovery of life on another planet you leave Earth and go to learn more about this place and its people. Suddenly you are in a society completely different from you. Not only do they speak a different language, but they also have different rules for society, but they also have no knowledge of what you know to be correct. This is what it is like for children with autism. They feel alien in a culture that is supposed to be their own, as if a gap lies between them and the rest of the world.
So how do we bridge this gap? Thanks to the research done abroad and beginning to be done in Uganda as well we know a few things. We know that communication is a child with autism’s biggest challenge and has the potential to majorly limit their development. We know that improving their communication greatly improves their development. Through research we are learning to translate our social behavior and communication into something children with autism can understand. So, it is safe to say that a bridge exists one that goes both ways. This bridge helps children with autism to fit in better with our society and allows us to tap into and use their differences to bring new perspectives and thus creative ideas and solutions for some of the problems we face today.
However, this is what the researchers are doing. How does this help the Ugandan parent at home, just beginning to raise their child or already in the process? Quite simply, at home. Siller and Sigman (2002) found that when it comes to parenting children with autism, being sensitive to what the child is focused on and trying to maintain this attention is most beneficial. Most parents often find themselves pointing at something or looking at something in order to get their child to pay attention to it. This is what Siller and Sigman studied. They found that parents who do this often but in connection to what the child is already doing greatly increase their child’s potential to develop better communication skills. For example, imagine you find your child playing with a ball on the floor. Siller and Sigman would ask you to either point at the ball or look at it, look at the child and then look at the ball, all while talking about what the child is already doing with the ball. This helps any child, not just those with autism, to begin to make associations about objects in their environment. It also helps a child to begin to understand attention to an object can be shared among two or more people which introduces the child to the idea of shared play.
The above is best for young children ages 9 months to 2 years, the age when they begin to explore and pay attention to the world around them. For older children, research shows that child choice is important. Child choice is a concept developed in the early 2000s to describe the idea that while making decisions for children is simpler and helps to create structure and discipline, alternating this with situations where a child chooses for themselves helps to promote language development in children with language delay. What this really means is that conversations with children about things they find important or are important to them is important. Let them choose their clothes for the day as they explain why. Allow space for them to talk freely with you about their opinions. For children with autism this is especially important because they tend to feel misunderstood in a strange world. One of their struggles is relating with their peers. Allowing them space at home to talk and express themselves provides a safe space to practice being with others.
These are only some of the ways to help improve the development of children with autism. It is always best to have a good relationship with your child’s school, and a psychologist as well. Together the three of you can see what works best for your child and make it possible for him or her to succeed to the best of his or her ability.