By Megan McQueen
As an educator, I have worked with many people who have autism. No two of these people have been the same (of course). Sometimes there are common traits among them, but not always. Unlike other neurodiverse syndromes, I can’t just look up their condition to better understand them. I need to get to know each person individually to learn how best to support them. April is Autism Acceptance Month; let’s learn more about autism and how we can best support those we care about who are autistic.
As autism presents in various ways, know that not all of this information may apply to everyone, but it can be a starting place for you to fine-tune your understanding.
What is Autism?
The CDC describes autism as “a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain.” Other people describe autism as a neurological variation or neurodiversity. Learning, communication, interactions with others, and behaviors may be different than in neurotypical people. Stereotypes about people with autism include that they are non-verbal or anti-social. For many autistic people (some prefer people-first language: a person with autism, others prefer leading with the label of autistic), this is not true; they can maintain fulfilling relationships. But often, a common sign of autism is different interpersonal skills. Sometimes autistic people avoid eye contact or have delayed connections as a young child (not smiling at a caregiver, delayed language, etc.) A milestone checklist may be helpful when talking with pediatricians about concerns. A diagnosis may happen at any point in a person’s lifetime. People with autism often have repetitive behaviors or interests/obsessions, such as repeating phrases, organizing objects, or sensory sensitivities. Early intervention can be a powerful tool in supporting a child’s development.
If you are caring for a child with some of the above descriptions of autism, reach out to your pediatrician. You may also find connections with your personality, prompting a discussion with your doctor. Children with autism can benefit significantly from early intervention to build strengths and skills. All caregivers love their children. All caregivers can become frustrated with their parenting situation at times. Sometimes, people with autism communicate differently than neurotypical people. As a parent, you may miss connections like hugs, “I love you’s,” or other bonding moments. Perhaps opening our minds to different ways our children display their love for us can expand our definitions of love. Maintain loving relationships (including with yourself) that feed you. Consider adding practice to your days of writing, texting, or thinking about different ways you unconditionally love your child or what you appreciate about them. Build a support network for your family.
Sometimes, people with autism struggle to read typical social cues or communicate in familiar ways. There are incredible options for building these skills. Working with a speech pathologist through early intervention or within public schools, you may hear about using assistive technology – an app with buttons your child can push to “speak” for them. Some people use sign language to communicate. Some older kids and adults share with others that they have autism, so their peers or colleagues can adjust their expectations for their communication.
Some people with autism can benefit from guidance regulating their emotions. As with most other lessons we want to impart, modeling effective strategies can be an important way to teach these skills. We also benefit from building our regulation skills while navigating challenging parenting situations. Dr. Shauna Tominey writes about playful ways to teach our children to feel and share their emotions, such as making faces and guessing which emotion we display. Autism Speaks addresses specific behavior challenges that arise and resources to plan for them. A variety of therapy options are available as well.
I want to leave us with some thoughts from Dr. Dan Siegel that make me feel hopeful and inspired to act. “…we can imagine, create, and implement new approaches to helping those [with autism] …The time is now to make such strides in both our cultural understanding and practical application of science to support our human family across the spectrum of our varied and challenging lives.”
Books for kids
All Cats Are On the Autism Spectrum by Kathy Hoopman
Come On, Calm! By Kelsey Brown
Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finson, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman
A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey, illustrated by Mika Song
Wiggles, Stomps, and Squeezes Calm My Jitters Down by Lindsey Rowe Parker
Books & Websites for adults
Unmasking Autism by Devon Price, PhD
We’re Not Broken by Eric Garcia
Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, imparting a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.