Monday, 2 February 2015

Supporting Children on the Autism Spectrum

A perspective from an adult with autism, who has brought up a fab son with autism, and works as a national adviser on the subject.

Autism is a brain design difference that appears before birth, and stays with us for life.  Generalising in all I write here, our brains are built for being specialists on subject.  They’re ten times more accurate than those of others.   We’re very logical and honest, with a quirky but amazing sense of humour and strong loyalty.  We can see detail and pattern that you cannot see, and hear extraordinary detail from the world around us.  Autism has positives.
It also has negatives – because we’re living with a brain can’t filter stuff out properly, and can’t see people properly.  You know how Blind people are those who cannot see because not enough light can get to their brain in ways that make sense to it?  And Deaf people cannot hear, because not enough sound can get to the brain in ways that make sense to it?   Ours becomes ‘blinded and deafened’ by ordinary everyday things.  Why?  Because it takes in too much information at once.    Think of a restaurant. You can hear a conversation from your companion, yes?  We probably cannot.  We can hear every conversation in there, all at once.  It’s a wall of noise.   We can’t see body language properly, or face expressions.  Eye contact actually hurts most of us.

Sooner or later, our brain wiring overheats from all that input.  It becomes confusing, and painful, and scary.  We desperately need to avoid this.   If it does happen, we desperately need a really quiet place to let it cool down.

We also need really clear, short instructions from those around us.  We’re very literal, so if you tell us to ‘pull our socks up’, we’ll probably do just that.  Then we may wonder why you think we’re being rude.  If you tell us to do the work ‘on the table’, and we get on the table, we’ll be puzzled when you get angry.  It’s what you told us to do.    Many of us are visual thinkers, not word-thinkers.  Pictures may really help.  Do ask.

We also struggle to hear your voice tone.  If you say “I didn’t say you could eat that cake” or “I didn’t say you could eat that cake”, both things may sound just the same to us.   Emphasising particular words is not handy.   Say what you mean by using a different sentence instead.

Because we are trying so hard to avoid brain wiring overload and the pain that goes with it, we need advance info.  We’re trying to calculate social interaction overload....and sensory overload.  Are there going to be crowds of people all wanting us to hear them ....all wanting us to do eye contact (which hurts us), etc?    Are there flickering fluorescent lights overhead that seem like a strobe light to us?  What about massive background noise that others can filter out?  You can’t see or hear what we can see and hear.   Same with overwhelming smells in a room, or rough textures.   Things can also be fascinating for us that you would find totally boring, because of our sensory differences and our extreme specialisations and interests.   And we cannot see if you are happy or angry or bored.  You have to say.

So it’s different, working with us.  Different can be very good.  But so often people think we’re just being rude.  We’re not.   We’re trying to be friends with you, but in a world that is so overwhelming at times.  Our accuracy and sensory skills can be a great advantage for many things, given a chance.

Be patient.  Ask what helps.  Chat to us in short clear sentences. Sit alongside us, not opposite us.  Give us a chance to think about our answers, or use pictures to communicate with us.   Make chat about something factual, not about our emotions, or random ‘small talk’.  We may find random conversation very scary.  Think about tone of voice – we may miss sarcasm or jokes.  Be aware of sensory needs and find a quiet space for us to escape to if we need it.  Say what you mean, and build that trust for us.  Be accurate on timescales you give us, too; we’ll panic if you say, “I’ll be back in five minutes”, and you take seven.  Or ten.  Or twenty.  Instead, learn to say, “I will be back soon –between five minutes and half an hour.”  Be aware that we can find unexpected touch to be like an electric shock, so always ask and wait and be gentle and careful with a reassuring hand on a shoulder, etc.

It’s little things that make a huge difference for us.  Autism is a wonderful and amazing thing to have, but it’s very specialised.  Work with us in a way we can handle, and it’s always worth it.