What is Autism?
Autism is a communication disorder characterised by a child's inability to relate to the outside world - physically and emotionally. These children are usually hypersensitive to external environmental stimuli and seem to be withdrawn into an inside world only they have access to. In such a situation, autistic children need special and individualised care from their parents and other caregivers. Here are some guidelines to help deal with an autistic child's needs.
- Try to make eye contact with the child.
- Organise the child's environment and daily activities into a routine. Autistic children respond well to routine, which helps them to create order in their world. This could be done by keeping fixed times for food, play and other activities like taking a bath, sleeping, etc.
- Provide prior warning of any change in routine - physical or otherwise. For example, if the furniture of the child's room needs to be moved, the child should be told and allowed to get used to the idea, before the change is made.
- Getting angry at the child's tantrum will not help. In such a case, it is better to allow the child to calm down and then repeat the instructions.
- Taking the child to crowded places should be avoided, at least till behavioural therapy has made him more accepting of such outings.
- Talk to the child in simple and uncomplicated language. Long and subtle sentences should be avoided. For example, instead of saying, "Rahul, would you please come and sit here", it is better to say, "Rahul, sit here" while pointing to the destination with a finger.
- Touch the child often. Though an autistic child will frequently rebuff any effort to touch, research has shown that they begin to respond to touch sooner or later. Instead of making overt efforts to touch the child, a parent should try to make subtle advances like lead the child by holding the arm lightly, or a gentle nudge from behind etc.
- The child should be talked to often, rather than waiting for him to initiate conversation. Any effort to talk on the child's part should be effusely praised. Gradually the child can be encouraged to initiate conversation on his own.
- Taking the child's name every time he is addressed is essential. However, pronouns should be taken care of while talking to him since most autistic children who talk tend to reverse pronouns, using "You" instead of "I" and vice versa. So it may be better to say, "Rahul, YOU can have toast", rather than "Rahul can have toast".
- It is better to ensure consistency in discipline and demands since autistic children tend to take everything literally. Once a limit or target has been set, it is better to adhere to it at that time. For example, if the time for play has been set for 4 o clock and the parent wants to postpone it, it is better to tell the child, "Rahul we will play at 5", rather than saying, "We will do that later".
- Use visual media as far as possible with background auditory stimuli. For example, while telling a story, the child should preferably be shown a picture book simultaneously. Unlike other children, an autistic child might like to hear the same story everyday providing him with a sense of routine and order.
- Give clear, simple and literal tasks to a child to complete and let him finish it before moving on to another activity.
- Do not rush the child into keeping pace with others.
- The teaching material may be increased in complexity with time.
- The child should be encouraged to interact with peers.
- Positive reinforcement should be given if the child makes eye contact, speaks, completes an activity or curbs repetitive behaviour. Praise should be effusive. For example., say "Rahul that was excellent. You have done well", instead of "That was good".
An autistic child thus needs intervention at various levels which need to be coordinated between the family, teachers, doctors and peers. Services of a child psychologist should be sought for individualised education and therapy.