Autism Awareness Month: Reach Out and Connect
BY LISA LANE
Autism can be an isolating condition for both the individual and the family. Our friends on the autism spectrum often struggle with effective communication and appropriate interaction. Many engage in unusual, repetitive behaviors (gestures, motions, or sounds) that create stress in public scenarios. Over time, families living with autism frequently become increasingly homebound, avoiding potentially difficult situations.
With the rate of autism now at 1 in 59 children, many of you now have a child with autism in your extended family or circle of friends. You can help combat the tendency towards isolation by reaching out to connect with those living with autism.
Here are a few practical suggestions:
Ask about the child. Often people are not sure what to say to parents who are dealing with this crisis and so they say nothing. Try a simple: “How are things going with Johnny?” Be attuned to the parents’ mood. Sometimes they may want to celebrate a small victory; sometimes they may need to acknowledge the difficulties they are facing.
Any time you can spend with the child is a gift to the family. These children are usually not invited anywhere. Their interactions are often limited to only a few people.
-If you feel comfortable taking the child for a brief outing, those moments can be priceless – for the family, who will benefit from the respite; for the child, who will benefit from the interaction; and for you, who will benefit from seeing the world through another’s eyes.
-If you don’t feel comfortable taking the child somewhere, offer to sit and “play” with the child. That might mean watching a video together, sitting side-by-side at the computer, or repeatedly pushing a ball back and forth. Sometimes unexpected connections happen during those seemingly simple interactions.
Get down to eye level with the child. Our children with autism usually make limited eye contact so it is important to be ready for those glimpses.
Be patient. Children with autism often have limited conversational ability. Instead of trying to guess what the child wants to say, simply wait … with a look of interested expectation on your face. Give him the time he needs to get out whatever words he has.
Some parents may be sensitive about terminology. Many prefer the term “child with autism” rather than “autistic child” because that wording puts the child first.
Small talk can be tough. Bear in mind that these parents may have difficulty with the common small talk among parents about their children. It is hard for families freshly dealing with this diagnosis to join into normal child-related conversations.
Be kind and encouraging whenever you can. A child who appears to be having a tantrum may be a child with autism overwhelmed by sensory input. If the child is having difficulty, a smile of encouragement to the parents may be the lifeline they need.
Through our therapeutic and educational programs, Project HOPE Foundation helps children gain skills that can open the doors to community engagement. We’ve been serving Spartanburg families since our inception in 1997, but we did not have a local place to call home until 2018. Project HOPE Foundation is incredibly grateful for the warm welcome and financial support we’ve received from the Spartanburg community, as we continue to expand our reach through our new clinic here.
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Lisa Lane is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Project HOPE Foundation, which she started with Susan Sachs in 1997 when they were both seeking autism services for their two young sons.