What are the things children with autism wish you knew about them? Autism spectrum disorder (ASD, or simply “autism”) is a lifelong neurological and developmental disorder affecting how a person perceives the world and communicates with others. It is a “spectrum” because individuals with autism can exhibit a range of symptoms with varying degrees of intensity, including problems with verbal communication and social interaction, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and learning difficulties.
Makati Medical Center, the Philippines’ premier healthcare institution, reveals ways we can better understand how children with autism feel and how they communicate.
First, always remember that a child with autism is still a child. A child who is developing personal thoughts, feelings, ideas, talents, and dreams. “Autism is part of the child, but not the child’s whole identity,” says Developmental Pediatrician Veronica Reloza, MD, of the MakatiMed Department of Pediatrics. “His or her different behavior may be the first thing you see or notice when you meet a child with autism, but remember that a child is still developing his or her own capabilities, and there’s danger in boxing him or her in.”
They can be visually oriented learners. Kids with autism tend to be visually oriented. Having visual support helps them learn because they process images better than spoken words. “Kids with autism retain information better when they see it. Without visual support, they can become continually frustrated and might feel helpless because they’re not processing information the way you’d expect them to,” says Dr. Reloza.
Simple drawings of activities for the day can help them understand sequences of events. Using visual support, like pictures or symbols, makes it easier for kids with autism to remember what they’re supposed to do next and transition from one activity to another smoothly.
They can be non-verbal communicators. While children with autism are visually oriented learners, it is also important for parents and those around them to take note of their actions and reactions or nonverbal cues. “Children with autism use nonverbal cues to communicate because they don’t always know the words to express themselves,” says Dr. Reloza. “Paying attention to the kind of gestures and facial expressions they make can help you understand what they’re feeling.”
Observe how they tend to act whenever they are hungry, frustrated, confused, or upset. Sometimes throwing a tantrum is their way of communicating how they feel. The kind of facial expressions, sounds, and gestures they make will help you pick up on their behavior.
Since they tend to have difficulty with words or a stereotypic mannerism, there are also times when kids with autism compensate through echolalia or the precise repetition or echoing of words and sounds. You might hear them uttering speeches and scripts like that of a professor or a movie actor without fully understanding what these words mean. This is their way of dealing with having to answer questions when they are expected to.
They may be highly sensitive to their environment. Watching out for how they react to certain stimuli can help you identify the reason behind their tantrums, because certain behavior may have a physical cause. Some children with autism are highly sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. That is why some physical environments can be downright painful and hostile for them. Picture a grocery store with loud booming speakers, overlapping jabber of customers, the scent of raw fish, and glaring fluorescent lights.
So many things happening all at once make it hard for them to focus. Sensory overload can cause them stress, anxiety, and pain.
What happens is they tend to just shut down or appear withdrawn. “Take note of the environment when these occur. Take note of the time, setting, people, and activities around the child because there may be a pattern,” explains Dr. Reloza. “Everything they do is a form of communication, and these tell you what words cannot.”
“Children with autism, like any child, thrive when they receive acceptance and love,” says Dr. Reloza. “With the right guidance, they can live fulfilling lives.”