Five Surprising Skills Autistic Children May Struggle With (and tips to help them)

Even before my children were diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum I could see that they were struggling with certain things. The truth of the matter is we all struggle with different things in life and we all have strengths and weaknesses.

When I researched autism I could see so many of the difficulties my children had fitted with the diagnosis like not giving eye contact, not responding to their names, having repetitive play or movements, struggling with communication (speech in particular), and not understanding the play and actions of their peers. However some of the things they struggled with seemed initially to be unrelated to autism but are in fact much more common among those on the spectrum than those who are not. The following everyday skills are not part of the criteria for autism and neither are they things that every child with autism will struggle with but if you have a child on the spectrum you may relate to some of these struggles with your child too.

1. Blowing their nose.

Over the years on autism support groups (online and in person), this seems to be a common struggle for many children on the spectrum. There seem to be a number of reasons why this skill can be hard to learn including understanding the concept, sensory issues and developmental delays. My twins are now 9 and still neither of them understand or have the ability to blow their own noses! For my son the whole ability to understand and follow instructions is a huge struggle and for his sister it’s much more sensory and developmental.

Some tips for helping your child (preferably when they don’t actually need to blow their nose so they can avoid the added grossness of snot!) develop this skill are:

* Using a straw to practice blowing so they understand the terminology,

* Encouraging blowing from the nose gently with the mouth closed.

* Making nasal sounds like ‘Choo’ from the nose rather than the mouth.

* Use a smell that could endure sneezing such as pepper (though always do this under very close supervision)

2. Tying Shoelaces.

It should be noted this skill is not usually developed by any child until around the age of 7 or 8 though for children on the autism spectrum is is often much later. This is due to so many factors such as fine motor control difficulties, sequencing difficulties, co-ordination difficulties and sensory issues involved in pulling the laces tight enough.

If your child is struggling with this don’t panic. Here are a few tips to help:

* Try showing them from behind them as showing on your own shoes will actually be a mirror image of what the child needs to do and this could cause the child to become confused.

* Use visuals to follow showing what the laces look like throughout the process therefore breaking down the language issue and sequencing difficulties.

* Watch YouTube videos of different ways to tie as there may be a way that makes it much easier for your child to grasp independently.

* Invest in self trying laces or elastic laces so that tying isn’t necessary.

* Buy shoes with Velcro or other type fastenings to avoid the need for shoelaces altogether.

3. Hand Writing.

Not every child with autism will struggle to have legible and neat handwriting. My daughter is a perfectionist and her handwriting reflects this, but for many children it is a huge struggle. Some of the reasons for this are lack of motivation, fine motor difficulties, sensory issues with holding writing utensils, processing speed and sometimes other learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Some ways you can help your autistic child with this include:

*Use technology to help but having apps that include letter formation and encourage the child to use a stylus in the same way they would use a pencil or pen.

* Make it fun by playing games or drawing pictures to take the pressure off the child.

* Allow the child to type instead of using handwriting for some tasks so as not to inhibit their creative expression too much by taking the onus off the physical ability to write and onto the actual content. (As adults how often do we actually hand write now?)

* Experiment with different media and materials such as pens, crayons, or paint, to help bypass any sensory issues.

* Stay encouraging! While handwriting is a skill we all need it is less essential than ever for future employability these days.

4. Continence related issues.

Many children struggle silently with continence related issues and many parents are embarrassed to talk about things like bed wetting. While some children, both autistic and neuro-typical, may sail through potty training many will struggle. It is ‘normal’ for many children on the spectrum to have a delay of some sort in this area either by not being developmentally ready in line with their peers, having huge anxiety about one or several areas of the task, having sensory issues around bathrooms or underwear, or struggling with the social awareness of it all. Don’t panic if your child is one of those struggling and don’t feel you are alone. Here are some ideas that may help, though if you feel there could be any underlying medical issues or if something has recently changed with toilet training in any way do seek medical support.

*Try using visual schedules outlining the stages involved in the skill from understanding the need, sitting on the toilet, cleaning up and pulling clothing back up. It may take much longer for someone on the spectrum to sequence naturally so be patient.

* Eliminate any obvious sensory issues or barriers by having something for the child’s feet to rest on while on the toilet so they don’t feel they will fall, empty any smelly bins, having the room calm and tidy and if using a public toilet try and find one without noisy hand dryers if this is a trigger.

* Go often and make trips more routine rather than waiting until urgent. Many children on the spectrum thrive with routine so having regular routine visits can take away stress.

* If your child is socially nervous having a card or code they can use to be excused from school lessons to go could make things easier than having to get the teacher’s attention and communicate the need verbally, all of which can be immensely stressful for some autistics.

* Don’t expect a smooth ride! Change in routine, high anxiety, family change in circumstances and even hormone changes can affect toilet training so much.

* Be respectful always. Don’t laugh at accidents or mention struggles in this area with your child as it could damage their self esteem.

5. Sleep.

No-one told me my son’s severe difficulties with sleep could in any way be related to his autism! A quick google or chat to parents of autistic children and it isvery obvious just how common sleep issues are for anyone with autism. These issues range from inability to settle to sleep, inability to stay asleep or inability to get back over to sleep therefore waking extremely early. Sleep is vital for our mental and physical health and lack of it can have significant effects such as memory loss, fatigue, ill health, poor diet, inability to focus, irritability, mood swings and weight gain. There are a number of key reasons why it is thought autistic children and adults find sleep a struggle and these include anxiety, sensory issues (around clothing, bedding, lights and noise), hormone issues, lack of time awareness and different bodily needs. My son can function very well on four or five hours sleep for example while I can’t!

Some ideas to help your child with sleep:

*Having a clear routine to help establish time and expectations.

* Using visuals such as a grow clock or nightlights.

* Physical and environmental factors such as black out blinds and toy free bedrooms to remove distractions.

* Background noise such a while noise (hoovers/fridges/freezers etc) which can be calming for some or perhaps quiet, peaceful music.

* Technology free time before bed to avoid stimulating the mind too much prior to sleeping.

* Some parents choose to use natural products like lavender oil or prescription medication from paediatric doctors such as melatonin.

These are just five things I was surprised my autistic children struggle with and I could have picked so many others like riding a bike, regulating their body temperature, and even dressing themselves.

Don’t underestimate your child though. If there is one thing my children have taught me about autism it is this: they may struggle in some areas but they excel in others and they bring me untold joy daily.

Have you related to any of this? Feel free to share!

Advertisements

A Nine Year Old’s Letter To Her Disabled Brother

Dear Isaac,

I know you can’t ever read this but maybe one day I will read it to you. Maybe one day you will understand.

Tonight when you moaned and screamed when I was trying to watch a video you made me grumpy. I still love you even when I got mad at you and I am secretly glad you are well enough to scream and moan now.

The last two days I have watched you have lots of seizures and I have been so worried about you. I worry you might go to hospital or you might faint. When you have lots of seizures I don’t like going to school or leaving you. I call your name to try and wake you up. I prefer you wide awake and acting normal. I miss your screaming and being noisy when you have seizures. It’s like you are there but not there. You scare me but I still love you. I pray God will stop your seizures soon because I want you better.

One time I counted you had at least 7 naps in one day. I played card games with mum and dad and still you didn’t wake up. That made me sad. I missed you that day so much.

When you have a bath I really want to play with you and have fun but just as I start to have fun with you you push me away and makes me cry. Why do you do that? I wish you could talk to me and tell me. I would understand. I love you.

I love going on trains with you and going to the park. You are always happy in those places. I know you love me pushing the roundabout for you. I like seeing you on the swing too because I got you that swing for you, though I know you will never understand that. I did it because I don’t think life is fair to you and its better when you are happy. When you are happy I am happy too.

You keep me awake with his noises at night and wake me up early. I forgive you. Always.

You kill my fish by feeding them. Feeding fish is good Isaac but maybe not with talcum powder, toothpaste, trains and bubble bath! You do lots of naughty things like use felt pens on the armchairs, tipping bins, pulling pictures off walls, wandering away, and you always have to be first in the house. You make mummy and daddy sad but I want to tell you it’s ok. We all forgive you. We all love you. Sometimes we might be mad but we always forgive. We know you don’t mean it, though I have some baby fish now so it would be good if you just let ME feed them. Would that be ok?

Sometimes you get more attention. Mum is always bathing you because you scream and throw things if she doesn’t. You always want to go out even if I don’t want to and it sometimes feels like you always get your own way. It’s not really fair but I still love you.

You can scream very loudly. You hit me all the time. Please can you be gentle? Until them I will be patient while you learn.

There are things you can’t do. You can’t talk or write or read. I know you can’t read this but maybe you will understand if I read it to you. Maybe.

You can play just in a bit of an awkward way like tipping things on the floor or eating teddies. You only sometimes cuddle me but that’s ok.

You can be funny though. You try to push the roundabout AND get in it at the same time! You throw your fork away when you have finished eating because you forget we can wash them. You put your fork in-between your toes and then pick up food with your fingers. That’s clever and funny. You put your iPad behind your bed and think it will magically charge there. You chew charging leads and then wonder why they don’t work anymore. You make me smile and I really love you.

You never walk to school because it’s 14 miles away. You get star of the week more than me because there are less children in your class. That’s unfair! You get it for silly things too. But you never have show and tell. That would be funny because you can’t tell anything anyway. That must be hard because I know you want to say so much.

You are always on google maps. I think that’s amazing and clever. Some people don’t think you are smart but you are.

You never get to be secret student like me. My school is doing secret student now and I was secret student today in my class. When I was chosen I thought of you. Would you know what that is? The more I get bigger the more I wonder about things that you might never do or understand. You know what though, I think they chose me deliberately because I was having a bad day. I went to school crying today because you had some of those seizure things again and I want to make sure you are ok. I can’t be a good sister if I am at school can I? I’m sorry I left you.

My friends don’t understand what it’s like having a brother like you.

Sometimes I don’t want them to even know about you. I worry they would say nasty things about you because you are different or say nasty things about me. My best friend knows about you though. She worries that you may hit me but I don’t like her questioning things about you. It’s hard to explain about you because you are just, well, you are just very special and sometimes precious things are best kept secret. Is that ok?

Sometimes I love you Isaac. Sometimes I hate you. It’s hard having a brother like you but it’s also easy having a brother like you. It’s hard to live with you but its easy to love you. Really easy.

You are my friend sometimes and a bully other times. I wish we could be friends more. I am going to try and help you do that.

You teach me how to be patient and that it’s ok to be different.

I want to be there for you when you are bigger. I want mummy to teach me to care for you. Please let me do that will you?

Please try and keep learning. I believe in you. I will teach you. I can do dividing with remainders now and everything! But what I am most happy about doing is making you smile.

You are the best brother in the world even when you make me cry. I know I make you cry too.

You help me. I help you. How does that sound?

If you can’t say yes just sign it please.

It’s ok because I understand.

With love,

your sister Naomi

Five Myths About Having A Non-Verbal Child

I am a parent of a non verbal child. He has always been that way and possibly always will. It’s our ‘normal’, so much so that I often forget when others look at my son or ask him a question that they have no idea he can’t speak. Sometimes I want to tell the world everything about him, because he can’t do so for himself. Other days I want to keep everything about him private and locked into my heart because…well mostly because people, sadly, can be very ignorant.

I know people don’t mean to hurt and they are mostly just curious and well meaning about life with my beautiful son but there really does seem to be so many myths about what it is like living with a non verbal child (or adult). Here are five of the most common ones I have had said to me:

1. “Your house must be so much quieter than mine!”

This one doesn’t offend me but it does make me laugh. Just because a person can not speak does not mean they can’t make noise! My son can scream so loud he frightens the birds away for miles. He makes a lot of noises both with his mouth and with his body. He cries, he laughs and he shouts…it’s just words he can’t make, not noise! He is at least ten times louder than his very verbal sister!

2. ‘You must have no idea what he wants then if he can’t speak?’

This one makes me realise just how much emphasis we seem to put on spoken language when, in fact, it is actually only a small minority of what we as humans use to communicate. I carried my son for nine months, when he was a newborn baby I interpreted his cries when he was hungry, tired or wanted comfort. Nine years later and I still know how to interpret his actions and needs. I can follow his eyes, see his face light up in laughter or he can lead me by the hand to what he wants. He is an incredibly gifted communicator, actually more gifted than many of us who have become complacent in our use of spoken language. He uses google street map to take me to the doctors when ill (you can read more about that here), he uses photographs of places we have been to to request to go again and he uses objects like the TV remote to say he wants to watch TV. He may not have speech but he can still get his message across. It is us who need to learn to listen not him who needs to learn to communicate.

3. ‘Give him time. One day he will come out with full sentences!’

I know people want to be positive and offer hope. I get that. I understand that people don’t understand severe autism, global delay and learning difficulties fully and base their experience mostly on what they have read or heard from the media or friends. People don’t mean to hurt me when they say this, but it does hurt. While my heart would love my son to speak to me suddenly in sentences, with the exception of a miracle, that isn’t going to happen. There are only three recognisable vowel sounds in his ‘vocabulary’ at almost ten. He has ‘o’ (sounded out like awww) and ‘mmmmm’ and ‘ahhhhh’ when eating but these are considered so infantile his expressive language has been assessed at approximately 6 months old. It has remained at this age for three years with no signs of any improvement.

As hard as it is for society to accept; there are people who never develop speech and remain non verbal all their lives. There is offering hope to people and then there is false hope. The latter can destroy and damage so much. My son MAY say some words one day but the reality is he is more likely to remain non verbal. I can accept that and I hope one day others will too.

4 ‘I bet he must be so angry and frustrated all the time.’

I can understand why people would think this. Of course, like any other person, my son has times of frustration and anger. Mostly these, like any other 9 year old, are actually because he can not have his own way rather than directly due to his communication struggles. He IS understood and he IS happy. My son has never known any different. It isn’t like he had speech, became reliant on it like us, then lost it. He has always been non verbal and he has found his own way to communicate on his terms. If people take the time to get to know him they can tune into his needs and wants fairly quickly. Out of everyone in my family he laughs more than any of us so his inability to speak certainly isn’t making him angry or frustrated all the time, anything but!

5 ‘That’s so sad. You must be so heartbroken all the time.’

While it may be annoying having your child whining or nagging for something when you are busy, or asking a million questions all the time, how would you feel if you never heard your child say ‘mum’? Of course I get sad sometimes, I would not be human if I didn’t. There are moments it catches me off guard, like when I see my daughter singing Christmas carols or when someone asks me what my son wants for Christmas and he can’t tell me. On the other hand I have become much more grateful for the times my son climbs on my knee at 9 to show me something on YouTube he likes, or the times he squeezes me hard and still wants me to lift him up even though he is almost my height. When he takes my hand as he climbs out the car or rests his head on mine, he doesn’t need words to say how much he loves me.

Yes a part of my heart feels the pain of never hearing his voice but I am anything but heartbroken all the time. I have a bond with my son which is like nothing else. Silence says everything when we are just sitting together and those moments refresh me whenever I need it.

There are so many more misunderstandings about children like my son. Sometimes I deliberately don’t tell people he can’t talk because they immediately seem to stop talking to him just because he can’t speak to them. That upsets me, but more importantly it upsets my son.

I have had other parents tell their children to avoid my son out of fear that perhaps his non verbal status is somehow contagious. People generally equate non verbal with ‘not with it’ which could not be further from the truth with my son. In fact if he ignores you it says far more about you than him!

Being non verbal is not holding my son back, society is.

It is ok to not know about something you don’t have personal experience of but please be willing to learn.

I am a parent of a non verbal child. I don’t need to be his voice because he is perfectly capable of making his own needs and wants known in his own way: He just doesn’t use speech to do so.

My friend and fellow blogger Chris Bonnello hit the nail on the head with this (to see more of his fantastic memes and blogs see http://www.autisticnotweird.com)