How My Ten Year Old Showed Me About Autism

A week before my daughter had her fifth birthday I took her for an appointment at a local clinic. She can’t remember anything about that day at all but we left with life long diagnosis and a relief of knowing why my daughter was different. That was the day she was diagnosed autistic.

I don’t believe in hiding things from children. Children are way more resilient than we often give them credit for and they deserve to know about their own diagnosis if it is appropriate for them. I didn’t want my daughter growing up thinking she was ‘weird’ or ‘different’ as her dad grew up with those same feelings and it has really affected his mental health as an adult. Unfortunately he wasn’t diagnosed autistic until he was 59 and the not knowing and therefore not having access to support has affected him negatively for many years.

I wanted my daughter to grow up proud of who she is, autism and all.

I have never once sat down with either of my children and told them they are autistic. I have never talked about the ‘triad of impairments’, or sensory difficulties or how being autistic makes her vulnerable and different to others. Her understanding of autism has organically developed over time by living with a twin brother who is non verbal with learning difficulties and who is also autistic, experiencing her own autism daily and seeing how her dad experiences life differently to me as an autistic adult. Anytime she has had questions or concerns I have explained things openly and as simply as possible.

She has also watched me advocate for her, her brother and her dad. Meanwhile, in her mainstream class she has seen another five children receive the same diagnosis as her despite being very different. She has been exposed naturally to a wide spectrum of autistic people and non autistic people and this has allowed her to form her own opinions of what autism is.

So when I told her I was planning to make some autism pictures for autism awareness month she freely asked if she could do them instead. I listened to her ideas and instantly loved them and so thought April 2019 she set about to embark on a project that has opened my eyes to just how much she understands about autism and given me great insight into how she sees the world.

If you asked Naomi ‘what is autism?’ she would be unable to answer you. If you asked her ‘what is autism like for you?’ she would also struggle. But allow her to show you and her insight and awareness is truly remarkable. Without even knowing it she touched on all the main ‘features’ of autism from communication:

To literal thinking:

To the need for routine:

To sensory issues:

To sleep struggles:

From liking rules:

To needing to be alone:

From struggling with things (or being brilliant at them):

To feeling overwhelmed:

From struggling with choice:

To liking repetition:

From needing comforts:

To finding words hurtful:

From the need to finish things before moving on:

To finding bathrooms scary:

She even covered the seasonal issue of Easter since it landed right in the middle of awareness month:

Her pics were simple, effective and, other than her hashtag, had no other mention of autism. All she wanted to show was summed up nicely in her first ever pic:

So when I told her that hundreds of people were following her pictures and asking if they could keep them she chose to end with a little humour….

She found it quite amusing that the majority of people who wanted to ‘collect’ her pictures were in fact more like her than they perhaps realised.

At just ten she’s proud to be exactly who she is but she wants others to know and understand that while someone may be autistic you may be far more able to relate to them than you might think.

We might all be different but in so many ways we are just the same.

I could not be more proud of her.

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Do you ever wish you could ‘switch off’ your child’s autism?

Sometimes I do.

When I just need to get bread and milk from the local supermarket and I’m tired, in a hurry and just want ‘in and out,’ I wish I could ‘switch off’ my child’s difficulties with the music, crowds, smells, his absolute NEED to see the lift and his inability to stay beside me safely. Just ten minutes without autism would make that task easier…for us both.

When he’s crying in pain and unable to communicate why or where it hurts. How frustrating and distressing that is for us both. I wish I could ‘switch off’ his communication difficulties just long enough for me to be able to understand and help him.

When I am attempting to make a packed lunch for a school trip and I’m in tears because ‘lunch’ to him means a hot meal and I know everything I make will be refused. Just a half hour meal with autism ‘switched off’ would be a blessing for me, but more so for him. I know he doesn’t want to be so rigid but he just can’t prevent it.

When there’s roadworks and I need to drive a different route. To watch his face screw up in disgust and confusion followed by the onset of tears and challenging behaviour is torture for us both. I wish we could ‘switch off’ autism, just during the journey, not forever.

When I need to get medication into him. Just one minute of autism ‘turned off’ would allow vital epilepsy medication to be swallowed so much easier. While things are improving it is often very challenging and distressing for everyone. Antibiotics leave us both traumatised.

Right now though more than anything I wish I could ‘switch off’ severe autism as we face a period of very challenging medical difficulties. My non verbal son has recently been diagnosed with a growing brain tumour. He needs multiple anaesthetic’s and a brain tumour biopsy followed by possible treatment that will be invasive, challenging and intensive. I want him better; he needs to get better. The alternative isn’t something anyone wants to think about. . The presence of autism complicates even the simplest of procedures and we don’t have the time to ‘mess about’ right now.

Time is not on our side so having three months of acclimatising to new surroundings isn’t an option. Printing visuals of all the doctors we need to see, making timetables of when they will be seen and watching videos of procedures before hand to prepare my son just aren’t options any longer. I can’t just say ‘I couldn’t get him out the car’ to his neurosurgeon when they have theatre all prepared and scheduled for a brain biopsy. When appointments suddenly need changed due to things progressing fast I can’t say to specialists ‘well it’s not on his timetable so he won’t cope.’ ‘Sorry he stayed awake all night again as usual last night so we need to sleep today’ just isn’t an option when there’s an MRI machine booked for yet another scan, or nurses waiting to run more tests. There’s no option to say ‘don’t worry about his meltdown. I’ll just sent out another appointment in six months and we’ll try again then’.

We haven’t got time to put any communication device in place for my non verbal child any more, not that he has taken to any in the last ten years anyway.

Medically we are facing a crisis and severe autism doesn’t ‘do’ crisis. My son doesn’t do ‘sudden change’ or even just ‘change’. He doesn’t cope with new people, new places, being touched, sitting still while people talk, having needles put in, waiting around in clinics, or even having a simple plaster on!

I fully accept and love my son, autism included. I’ve never had an issue with flapping, watching the same thing lots, communicating in his own unique way or even needing routine. In fact I’ve developed strategies, patience, and understanding and I really wouldn’t want him any other way.

But I would be lying if I didn’t say that right now, in the middle of medical difficulties that can not be ignored or delayed, I would not love to ‘turn off’ autism just for short periods of time to make things easier for him, and also for me.

Autism can be a blessing and it isn’t something I hate but it can also make life challenging and right now we have enough challenges to face treating his brain tumour and we could do without the struggle just to get him inside a new hospital or the inability to wait for his name to be called and the terrifying fact his autism means he can’t communicate when or where something even hurts.

I thought in the past I’d like little moments of being able to switch autism off but right now I’ve never wanted that ability more. Autism is making an already challenging situation so much harder, not just for me but for my son. I’m not wanting my son to be non autistic just less rigid, less anxious, less ‘stuck’ during a time when co-operation, flexibility and communication are vital.

99% of the time I have time to do what he needs to help him. Unfortunately right now we are living in that 1% and I can not even adequately express how much simpler things would be right now without the added issue of severe non verbal autism.

Have I ever wanted to switch autism off? Right now for my son’s sake…yes! Most of the medical staff treating him would probably agree with me too.

Is Autism Awareness Helping My Autistic Daughter?

April is fast becoming synonymous with autism awareness now. The media cover it, charities promote it and even schools use it as a time to raise the profile of a condition that is guaranteed to affect several pupils, if not more, within their school. I’ve heard of everything from pyjamas days, sky dives, videos, poems and various hashtags circulating, all in the name of ‘autism awareness.’ I’m not against any of this and in fact my own daughter asked me herself if she could do something this month to raise awareness of the very condition that she lives with. I encourage her self advocacy so I’m using my own Facebook page (https://m.facebook.com/Faithmummy1/) and my personal profile to share her daily photographs on her behalf, since at ten she isn’t even old enough for her own social media account.

However, I don’t allow my daughter access to social media at ten and even more so during the month of April. The reason for this is because not all autism awareness is helpful for her. Here are some examples:

1. When people say they ‘brought awareness’ when actually referring to meltdowns.

It’s very common for me to see statuses saying things like ‘well we sure brought some autism awareness at the restaurant today’ which really means their child causes a scene of some sort, most likely due to a meltdown. Now I have a non verbal son who also has significant learning difficulties and who is classed as severely autistic. Meltdowns are common place both in private and public. However, my daughter is also autistic and she doesn’t have private or public meltdowns. She does shutdown which is a very different experience altogether, though rarely would the general public even notice.

By referring to meltdowns as autism awareness we are reinforcing to the public that autism only looks one way: it is loud, disturbing, obvious and upsetting. This isn’t how autism is for my daughter, nor it is how it is for everyone. Awareness like this isn’t helping my daughter to be included, accepted or understood.

2. When awareness becomes about colour, logos and individual charities.

Autism awareness isn’t a brand. It has no set colour, image, logo nor it is exclusive to one charity. I have seen people fall out over the colour they change their profile pic to during April in the name of awareness. How is that helping people understand my daughter better? My daughter is unique, individual and original and as she herself tells me often ‘it’s ok to be different’. Yet during the month of April we expect everyone to bring awareness using the same colour, logos, or charities. When awareness highlights divisions and friction it shows the public that autism is disjointed, argumentative and oppositional. None of those reflect my daughter in any way.

3. When autism focuses solely on difficulties.

My daughter is very aware of her struggles, however, even at ten she will tell you that not all her struggles are due to autism. She struggles to find footwear to fit her narrow feet, which even she knows is about her physical stature and unrelated to her neurological differences. Unfortunately the very diagnostic criteria for autism talks about deficits which makes explaining what autism even is quite difficult without being overly negative. I freely admit that when my son was diagnosed I did mourn and see his autism as a tragedy. As I learnt more, understood him better and learn to communicate the way he understood I changed. Now I delight in telling random strangers when he is flapping, giggling and smiling at lifts that ‘this is due to autism. It bring him and so many others delight.’ My son has significant difficulties and will need life long care but the public can clearly see that without me having to share. What they may not know is how excited he gets about mashed potato or lifts or certain songs.

When we focus on the struggles we are telling the general public that autism is something awful to fear, some terrible condition that afflicts sufferers and something we should be looking to cure. If my daughter could read some of the things said in the name of awareness her self esteem would plummet, she would become very self conscious and her anxiety would soar. I’m trying to help her see herself as amazing, wonderful and clever and I’d love the world to see that about her too.

So how do we do bring awareness in a way that really helps children like my daughter?

I can’t tell anyone how best to bring awareness of something that might affect them in a very different way to how it affects me. Autism can be hard, it can come with meltdowns and it is healthy to have different opinions on organisations, colours and logos. However, one thing we all need to do is stop and think about the bigger picture: is what I am doing helping the public to understand, accept and include everyone with autism? Am I bringing a balance? Would my child be comfortable reading what I have written about the condition they live with?

My daughter is ten. She attends her local mainstream school and she not only knows she’s autistic but she loves sharing her own unique views with the world. She couldn’t care less what colour you chose or what organisations you support. She doesn’t want the public to just know about her struggles, nor does she want everyone to assume she will have public meltdowns.

She’s just quietly, respectfully bringing awareness in her own way, and showing that despite all the arguments and negativity there is a different, more peaceful, way to advocate and bring awareness.

Autism is a huge spectrum affecting people of all nationalities, races, religions, sexes and ages. It’s vital we raise awareness but we need to do so in a way that not only helps my daughter but the many millions of others like her too.

Here’s how she is bringing her own awareness by using photographs.