Why Does My Autistic Child Have No Awareness Of Danger?

Earlier today I was walking home with my autistic son. The closer we got to home the less he wanted to hold my hand so, rather reluctantly, I let him go. We were on a pathway with no other way other than straight ahead and I could see our home right ahead.

Without so much of even a glance my son stepped off the path and ran across a road at the end of the street. Thankfully I live in a quiet street but my son’s lack of danger awareness scares me.

My son is almost ten but he still can not safely cross a road himself. He has no concept of waiting at lights for the green man, no idea of road safety, no idea that sharp knives should never be touched and definitely no idea about the dangers of water. He is very typical of most children with autism. My son has no awareness of danger which puts both him and others at risk continually.

But why do so many children with autism have no awareness of danger and is there anything we can do to help them?

There are very valid and understandable reasons why autistic children (and adults because for some this will be a lifelong difficulty) struggle with danger awareness. I will break them down and explain how we can help a child or adult learn danger awareness despite having autism.

1. Rigid thinking and lack of imagination.

This isn’t lack of creative imagination but more social imagination and understanding people and events that have yet to happen or be experienced directly. How this presents in daily life for a person with autism would be a very literally and black and white thinking along the lines of ‘since I have never been hit by a moving car it is therefore impossible that this could ever happen.’ They can not ‘imagine’ that anything other than what they have experienced could happen. Even if they have came across a danger before such as water that was out of their depth a person with autism may struggle to generalise that experience. So if they were out of depth in a pool they visited on holiday once they may only link the danger of deep water to that particular place and time and not generalise that danger to all pools or beaches.

How to help: Never assume someone with autism is incapable of understanding. Use their way of thinking to help them. For example point out speed limit signs when out and talk about the fact that the faster a vehicle moves the more dangerous it can be. Linking speed to danger is a very important message that can be generalised as it is very rule based.

With water point out warning signs that are often universal too and if there are any lifebelts around talk about why those are there and how this points out danger. Never assume anything so when buying fireworks take time to show the packaging to the child or adult and let them see or read the warnings for themselves if they are able to. Repetition is often the key for anyone but especially so for someone on the spectrum who may require extra processing time.

2. Uneven developmental profiling.

What this means is that while they may, on the surface, seem to function similar to children or adults their own age there may be areas like social skills or awareness of the world around them that they struggle with. It is very true that autistic’s see and experience the world in a very different (and wonderful) way but this may mean they focus on or obsess on things to the detriment of other skills. They may have a unique and amazing ability to tell you the make and model of every car that you pass, for example, but have no idea where the local police station is should they need help. It’s not that they are not observant just that they have focussed on something else instead, like how many bricks form a pattern on the next door neighbours wall.

How to help: Give them a reason to focus on what is necessary. So if you feel it would be worthwhile them knowing where the police station is explain why and have a visual chart with a photograph so they have to place the photograph either on the map or somewhere else to help them visualise what you mean by the police station and why it’s important to know where it is. Having visuals for traffic lights or other safe places to cross and looking for these helps too. In your home allowing them to stick warning stickers on things like sockets can help remind them of potential danger too. Visuals simplify, are easier remembered and are portable. I can’t recommend them enough!

3. High sensory needs (that can either overwhelm them or lure them to the point that everything else gets forgotten.)

For my son the lure of water is so high if he sees it he wants to touch it so badly that he can not see anything else going on around him. For others their anxiety levels can rise so suddenly when they have so many sensory stimuli bombarding them at once that they just have to run or drop to the floor and they blank out everything else in order to cope. This may happen suddenly in the middle of a road if, for example, they heard a dog bark and they are scared of dogs.

How to help: If you know somewhere will be noisy then noise cancelling headphones may help. Sunglasses may help with bright lights and having fidget toys may help redirect the need for sensory feedback too. My son has a massive lure (and fixation) on elevators so I allow him that ‘fix’ before I expect him to do what I want. I use ‘first lift, then shopping’ as otherwise he would simply run to the elevator while I shopped. It’s about working with and adapting to sensory needs rather than expecting them to suddenly disappear. Be creative and, if you can, even ask your child about what things stress them or what they enjoy and see if together you can find a way of supporting them.

Of course autism is a spectrum and for every autistic person who has no awareness of danger you may have another, like my daughter, who is hyper aware and as a result makes herself ill with worry at perceived dangers that are extremely unlikely. A shark eating her up at the local public swimming pool is hardly going to happen but she will fear it anyway.

Living with someone who has limited or no danger awareness (or even hyper aware and therefore highly anxious) is difficult. It takes patience, time and a willingness to adapt and understand to help teach danger awareness, but it can be done. I know for some children (and adults) there will be extra barriers such as learning difficulties and communication difficulties and some children will never reach a level of awareness or understanding to have any grasp of danger awareness at all.

I continue to do what I can to help my son learn road safety. While he is learning though I make sure to keep him as safe as possible. The more I teach him about what I feel he needs to know to be safe the more he teaches me about how smart and wonderful his way of looking at the world is too.

It’s all about balance. Independence verses safety, teaching but being willing to learn too.

Lack of danger awareness can be terrifying but with patience and understanding it can be taught. Never underestimate an autistic person’s ability to learn.

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How one 9 year-old Described her Brother’s Autism in just a few pen strokes

There was nothing special about Thursday evening as I worked my way through the typical bedtime routine for my 9 year old twins. They had already had a bath, clean pyjamas on, eaten some supper and now they had moved into their separate rooms ready for stories, kisses and pre-sleep chats.

It’s hard to split yourself in two (or three, or four even if you are blessed with a quiver full) but my daughter willingly lets me see to her brother first most nights. She sacrifices so much for her autistic brother and this is just another example of how she puts his needs before her own daily. While she amused herself quietly with what I assumed was some colouring in or reading I continued on to settle her somewhat hyperactive brother next door.

I read the same story as always. He chooses the same story every night despite the fact he has a whole basket of books in his room. His autism means routines should never change and repetition is very much the name of the game. Unlike his sister he isn’t going to talk to me at bedtime about his school anxieties or fall outs with his friends. He has no friends. I have no idea what goes on at school (or anywhere he is out of my care) and at nine he has no spoken language. I hug and kiss him. I get nothing much in return. One day I might, but not tonight. I tuck him in, leave the room and turn off his light.

As I go next door to his sister her eyes light up as she clutches a little piece of paper to give to me.

“Mummy, I’ve been thinking about Isaac tonight. Can I show you something Mummy?”

And at that she handed me this:

I asked her to talk to me about it.

Mummy, these are the wires in my head. One is the talking wire, one is the brushing my own teeth wire, one is knowing my times tables in maths wire, one is knowing how to write wire, this one is playing with friends wire, this is the knowing how to read wire…”

She named all twelve straight lines she had drawn and said how for her, like most other children, she was able to do all of the things she listed. She talked about how some of her wires connect right away and others took time but they ‘knew where they were going’ and as she gets older and learns more ‘new things’ she will have ‘more wires that know where to go and connect up straight’.

I was amazed that a child could be so aware, so astute and so insightful. I let her continue on.

‘And this, I think, is my brother’s wires mum. He finds everything so hard doesn’t he? This is his talking wire mum. Look it goes to the connection for brushing teeth. No wonder he can’t talk when his brain gets confused like that! This is his writing wire…it’s supposed to be connected to the writing one at the bottom but instead it’s connected to the playing with friends wire. It’s all so hard when your brain gets confused but I know he is trying! I mean everything must be so hard when the wires are all jumbled up like this!’

I looked at her with tears behind my eyes. If anyone will advocate in life for her brother when I am gone it will be his sister. She understands him like no other.

My daughter knows I write. So I had to ask her.

“Naomi, is it ok for mummy to share this with other people? Is that ok with you?”

She smiled and in her usual determined way took the sheet back from me and pointed to her strokes again.

“Only if you make sure you tell everyone that it’s ok to have autism. Make sure people know Isaac does HAVE wires. He has a brain. He is trying. If I could make his wires straight Mummy I would, do you know that?”

I hugged her tight and kissed her forehead. She doesn’t want her brother to not have autism. I know that. She just wants to hear his voice, be able to play with him, brush her teeth beside him, write stories with him and practice her times tables with him like she does her friends from school.

She might want a brother with straight lined connections, but she could not love her autistic brother more if she tried, with crisscross jumbled wires and all the wonderful quirkiness that that brings.

Her understanding maybe over simplified in many ways but her fierce protection and love can never be denied.

I keep looking at that piece of paper.

She’s so right. My son is severely autistic with significant learning difficulties. He will need care all his life. But she’s spot on: he still has wires. He still has a brain. He can learn. He has potential. Life maybe much more confusing for him with wires that go different ways to what ours do but is that such a massive problem?

Maybe, just maybe, having straight lined connections in your brain is not for everyone. The world would be a very boring place if all our brains looked the same after all.

Lack of imagination in autism is not what you may think


What do you think of when you think of imagination? Do you think of children making up games, people writing fiction stories, or perhaps role play? It is true that all of these, and so much more, require imagination yet imagination is so much more than just forming new ideas and being creative.
Many autistic children (and adults) struggle with a special type of imagination called social imagination.

 

Firstly let me explain what this is NOT:
1. It is NOT the ability to be creative. 

 

In fact many people with autism are highly gifted artists or musicians and have unique and highly talented ways of presenting their ability.

 

If your child is diagnosed with autism it does NOT mean they will not be good at drawing, or be able to express themselves in creative ways.

 

2. It is NOT a lack of ability to play with toys or act out made up scenarios.

 

Children with autism can play at feeding a doll, or play with trains or bring plastic figures to life. Autism may mean their play is more repetitive or scripted from TV programmes but lack of social imagination in itself does not mean your child will never play with a toy phone or dress as a nurse.

 

3. It is NOT going to stop your child writing stories they have made up, telling lies or building unique structures out of lego bricks.
So now we know what social imagination IS’NT let’s talk about what it IS:
Social imagination allows us to understand and predict the behaviour of other people. It also helps us to make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine.
Lack of social imagination is why so many people with autism struggle with change: they just can not imagine things happening any other way.
Social imagination is the ability to watch others and work out their intentions, their thoughts and interpret what they may do next. This is why children with autism (and adults) find social situations such a challenge at times. They struggle to put themselves inside another persons head and therefore they prefer to watch rather than join in.
Both of my children have autism. On their own they can entertain themselves, make up their own games and even play structured games with rules very well. The difficulty lies when they are expected to play alongside other children because people are very unpredictable and may play in an entirely different way to what my child is used to. That ability to adapt and understand others is known as lack of social imagination.
Lack of social imagination means they can not foresee what might happen next. This is why those with autism can not see danger: they simply can not imagine anything happening that has never happened before. They have never drowned before so how could that happen? They have never been knocked over by a car so how could that happen? Even if they have had some danger happen like an injury that only happened in one place in one particular chain of events so to them it will not ever happen again. This makes lack of social imagining dangerous.
Lack of social imagining means they struggle to see the future. They can not imagine ever moving to a different school or a new house or having a different carer. They can not imagine their bedroom painted a different colour or someone else moving into the family. This is why it is so important to help children with autism (and adults) when anything changes.
Lack of social imagining means they need support to face new situations. Going to new places, meeting new people, even road diversions all require our brain to be adaptable and without the ability to ‘imagine’ that everything will work itself out you can see why so many people with autism will struggle.
Lack of social imagination  is also why my daughter has no concept when others are bored listening to her talk on and on about her latest fixation. Not only can she not imagine that everyone else would love Thomas Tank Engine as much as she does but she also can not imagine that you would want to do something else if she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to cook dinner so why should I? For my non verbal son he sees no reason why he can not go and watch lifts at 3am since he can not imagine that the rest of the world is sleeping.
Lack of social imagination is why my daughter is so bound up with anxiety. It is why she has so many difficulties trying new foods (unable to imagine if they will taste good or not) and why she has significant challenges socially.
Yet she makes a great pirate looking out to sea in the playground as you can see from the photo. She had great fun telling me about rescuing people from the nearby houses and looking for treasure under the swings. She has plenty imagination it’s just social imagining she struggles with. People may think they are the same but they are not.

Why is it always about children?

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March is fast becoming my busiest month. Last year, quite by accident, I found myself making a video to mark autism awareness day on April 2nd. Within 24 hours I had been sent over 150 pictures of children from throughout the UK, mostly by people who I had never met in person, and within a few days I put them together in a video along with some music. It was all new, and hurried and compiled without a great deal of deeper meaning. And in my enthusiasm, innocence and haste I never really gave it too much thought. I was more worried about copyright laws and technical issues of teaching myself how to make a video and upload it to you tube than I was about thinking about any deeper questions. But a year later I look at that video and ask myself one question?

Why is it always about children? See for yourself…

We are approaching autism awareness day once again. And if anything it highlights to me again how much it always seems to be about children. You would think autism was a childhood condition. You would assume that at 16 or 18 autism ceases to affect someone. But that could not be further from the truth. My children (yes they are still very much children and so I am as guilty as the next autism parent of making it about children) will both grow up to be adults with autism. It is a life long condition. There is no cure.

There are reasons why it may seem we hear so much more about children with autism than we do adults. Here are some of my thoughts as to why that is:

1. Children touch the heart-strings more. Charities get more money when children are involved. The innocence and vulnerability of little children seems to open up even the coldest of hearts. So like any condition, if it affects children, everyone is keen to go down that angle. A crying child, a clearly disabled child or an ill child seems to be so powerful. And with autism being a hidden disability it can be so tempting to show children in this light just to bring our cause to the forefront and show that autism can be just as devastating to a family as many other conditions. I have done it myself. And so much publicity about autism does it too. Because it works.

2. The majority of people with autism are diagnosed in childhood. When you first find out your child has any condition your natural instinct is often to find out more and to find others in the same position. And so support groups are born. It is natural to want to promote your cause when it has suddenly became all-consuming to you. Newly diagnosed families often need time to talk, vent and ask questions. Professionals don’t have the time and the after care is seldom there. So when opportunity comes to promote awareness parents of newly diagnosed or young children are often the first to want to be involved. They are desperate for support, inclusion and a sense of being part of something that makes them feel like they are helping their child.

3. Young children are not so aware of what is happening. This is something I am acutely aware of. My son has classic autism with learning difficulties and severe delays. He currently can not speak. His awareness of the world around him is very limited and although that may increase in time he is unlikely to understand difficult concepts like public perception, peer pressure, vulnerability and susceptibility. He may never understand, for example, the implications of having a mother who blogs about it. His twin sister, however, may one day be much more aware. She may have embarrassment, anxiety or upset at the thought of her image being used to promote autism awareness at some point. And I would be wrong to ignore her feelings on the matter. So parents of older children and adults are faced with the issues of protection and permission that parents of small children are not.

4. The more children grow up in a society of inclusion the more they do not wish to be seen as different. As more and more children and young people with autism attend mainstream schools and colleges the more pressure there is on them to not stick out. For many older children and adults autism awareness brings with it the reality that they have not actually been able to overcome their difficulties and somehow their disability is still visible. For a few this will bring major anxiety. For some adults this would involve admitting to work colleagues, neighbours and friends that they have a condition they have yet to discuss. So they would much prefer anonymity. That has to be respected.

5. After years in the system weariness can set in. Can you imagine 20 plus years of lack of sleep? Can you imagine having to fight every day of your child’s life for twenty plus years just to get basic support? Some of these families have been through so many campaigns, so many fundraisers, so many promotions, that they can almost feel it has seemed pointless. They hear stories of families with younger children still fighting for things they fought for many years before and it can become so disheartening so they disengage. But we still need to be aware of them. And we still need to support them.

6. Not all awareness is positive. Parents of older children and adults have come to realise this more and be using wisdom more in how to make people more knowledgable of autism. There is something to be said for this maturity.

As we approach autism awareness day remember, like everything else, we all deal with autism differently. We are all on a journey and sometimes it can appear to just be about children. When you next see an image like this bear in mind that there is a reason why you are seeing a child. But this girl will still have autism when the toy rainbow has long been forgotten. And she will still have autism when awareness day has passed by too.IMG_2182