April is Autism Awareness Month. You’ve certainly heard the word autism mentioned a lot when referring to children, but just what is autism? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that cause children to interpret information differently than others. As a result, autistic children might have significant problems interacting with other people in a socially acceptable manner. They also can have difficulty communicating with others and often exhibit behavior that is disruptive and challenging. Some may also have intellectual disabilities.
Autism is a spectrum disorder so it affects each person differently and can range from very mild to severe. There are differences as to when the symptoms of autism start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms. However, children with ASDs also share certain traits. One of the most common is their difficulty interacting with others socially. Many children with autism find difficulty looking others in the eyes when communicating with them. Others may have problems learning to use speech.
One troubling problem parents may have with their autistic child is managing the child’s failure to follow orders. In addition, their child’s excessively quirky and contrary behavior irks some parents who sometimes lose patience and vent their anger and frustration onto the child. Other parents are not even aware that their child has a special need and simply perceive their child’s peculiarities as misbehavior.
Parents who spank their autistic children when they exhibit these types of behaviors often find themselves in situations in which they are hitting harder and longer in an attempt to force their child to comply. For these reasons, child abuse may be more likely to occur with children who are autistic. This is all the more reason why parents should learn and practice other forms of discipline than physical punishment, especially if they have children exhibiting signs of autism.
Autism Signs and Symptoms
The signs of autism are often first noticed in the home by the mother or significant caregiver. It begins before the age of three and lasts throughout a person’s life, although symptoms may improve over time. According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a child with an ASD might:
- Not respond to their name by 12 months
- Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
- Not play “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months
- Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
- Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
- Have delayed speech and language skills
- Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
- Give unrelated answers to questions
- Get upset by minor changes
- Have obsessive interests
- Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
- Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
If you notice a significant number of these signs in your child, talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. Children with autism often have low tolerance for stress. A child might throw tantrums or shout and talk back to you in inappropriate ways when he’s upset with you. Parents need to know that for a normal functioning child, these behaviors might be considered unreasonable, but for an autistic child, such actions may fall into the range of what would be considered expectable behavior. Not acceptable, but expectable – that’s the difference.
Developing Communication Skills
Children with autism frequently express their feelings of depression through misbehavior. One reason for this is because they haven’t developed the communication skills needed to express their emotions or desires adequately and appropriately. As a result, they get easily agitated. Children with autism may also be misunderstood by their caregivers. Because of the child’s limited vocabulary or language ability, an autistic child might mimic words he’s heard, while not truly understanding their meaning or impact on the listener. This is important for the parent to know, because their child may not have true intent behind the words they express. For these reasons, it’s extremely important that parents educate themselves in methods that will help their child develop better communication skills.
Disciplining Autistic Children
Autistic children have special needs that interfere with their ability to behave in appropriate ways. As parents, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves as to how we can facilitate and make behaving easier for our kids when they have these special needs. Some of the most effective forms of discipline for children with ASD’s are immediate positive reinforcement and praise for good behavior. Use an incentive chart to encourage positive behavior. When your child says Bismillah before eating, give her a star. When she eats with her right hand, give her a star. Seek out good behavior that your child does throughout the day. This will encourage her to do more good deeds, insha’Allah. Autistic children are often famished for praise, because they are so often corrected for misbehavior or what is perceived to be such. Almost any opportunity to receive it is devoured. Provide positive comments often.
You can find more information on autism from the following:
- My Autistic Muslim child
- National Autism Association
- Autism Society
- Autism Encyclopedia: the Complete Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorders by Boutot and Tincani