This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children on the autism spectrum.
A recurring question around the autism spectrum is: what signs appear first? In other words, how can parents know their child is on the spectrum and when should they consult specialists?
When and how can parents know something is unusual?
According to Doctor Jean-François Havreng, a development specialist based in France, some parents express concerns for their child from six months old. Often, they find the parent-child bonding process unusual, for example eye contact is rare or inexistent, the child’s body is hyper or hypotonic when held, or the child might seem deaf. Children any age can show signs of autistic behaviour, though Doctor Havreng is careful to point out that in the early stages, cues and hints are not definitive proof. And though in some cases these signs do indicate the child is on the autism spectrum, they might have an entirely different condition, or even just display oddities now and later develop along a mainstream learning curve.
Doctor Havreng’s team runs an open clinic, located outside the hospital and in the center of the city, where parents can easily bring their children to meet professionals without stigma or fear. Trained specialists take the time to get to know each child, consider whether they present developmental delays and suggest tests. All the while, parents and their children are kept in a child friendly environment, with suitable toys and attractions.
There’s no way to understand a child’s developmental specificities in a few minutes. With this in mind, his centre takes a slow, measured approach to diagnosis, ensuring parents don’t feel overwhelmed. During each phase, the child interacts with several specialists, though the atmosphere is voluntarily not too medical (for example, no intimidating white lab coats), and more often than not, multiple evaluation techniques are applied to confirm and explain a diagnosis.
Diagnosing Unique Children
Each case of autism is unique. Understanding how a child on the spectrum can develop is complex, which is why Doctor Havreng recommends finding doctors with “extensive experience of developmental delays, including but not restricted to autism.”
The diagnosis gives parents a single word to explain and describe their child’s development. But for Doctor Havreng’s team, the diagnosis is just the beginning of a more important and fulfilling task: finding how children can thrive, acquire skills and live a fuller life.
Focussing on Potential
Vincent Tan’s son Kenny was diagnosed aged 18 months. When he was finally given a name to put on his child’s uniqueness he felt both relieved and overwhelmed. He knew raising his child would indeed be challenging, but now he had clues about what that would entail.
His advice is to start with whatever issues feel the most pressing, asking other parents what they have tried. Some start by trying to make their child table ready for school – when appropriate -, others work on getting their child to stop specific behaviour patterns that create awkward or dangerous situations in the home. The quest for solutions is part of an overall discovery process to identify what makes your child tick.
Vincent admits the process has been difficult. There are many ups and downs and there is often no way of comparing or monitoring a child’s progress. In fact, comparisons with the development curves of other children, especially neuro-typical, can be demotivating and disappointing, as though their limited achievements reflect poorly on all the parenting put into their development.
From Childhood to Adulthood
Kenny is now 23, and has learnt many skills. He can ride a bike – in a safe environment without cars for example -, he can swim, and he has become an accomplished painter, selling his artwork in Singapore via the Everyday Revolution. He can read quite well, and enjoys reading classic literature works by Charles Dicken, George Orwell and Harper Lee. Writing independently, on the other hand, is still a challenge and needs a lot more work. In his father’s words “the most important trait is his willingness and his perseverance to try whatever the caregivers can have the patience to teach him”.
When Vincent reflects on the early years of his son’s education, he advises other parents to surround themselves with support groups, and get to know those who have similar problems. “Learn from their experience and experiments, together you will be more resourceful,” he says, with optimism.
Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.
- A short video to help explain how the world feels for people on the spectrum, by Amazing Things Happen
- An (old) Letter to the new autism parent, by Eileen Shaklee (Autism with a Side of Fries)
- 15 truths about parenting special kids, by Lisa Smith (Quirks and Chaos)
- New words for parents of a child on the spectrum, also by Lisa Smith (Quirks and Chaos)
Note: all the artwork in this article is curtesy of Kenny Tan.