The number of children diagnosed with Autism has increased drastically in the last number of years. In 2000, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States of America which monitors disease and medical trends, noted a 1 in 150 children prevalence. Eight years later, this had increased to one in 88. In South Africa today, one in 86 children is diagnosed with autism according to Autism Western Cape. Although this rise could be attributed to improved testing and there is much debate about the causes of autism, it has led to an increase in the number of families learning to cope with an autistic child.
So what is autism? Laura Millar, mother of an autistic child explains, ‘Autism is a developmental disability that is present from birth (although not always immediately obvious) and lasting throughout life (although changes can occur and progress is possible). It is incurable. It is caused by a dysfunction of the brain and there may be some genetic involvement and autism may run in some families but can occur spontaneously. Children with autism have an inability to understand and interact with the world.’ Autism is more prevalent in boys than girls.
Educating an autistic child can prove a challenge. Mainstream schooling can be the first or only choice. However, teachers at mainstream schools are often not trained or equipped to deal with the complexities of teaching an autistic child. Ideally, autistic children should be educated in an autism specific school. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. In South Africa, there are a number of autism-specific schools such as the Key School in Johannesburg, the Vera school in Cape Town and the Star Academy in Johannesburg and Durban. Locally there is the Autism Triad Behavioural Consultants and Capulum College in Hilton.
There are many resources available to parents and educators for teaching autistic children depending on where on the autistic spectrum they fall. Each child is unique and will require the parent and educator to find methods specific to the child to encourage learning and discourage bad behaviour. However, some points are useful as common tools. Temple Grandin who was diagnosed as autistic but, through intense education and wonderful teachers, was able to go to complete a PhD and whose life was portrayed in an award-winning film, makes the following suggestions based on her own education experiences.
- Autistic children often think visually so use pictures to teach your child.
- If you can demonstrate the action, it can help the child to form a picture in their mind with which they associate the word.
- Try to avoid giving long verbal instructions to an autistic child.
- Autistic children can be very creative. Encourage your child’s talents.
- Use favourite toys or activities as a treat for completed work or good behaviour.
- Autistic children can dislike loud noises so reduce the stress in your child’s life by eliminating loud noises.
- Some non-verbal autistics cannot look and listen at the same time so give each instruction individually.
Autism is not a single diagnosis and autism occurs in many forms and degrees. It is important for parents to realise that many children diagnosed as autistic go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives. Indeed some of the great contributors to our world have retrospectively been diagnosed as autistic. Mozart, Michaelanglo, Sir Issac Newton, Lewis Carroll and Pablo Picasso have all been registered by some on the Autism spectrum