The National Autistic Society defines autism as a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people and how they experience the world around them.
As a foster carer and confirmed by most of the foster carers I have spoken with, we witness that a high proportion of the children and young people that come into our care, do have complicated and vastly differing experiences of the world compared to our own birth children. It can be difficult to distinguish and identify the issues that have led to the expression of these different behaviours.
It can be ambiguous to establish the cause for these differing behaviours when a child comes into your care as quite often the birth parents themselves may have learning and social difficulties, even an undiagnosed autistic condition, complicated by their own environmental, emotional and parenting environment. This then impacts on the child and whether the behaviour is a result of poor parenting and attachment disorder or due to a neurodevelopmental disorder.
My wife and I adopted our son, Dan, after he had been placed with us in foster care. When he first came to us it was difficult to distinguish whether his unusual behaviours were entirely due to his previous social environment, coupled with a lack of emotional attachment and investment in us or to a lack of neurodevelopment and where he featured on the autistic spectrum. Either way it is recognised that environmental stress has a bearing and impact on the neural development of a child, often termed as how the brain is wired up and the production of good neural connections.
We have found that depending on the nature/role of the professional you are talking to at the time, describing the behaviour of our child would result in them having a firm opinion on whether the behaviour exhibited was due to emotional attachment or an autistic spectrum disorder leading to further confusion.
As frustrating and difficult as it is for the parent of a child with differing behaviour the world seems so different for the child. Our son sees the world in binary, an either yes/no code applied to all situations. Everything is fact derived and there is no grey area for him. When asked at school to write on the line most people would sit their letters so the bottom of each letter touched the line whereas for Dan the line goes through the letters as the letters to him are on the line not above it or below it. The letters have little bearing on the formed letters of the other children in his class but to him they are his representation of the letter and reproduced in the same way each time, it is the way his brain sees the letter. With persistent teaching and perseverance the letters are beginning to morph into what we would expect to see.
Autism is often described as being a spectrum which means there are numerous behaviours associated with autism and not every child will have the same behaviour traits although there will be many similarities there will also be many differences. The behaviours exhibited by children that have autism will be seen in the expected normal phases of development in all children but it is how these behaviours are processed which differs.
There are many conditions associated with autism some of which are more commonly recognised but in no way definitive:
- Lack of social interaction which manifests as the lack of eye contact, empathy and inappropriate use of gestures. Dan is high functioning in this area when it comes to reacting with people as he will use facial expressions and make eye contact but he is looking through you and not at you. His social activity with school friends tend to be with children older or younger than himself. He has difficulty relating to toys and popular culture for his age and remains younger than his age in the toys and television programs he likes.
- Lack of verbal and non-verbal communication which can present in delayed speech, or even a lack of speech. Dan would use words associated with children of an older age but he would use them inappropriately and in the wrong situation. Quite often people who didn’t know Dan would believe him to be of a higher academic achievement than he actually is, unless they spent time with him and realised how often he used a word he was mimicking rather than understanding the meaning of.
- Creation of obsessions and routine will be familiar to most people when they hear stories of autism. These can be the need to go into a routine before performing an activity or task such as a child may wave their hands or touch their ear in a particular way before opening a door or some similar task. Dan is obsessed with” collecting” and began with the classic, Thomas the Tank Engines, knowing all the names of the engines, their numbers and when he lined them up they had to be in a certain order and in line with each other. If ever a train was moved out of sync or pushed out of line this would result in Dan having a meltdown and him banging his head against the patio doors or him pinching his cheeks and punching his face. Dan has set routines that he needs to follow including the route he takes to school, what happens every weekend and you can imagine what happens when this is deviated from. Dan struggles to process the reasons for a change such as road closures and even invitations to birthday parties will “break the norm” in his eyes. Dan needs a lot of reassurance and attention during these changes.
- Sensory differences and processing can affect children with hypersensitivity to all manner of things, such as light (and the type of light), the feel of certain textures (including grass, fabric, and foods) loud noise and some children can even exhibit high thresholds to pain. Dan has exhibited a number of these traits to the extent that he will only eat pasta for an evening meal and will gag when other food textures are introduced to him. There have been certain foodstuffs such as mushroom which he had to have at every meal for a period of months but now he will not even have one on his plate. He has a low tolerance to loud noise and will often be seen covering his ears with both hands with tears streaming down his face as it makes him so uncomfortable.
- Unable to process what is being said can be common and quite often children fail to get the subtle differences in the connotation and meaning of certain words and phrases. If Dan is told something he will react literally and as English deals with many metaphors his understanding is compromised. If he is told he can’t have something now and will need to wait he can’t process the need to wait and just sees that he can’t have something now.
These are only a few measures on the autistic spectrum but there are many, many more. Living with autism is not easy and as a family we have had to adapt and change our environment both physically and psychologically to support Dan.
Dan has increased aggression and anxiety but only vents his anger at certain “safe” targets such as his mum. I’m sure everyone can relate to the anxiety you feel when you can’t express yourself or get your point across to others who just won’t listen or ignore you; you will get angry inside and feel the knot of tension deep inside your stomach without a way to vent this feeling, this is how many children with autism feel as they can’t express their feelings or get someone to understand.
It can be extremely frustrating at times and restrictive for the whole family. Having a routine, exploring coping mechanisms and understanding the issues faced by the child all help. It is not bad behaviour, just a different behaviour. As stated earlier these behaviours are seen in nearly all children, it is just that the connections have developed effectively in their brains to enable them to process the information quickly and have a path of response that enables them to develop and deal with the situation when it occurs again in the future.
When all is considered and opinions taken on board Dan is just Dan and we all love him, not only his family but his teachers, school friends and everyone that comes into contact with him. Dan enriches our lives and cements what we are as a family.
For further information on autism please see The National Autistic Society website.