Autism – or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — as a diagnosis has been with us for a long time yet is still a human condition many don’t truly understand.
It was American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner who first published a paper back in 1943 describing eleven youngsters in his care who were highly intelligent but displayed “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.” He later named their condition “early infantile autism.”
These days, the mission for greater support for families living with autism is the focus of April — which is globally recognised as Autism Awareness Month. This is when the Autism Society of America urges people to “celebrate differences as it works to build an inclusive society where individuals with autism live fully through connection and acceptance.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that worldwide about one in 270 people has an ASD — however, reported prevalence varies across studies. Some figures are substantially higher.
Current research suggests that the best way to help build self-confidence is to focus on their positive attributes and highlight their general strengths.
Sometimes parents can feel alone in their struggle to create an enriching life for their autistic child, trying to instil confidence as they move around in the world. This is normal says Dr Rebecca Steingiesser, Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist at Lighthouse Arabia — adding that there are practical approaches that can help boost a youngster’s self-belief. “Current research suggests that the best way to help build self-confidence is to focus on their positive attributes and highlight their general strengths,” said the doctor. “Parents can do this by working to identify what engages their autistic child the most. It could be an activity, a game, or even something more academic such as coding or reading a book.
“Parents can also use their child’s special interests to build on other skills. For example, if a child is interested in the workings of a train, this can be used to build knowledge on the science of engines, how they operate, and how this is similar or dissimilar to how other machines operate.”
One side of the coin will reflect the challenges and obstacles that the autistic child faces — sadly this too often becomes the centre of most people’s attention, leading to even lower levels of self-confidence. Let us never forget the other side of the coin, their wonderful abilities and strengths.
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each affected person has a distinct set of strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which each one learns, thinks, and problem-solves can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. With each limitation usually comes an ability — such as having an extraordinarily good memory, being precise and detail orientated, as well as being honest and dependable.
“I’d like to refer to the metaphor of a coin — it always has two sides to it,” said Jessica Rosslee, Clinical Psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre.
“One side of the coin will reflect the challenges and obstacles that the autistic child faces — sadly this too often becomes the centre of most people’s attention, leading to even lower levels of self-confidence. Let us never forget the other side of the coin, their wonderful abilities and strengths. I once heard someone with autism say that life is just harder as they exist in a world that is not made for them. It’s like left-handed people using a right-handed can opener, that’s kind of how it feels to be autistic, you are desperately trying to use everybody else’s tools.”
If you have other children, this also gives you time to bond with them. Remember you’ve got to nourish yourself so that you can flourish as an individual as well as a family member.
Rosslee urges parents to create opportunities for autistic children to play with other autistic kids so they feel a sense of belonging — one where they can just be. “It’s an absolute confident booster when you surround yourself with people that accept you for who you are,” she said.
It isn’t just the autistic child that faces struggles of course, parents can face mental health issues as they buckle under the daily responsibility.
A 2012 study in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review revealed that parents of children with ASD often show a pattern of increased mental and physical health problems, face high rates of divorce, and suffer from severe financial strain and time pressures.
“For parents I want to say, remember we all need support,” added Rosslee. “Give yourself permission to not feel okay and instead of believing you should be perfect, focus on just being a good enough parent. The best thing you can do for your child is to take care of your own mental health as your stress affects them too.”
She suggests finding a support group — in-person or online — or creating your own informal one. “Find your tribe. They say it takes a village to raise a child and it’s is so true.”
She also urges parents to also seek therapeutic support in a safe, objective, and confidential space where they can offload — and at the same time have an “integrity partner” to assist them on the journey. If finances permit, another option is to consider hiring a respite care professional.
“This can help you get some time to yourself,” explains Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, Founder of the new Illuminations wellbeing centre. “If you have other children, this also gives you time to bond with them. Remember you’ve got to nourish yourself so that you can flourish as an individual as well as a family member.”
Studies have shown that mothers of children with ASD are prone to suffering severe anxiety, Punjabi added. “So, it is necessary that you take preventive steps such as fitting in a walk to breathe in fresh air during your day or practicing mindfulness. Alternative healing therapies like hypnotherapy and reiki can help you manage stress better too.”