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Parenting is not an easy task and there’s no manual that can prepare you for it especially when it involves parenting a child with special needs. Simply because children come in various kinds all with unique personalities. However, this normal value of diversity is a source of concern and frustration when it deviates from acceptable margins. It drives the fun out of parenting and the joy out of the home.
My son Michael was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at the age of three. He is my third born of my four sons and one daughter. As though the condition is not enough, his birth was the most painful and traumatic. I had footdrop which lasted for seven months after his birth. My leg still gives up on me every now and then. I’ve fallen in public about four times since then, when my limb just goes numb, hehehe.
Parenting Michael was the most difficult, most frustrating, and most painful parenting experience I had ever experienced. I went to bed in tears countless times before I knew what was wrong with my son.
At three, he could only say three to four words, nobody could understand him, he cried most of the time. He cried uncontrollably or shut his eyes till he slept in public. He often kept to himself at home playing with one particular toy or thing. Michael was possessive of his toys or tiny pieces of “things” which he could place under his pillow. If he doesn’t find it in the morning, he could throw a crying fit until it was found.
The agony was that he couldn’t talk or tell me what it was that he wanted. He would wear one attire for a week and cried when I tried to change him (he’s so clean that he rarely got them dirty). Often he could lay on his bed or the couch rocking himself at the same steady pace every single time.
Being my third child, this was so strange and frustrating for me. And I could tell that he too was very frustrated with the fact that I couldn’t meet his needs.
When I was told he had autism by a specialist at the University Teaching Hospital, I wasn’t sure if I was sad about the news or relieved to finally have an answer to my agony. But as they say, knowledge is power. Ever since that day, Michael has been a happier boy because I read and researched on how to handle autistic children. I found a way to help him and myself. I even found a way to potty train him permanently! My husband and I learned parenting a child with special needs with grace.
Michael is now six years old and in pre-grade. Though he still can’t interact well with his classmates due to speech and perception deficits, he relates very well with his siblings. He now communicates to some extent with people that he is familiar with. When very excited, he still speaks gibberish midst very loud bouts of laughter. He’s still shy in crowds but he now loves the outdoors. He is still possessive of his things. He can share food, but never his clothes, toys, or artifacts.
Before COVID19 when he was going to school, he would pack his favorite clothes, toys, and artifacts neatly in his bag and would not touch them till he gets home. He is very bright, smart, and overly neat.
When it’s bedtime, he folds his clothes neatly and places them close to his pillow along with his favorite toy. He still wears one attire for a week and still manages to keep it clean for days.
That is my experience of Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, parents may have different experiences depending on the severity of the condition. Also due to diversity in the character of every human being, special or not. Parenting a child with special needs presents with different challenges also depending on the home environment.
What is Autism
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder is associated with social, communication, and behavior challenges. It falls along a spectrum of mild to severe symptoms requiring different levels of support for one to enjoy a functional life. People with autism have difficulties with understanding how other people think or feel. They have difficulties expressing themselves with either words, gestures, facial expressions, and touch.
Causes of Autism
There is no known single cause of Autism. However, scientists have attributed it to abnormalities in brain structure or function, genetic mutations, familial tendencies, being born to older parents, low birth weight, complications during pregnancy, etc.
Signs of Autism in children
Note that a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder may not exhibit all the symptoms listed below.
- Delayed speech
- Behavioral problems
- Inappropriate social interaction
- Avoidance or poor eye contact
- Persistence in solitude
- Repetitive movements such as rocking their body or flicking their fingers.
- Not talking as much as other kids
- Getting very upset when they don’t like a taste or sound.
- Doesn’t share with others or doesn’t understand taking turns.
- Plays with the same toy the same way every day
- Has obsessive interests
- Has hyperactivity or short attention span.
- Adopting a strict daily routine
- Difficulties making friends
- Having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities.
- Persistent severe tantrums
Parenting a child with special needs such as Autism
Autism is not a curable disorder, however, studies show that in some children, certain typical characteristics may disappear as the child grows. National Institute of Health says children correctly diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders at an early age may lose symptoms as they grow older. And most of them tend to enjoy a functional life, happiness, and wholeness.
For instance, Michael has eventually started showing signs of social adaptation. So much so that he no longer avoids eye contact. He may throw a fit when we touch his artifacts but not to the extent that he can’t be calmed. And we have a significant level of mutual understanding. From a glance, he may actually even appear to be like every other six years old, until he speaks.
So how can you help your child
Sensitize the family
Frequently explain to his/her siblings and other family members that he is slightly different from them and that’s perfectly okay. These children experience a lot of bullying in school. So you might as well ensure that the home feels like a safe haven for the child. That way, he/she will not feel too misplaced.
Study and learn your child’s body language
Learn your child’s non-verbal signals. This will help him/her develop a deeper connection with you as the only one that understands him well. For instance, there are occasions when I walk home from work and Michael comes to me slowly, squinting his eyes and smiling foolishly. That look never changes, every single time that he is in pain. And usually what follows that typical look is either a fever, a cough/flu, a running stomach, or other health issues. But because I observe and detect early, I do a full body check and monitoring.
Perform frequent routine body checks
You might have studied your child’s non-verbal clues, but if you work away from home and have a busy routine, you may miss something. To prevent this, check his body daily or every two to three days. Including the mouth. Early last year I was doing a routine body check which delayed by a week due to my busy schedule. And I found a boil under Michael’s belly button. It was fully mature and looked ready to pop. I asked my baby sitter why she didn’t report this, she said he always covers that area during a bath and cries when I attempt to see it. Dah! He was probably in pain! You were still supposed to report such strange behavior!
Understand your child’s needs
Your child may have Autism or any other special but he/she is still a human being with needs, preferences, likes, dislikes hopes, dreams, and a personality. Just like you would meet the needs of an ordinary child, strive to meet his/her needs; at their terms. While the child is young, it’s okay to let them have their way while gently explaining that it’s not right. Don’t impose. I have seen Michael grow out of certain mannerisms that were irritating but I didn’t force him to stop. When he sees that none of his siblings are doing it, he slowly drops certain tendencies- with time.
Parenting a child with special needs requires the utmost levels of patience. When Michael was two, I remember thinking he is just a naughty boy that deserves some form of discipline. Because he just couldn’t do anything his two older siblings did at two. For instance, He potty trained well t one year eight then a month later, we went back to square one till the age of three. I was devastated! If you don’t have patience, you may end up harming the child. Practice patience and empathy.
Once you have learned your child, you will find that he/she is excellent at one or a few particular areas. Be supportive by doing what you can to help him/her to excel in those areas. Michael is neat and loves illustrative books. He often grabs a book and says, read. If you have such a child, go the extra mile by purchasing various illustrative books and reading for him/her very often.
Don’t compare your child to other children
Do not do this either to his/her face or behind their backs to other siblings. They will get wind of it. And do not complain about it either. Trust me, your child will eventually realize that he/she is different from others and not in a good way. So you don’t have to rub it in. On the contrary, do what you can to help the child feel as normal as possible. And you can’t achieve this by making remarks such as your older sister never gave me such stress!
Enrol your child in a good reputable school
Depending on the severity, you might need to enroll your child in a special school. However, if the condition is mild, let the child get in a regular school. I enrolled Michael in a regular school when he was four years old. Although he had to continue with the baby class the preceding year, he made significant improvements in his speech and behavior within six months. It has been proven that the more the child interacts with children of the same age outside of the home, the greater his chances of improvement.
Involve your child in speech therapy sessions
Also depending on the severity, you might have no choice but to invest in a speech therapist. Speech therapy services are rare thus very expensive in my country. I’ll be honest with you, I couldn’t afford it. However, I watched a lot of youtube videos and helped my own child. I even learned how to potty train him from youtube. So do your homework; research. Therapy has the best results when carried out by the caretaker of the child in a familiar environment such as the home.
Have quality moments together
Make time just for your child. Do some memorable things together. In the video below, I was training Michael how to say two consecutive sentences; His name and his grade which is pre-grade.
Do not be ashamed of your child
He/she will catch this especially if you keep him/her extremely hidden or locked up. You are not alone. So many parents out there have children with special needs, including me. They are children just like any other and a blessing. Be proud of your child. And show it for the sake of his/her self esteem. If you show that you are ashamed or unhappy, the child may hate themselves, giving rise to more mental health problems.
Hope you have enjoyed this article. Be sure to stick around for more. I would love to hear if you have encountered Autism and your experience with parenting a child with special needs. Your feedback will be highly appreciated.