Richard Maguire’s article in the summer issue of Childcare Professional gives a brief but excellent insight into the confusing world a person with autism lives in. My understanding of the enormous spectrum that is autism has come from many years of practise in... well I sort of travelled through education backwards. From being a postgraduate law teacher to childminder I have encountered many people with autism and I think it’s given me a pretty good grasp of this fascinating condition.
In Higher Education, as a teacher, PhD student and pastoral tutor in halls of residence I first met people who identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome. I didn’t have a clue! But I noticed behaviours that I began to learn were part of the diagnosis; Law students who wanted to discuss, to the nth degree, the minutiae of one small legal subsection; Individuals who were awkward, saying strange, out of context things that made their peers uncomfortable; Taking 10 times longer than neural typical students to find a small group of friends with whom they had something in common.
My first son arrived; the PhD was never finished, so I made the move to being a primary school teacher. For the first time I felt I understood children. I learnt to manage their behaviours and identify their learning needs. Slowly, I started to notice those children who for different reasons didn’t ‘make sense’; The child who at first glance was playing ‘with’ friends, but actually was just playing next to them; The eternal shouter-outer, who never learnt to not do it; The compliant, gentle, clever child who just couldn’t cope on the playground; The child who was clearly so intelligent, but would only talk to the space next to me and couldn’t put their fantastic thoughts on paper.
During this time I was also a Mum trying to figure out my own son. He was clever, well behaved but was struggling. His perspective was clear. Nobody liked him, they all picked on him and coming home from school meant a nightly meltdown that often led to extreme violence against me or anything he could hit/throw at home. We made a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) referral, worried that the death, around the same time, of our newly born daughter was having a devastating effect on him.
My third child had now arrived and I wanted to be at home, so childminding was a perfect career change. It was teaching on a smaller and more intimate scale. I noticed so much more. I started to see my older son’s autism and how it continually made him feel like a stranger in a strange place. The smallest, unexpected thing caused a cascade of anxiety that grew with every new unexpected thing. My youngest was very different from his brother; gregarious, fun-loving, made friends with anyone and everyone, but again school – that was a problem. Then there were some of the children I cared for. I could see the inability of small children to answer the simplest of questions, because someone else was in the room; total and absolute obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, so much so it informed all of their social references; total inability to cope with noise they didn’t expect or know; reacting to the smallest knock in a way that implied amputation!
Today, all of this has brought me to an understanding of autism that helps me support children, particularly my own, in coping with the everyday ‘series of confusing details’, as Richard says, that make their lives so complex and difficult. It’s interesting to read Richard’s thoughts as an adult on his childhood world. When I first came to understand this I cried, in fact sobbed for my two sons and the level of fear and anxiety they face everyday just by waking up. My oldest, now 17, has lived with diagnosis for the last six years and my youngest is about to be diagnosed at 8. I have to say, living with their autism has taught me so much, as well as all of my professional experiences above. I feel obliged to give you all some succinct insight, in the way that Richard has. What can I say that will help you, as practitioners, understand autism?
My conclusion may surprise you. I don’t understand autism, but I do know some amazing, unique, gifted individuals who have that diagnosis. In each case, my awareness of autism has helped me comprehend that individual and respond to their needs, accept their differences, support their behaviours, and ultimately help them to learn about their social world and it’s complex rules. You cannot, as a neural typical person, understand a condition that is different for everyone with it and brings with it an inability to communicate how it feels, or even the events that cause its accompanying anxiety. However, as Early Years Professionals we work, more than any other professional, in the world of the unique child. We get to know them individually more than many others can because of our small ratios. We work with their families on a daily basis in a way few other professionals have the opportunity to.
I have no great revelation, other than do what you do. Recognise every child’s uniqueness. Work with it. Take time, take advice and give unconditional care to all of them. That’s how you understand the autistic children in your care. Reflect and ask yourself honestly ‘is this what I do? Do I understand my children in this way?’ Then it doesn’t really matter if they’re autistic.
Annie Grady is the PACEY Local Facilitator for Wirral, in the North West. She has worked in education, in various guises, since 1995 which has given her a breadth of experience and perspectives on supporting children and young adults. Annie has a commitment to inclusive practice and providing peer support that recognises there is no ‘normal’. She promotes child led learning and is ‘pro-enablement’ and ‘anti-teaching’ in the Early Years.