Teacher in Front of a Classroom

Dear Teacher,

I am happy to see my son is in your class. I am sure you have chosen your profession because you love working with kids and have a passion for teaching. I am sure you are dedicated and highly motivated, and that when you realized you would have a child on the autism spectrum in your class, you did a lot of research to ensure he would have a great start. However, there are many myths about autism.

You might have heard that autistic children cannot show love or emotion. This is a myth. My son does feel, but sometimes his emotional thermometer only registers extremes. You might know if he is feeling happy, sad or angry as soon as he enters the classroom. It’s worth spending the time working out any challenge he is experiencing at that moment instead of later. I hope he will learn to trust you, and I hope you will like him. He loves jokes, computers, calmness and rules, and he needs patience.

My son has strengths and challenges the same as all children. He is excellent at some things, like visual learning and memory skills, and he has challenges in some other areas, like following verbal instructions. He, like some other autistic children, can see the details but needs help putting all these details together to see the bigger picture. Take care that he understands the task. Sometimes it is too many instructions, too much stimuli or simply too many words that can lead to a challenge rather than lack of understanding. In short, he can learn given the right circumstances and may surprise you at times.

Autistic people can make friends and have successful relationships. However, my son often misreads or misinterprets situations, and this makes him feel nervous and stressed. I compare it to trying to communicate when you are learning in another language — you might often feel like you are a step behind everyone, you are missing the joke, not quite getting it, embarrassed at making errors, wondering if you have it right, never really being able to relax. That is hard work! Please take the time to help my son with social interactions.

Understand there is always a reason for a meltdown, including sensory issues. Sensory issues are significant! My son might not stay in his chair, he won’t always look at you when you are speaking and he might repeat himself many times or fail to answer. But it’s likely that the traffic is piling up in his brain; he sees every detail, he hears every pencil scrape, he can smell the coffee you drank at break time, I forgot to cut the label out of his new trousers and it is prickling him, he is sitting on a different chair, he missed the last thing you said. He is not being rude, naughty or not listening — his senses are in overload. Imagine trying to give a lesson while riding on a roller coaster.

At times my son might not bring the book/bag you asked for or remember his homework. It isn’t because he is naughty or because I am not supporting him. He doesn’t remember. But he will remember some facts/moments/things that will astound you! School is school, and home is home. These can be separate maps in his brain. Please send me a mail, app or tweet to let me know what he needs and his schedule. I hope we can develop a good relationship for the sake of my son.

I understand you might be a bit nervous and worried. I can only offer one piece of advice, as a fellow professional and as a mum. Don’t look at my child as “the one with autism” — forget his diagnosis and simply look at the boy. His needs are the same as any child’s: to feel safe, secure and happy in class.

I wish you a successful year and want to thank you in advance for the extra time I hope you will give to my son.

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Dear parents,

Does your child have difficulty trying to go to sleep?

When I speak with parent groups, sleep difficulties tend to be one of the top challenges that get mentioned.

When I was a kid, I had bed guards on my bed due to difficulties with my balance along with issues with tossing and turning for long periods of the night. Today, I know countless kids on the spectrum who have similar challenges to mine growing up.

Just like no two people with autism are the same, the reason for these challenges can vary. Sensory issues such as noises and lights can play a huge part in that challenge. This was especially true for me growing up in a big city where I was exposed to high beams from vehicles, horns and sirens.

One of the things that helped me, along with bed guards, were bed shades that would take away all external light so I could be in a pitch-black environment. As I got older, I had a night-light that was dim so it wouldn’t affect my sensory issues. Then, my parents helped me form a schedule for going to bed every night. For example, growing up, I used to be obsessed with “Wheel of Fortune” and Vanna White. So as a child, 15 minutes after “Wheel of Fortune” was over, that was my bedtime (we’d keep the brightness on the television dimmer, though, as bright lights can tend to keep children up longer). My parents found it important to have me go to sleep on a positive note due to my emotional challenges, and it did wonders.

This became part of my reward systems. Along the way, we would look at more reward systems for when I would fall asleep by myself. Later in my adolescence, and when it felt like I had more energy, we cut down caffeine and sugar in my diet, especially in the afternoons and evenings. As I started getting involved in more sports, a boost in my regular physical activity, I was also able to maintain going to sleep easier and staying asleep throughout the night.

For the parents out there who are reading this, I hope you know you aren’t alone in this journey. Sleep is one of the most important things our bodies need. Help your child by reading resources — like this
toolkit you can download, Sleep Strategies to Improve Sleep in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Parent’s Guide — to prepare them for that transition to bedtime.

Sleep well all!

A version of this blog originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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I come from a family that is quite big on public displays of affection. The thing is, I was never really comfortable with that. I have been told on more than one occasion that I wasn’t a cuddly baby. When anyone tried to sit me on their knee, I would fight and say, “Down, down…” I remember feeling uncomfortable at being forced to kiss my aunt, and family parties filled me with dread. My grandad bucked the trend, too, and flatly refused to kiss anyone. He hated it!

It came as a huge surprise to unaffectionate me when my older son was born that I had this overwhelming need to smother his tiny face, arms and legs with kisses, smiling happily while listening to his squeals of delight.

We kept up the family traditions of kissing goodbye and goodnight to relatives, but my son always presented his head for kissing rather than his lips. He never clung onto me when I lifted him up. He would happily run off at playgroup without a second glance to where Mummy was. I always knew he loved me; he just didn’t have the need to grasp my leg or wrap his arms around my neck to show it.

My younger son was different. He clung to me like a baby monkey and curled up on my knee, seeking affection. He smothered me with kisses and sought closeness, staring into my soul with his huge brown eyes.

When my older son was diagnosed with autism, some things made more sense. His over-sensitivity to smell means he knows what you ate or drank an hour ago. His over-sensitivity to touch means the stubble on his uncle’s chin feels like sandpaper on his cheek. Close proximity makes him feel stressed instead of feel loved.

I know my eldest son loves me — he just shows it in a million tiny ways. I don’t feel sadness, regret or lacking in anything. It is simply who he is. I get it… But I also get how it can look to others.

I have been accused of showing favouritism to my youngest son. I have been told. “He likes cuddles too.” And not by strangers.

I want to set the record straight. I don’t kiss my son because I love him. I don’t kiss him because it doesn’t make him feel good. I go against every fiber of my being, every feeling that courses through my body when I look at him with immense pride, affection and love because he doesn’t want it.

Why force unwanted affection on him? To make yourself feel better?

I don’t confuse affection with love. But I do tell him a million times a day that I love him.

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Maybe I am getting old, but it does seem like talk of Christmas starts earlier every year. We are only just over Halloween, and already the shops have festive music, selection boxes and wrapping paper in prominent places! But as a trained teacher, there is one place I totally understand preparing early for the holidays, and that is schools. There is a presumption that schools and churches will put on an annual play or concert of some sort, and the organization involved in these is tremendous. It can take months of preparation to teach children songs, practice words and prepare costumes. It is a highlight of the year for many parents and children.

This year, my daughter, who just turned 8, has asked not to be in the Christmas play.

At first I was disappointed, as Christmas is one of my favourite times of year, and both my church and her school put on wonderful shows. But when she told me why she didn’t want to be included, I actually cried.

“I don’t enjoy it at all,” she told me.

It is my duty as a parent to listen to my children and support them. She has a right to choose. My daughter has selective mutism, anxiety and autism. Being on a stage in front of others, remembering stage directions and song words, and wearing itchy costumes is something she finds stressful. She finds the change of routine difficult and the noise frightening. The thought that everyone is looking at her makes her feel physically sick.

I realized I wanted her to be part of it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted it for me, not for her. I didn’t want her feeling excluded or feeling like she was missing out. But in actual fact, I was putting her in a situation that made her uncomfortable and stressed.

This year, I will watch the church play and her school play. No doubt I will still cry at “Away in a Manger” and beam with pride at the children in the plays. Instead of watching my little girl perform, I will have the beauty of holding her hand as she sits next to me and cheers for her friends. She will sing the songs happily, and for the first time, I will manage to hear every word as her beautiful voice is right next to my ears. We will laugh together at the fun parts and share the experience in a way she finds relaxing and enjoyable. It will be magical, but in a different way than I imagined.

It took courage for her to be able to tell me something she knew I would find difficult to hear. She knows how much I love watching her do things, and she knows how proud I am of her. This year she knows I am extra proud at the fact she felt she could tell me she doesn’t enjoy being part of the Christmas play.

I will never forget her smile and the sparkle in her eyes the night I told her how proud I am of her for not being in the Christmas play this year.

It is OK to be different. It is OK to say no sometimes, too.

Follow this journey on Faithmummy.

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