Communication and social interaction
Communication and social skills are learned by typical children because they are hard-wired to engage with, and respond to others. For learners, with autism they might acquire these skills in a less social way:
S/he might be able to be with others but need an individual space and equipment. In time s/he might observe and imitate someone else if working alongside them, but prefer to not share space or equipment.
Some tamariki might have different ways of communicating and not develop verbal communication until much later (if at all). S/he will have other strengths and skills and it is possible to find other ways to communicate using visuals or written information.
A verbal communication pathway might mean s/he has some early words, then a halt or period with no further words. Later s/he might use echolalia which is repeating words and phrases heard in real life or in TV and movies. The echoing can happen immediately after s/he has heard something, or sometime later. Sometimes it can be hard to work out what s/he is trying to communicate, but with support children usually adapt and develop functional communication.
Using the typical developmental milestones to teach social communication might actually make it more difficult than using their preferred pathways and naturally occurring skills.
What does it mean?
The journey to understanding, action, learning and acceptance is different for everyone. Your tamariki or friend might not learn in the same way as one of their neurotypical peers, but with the support of whanau, schools and community, they will go on to lead a productive, happy and fulfilling life. For those of us standing alongside – we will learn much more from our tamariki and autistic friends than we will ever teach them.
Your autistic son or daughter, friend or student needs to be at the centre of in their learning early on – we need to listen to what their actions are communicating. It’s important to listen to and advocate for them on their own terms, to respect how they learn, their preferences, fears, goals, hopes and dreams and support them to learn how to communicate these to others, so they can be heard for themselves.
Acceptance, inclusion and appreciation is the key to progress towards a happy meaningful life. At the same time as collecting information about autism, parents will need to develop skills in advocacy, communication, participating in teams, understanding and managing relationships, so that all the players in your team are on the same page and working towards the hopes and dreams for your tamariki.
It takes a whanau to support people with autism and as well as evidence-based information, supporters need knowledge, family involvement and new skills and strategies.
Autistics often develop strong focussed interests in particular topics. In these areas of special interest s/he is extremely knowledgeable and also very motivated to learn. Using interests as a way of learning new skills will support the way s/he learns, however it is important to not just use it as a reward.
Special interests often go on to be life-long pursuits which can be fulfilling both in leisure and work.
Tamariki and adults with autism have a different way of looking at the world. Rather than enjoying surprises and new experiences, s/he likes to be able to predict what is going to happen. The way that s/he thinks (in a focussed and linear way) means that we need to find ways to support routines and generalisation.
Think about this – if prediction is important, but the ability to predict is not a strength, you are constantly surprised and alarmed. Having others provide structure, predictability and routine help to lessen anxiety and support learning new routines until they are familiar and comfortable.
Providing information (in many forms – visual, verbal, video) about context and are the best ways to support the thinking strengths of tamariki.
For an autistic, a neurotypical environment which is rich in communication, social and sensory surprises might be like suddenly finding yourself inside a new game or movie. Imagine you have been suddenly teleported to the middle of a war in a overwhelming fantasy kingdom full of visual, sound and other sensory effects. None of the language, customs and things you have come to expect are the same. You are constantly encountering experiences that you can’t make any sense of. You are likely to be constantly anxious, and on the lookout for danger. You think you have predicted a pattern in the environment, but it seems to constantly change and evolve.