As an occupational therapist, I work with children with various disabilities to help them become more independent with day-to-day activities like eating, dressing and grooming. As a previous schoolteacher and practicing OT, I will always be a lifelong learner, striving to better meet the needs of the children I work with. In honor of World Autism Awareness Day and Autism Awareness Month, I want to share what I have learned along the way working with children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and how they taught me the importance of acceptance, patience and reflection.
When I first began working with children with autism, I honestly struggled to better understand and support them. Our differences made it hard for me to connect and I found myself only teaching these kids to conform to what I viewed as “typical” behavior. The more time I spent with these children, the more I began to accept that all people are different and unique. I learned that my job is to help the children I work with live life to their fullest potential, but that will look different for every person.
We live in a world with societal norms and expectations. Everything needs to be done in a particular way that often doesn’t work for these children. It is hard for parents to watch their children struggle with small things that just came naturally for them.
I recently read, “The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-old boy with Autism” and the author Naoki Higashida shared,
“To give the short version, I’ve learnt that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness. For us, you see, having autism is normal — so we can’t know for sure what your ‘normal’ is even like. But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether we’re normal or autistic.”
One way to support children with ASD includes accepting and valuing our differences. The onus is on us to change our perspective, environment and norms to better meet the needs of these kids.
Patience is everything when you’re working with autistic children. Parents have thanked me for staying positive, celebrating the small victories and “not giving up” on their child.
Some parents struggle with therapists stopping treatment because their child responds physically or isn’t learning the skills despite multiple attempts and presentations. Our kids put in so much effort to accomplish daily tasks that we take for granted; let’s reward them with patience and celebration of growth of any size. Autistic children teach us what real goals are and the real things to celebrate. I am not the perfect therapist, but I’ve learned from my patients that staying positive and patient opens up more opportunities for success.
So many seemingly small things can be endlessly frustrating for my patients — it’s too loud, the tag is scratching at their skin, putting on their jacket is impossible, the routine changed, the activity is new and not what they were expecting. Their frustration may present in different ways like running away, hitting or throwing objects. Sometimes it’s hard to not take their reaction personally or push back with my own frustrations.
Reflection has helped me become more successful in identifying the source of their frustrations. Taking the time to identify the source means I can better anticipate their needs and adjust tasks and the environment to meet them where they are. Children with autism often thrive on structure, predictable routines/transitions, wait time, skills broken down into achievable steps and reinforcement. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution and something that worked today may not have the same result tomorrow. Be persistent, try a new approach and reflect on what worked or didn’t.
It’s a privilege to be able to learn every day from children who experience the world differently. Our NAPA parents online community is filled with stories from parents who have learned acceptance, patience, and the value of reflection from their children. I’m honored to have the opportunity to join them.
Allyson Bates is an occupational therapist that works with children with Autism and other diagnoses to promote independence and enjoyment in meaningful daily activities. She was previously an elementary school teacher and now has worked at the Neurological and Physical Abilitation Center (NAPA) for over three years and is passionate about sharing knowledge and research to increase awareness about the kids and families she works with.