Autism in the Family Life Cycle

“Autism is a disability that is difficult to understand because it can have several different symptoms in different individuals. However, a good definition would be that autism is abnormal neurological brain development, and also “a…disorder of the human central nervous system” (“Autism” 2007).

In general, autism is characterized by delays in language development, impairment in social interactions, and the ability to engage in pretend play.

autism

Symptoms of the disorder also include very rigid and sometimes obsessive patterns of thinking and behavior, uncontrollable tantrums, and echolalia, or the use of speech in non-communicative ways (“Autism” 2007).

This paper and the ensuing presentation will focus on the parenting stage, as I have been working with autistic children from the ages of four to eleven for almost two and a half years. Another good reason to talk about autism is that it is on the rise:

“The prevalence of autism was 3.4 per 1,000, with a male-to-female ratio of 4:1, and comparable rates were seen in black and white children. This overall rate is ten times higher than rates from three other United States studies that used similar, specific criteria to identify children with autism and pervasive developmental disorders in the 1980s and early 1990s” (Barclay, 2002).

The usual challenges during this stage include “sleep deprivation, shredded schedules, endless chores, worry about the baby’s development or one’s own competence, and the need for ceaseless vigilance” (Carter amp; McGoldrick, 1999, p. 249).

Autism, obviously, has a major impact on the life cycle of the individual, as well as on the entire family. The first problem encountered by families is dealing with the actual diagnosis. Many parents feel responsible for their child’s condition, when in fact the real cause of autism is unknown. The cause is most likely the result of genetics, the impact of vaccines on the immune system, or the emission of mercury from factories.

“It serves no purpose to make parents of autistic children feel guilty” (Morgan, 1981, p. 76).

I agree with this viewpoint because it does not do a family any good to blame itself for things it cannot control. I have seen a lot of emotional turmoil, but for the most part, families that are well-adjusted emotionally do handle the situation well.

The list of effects on the individual’s life cycle is nearly endless. The main challenges include dealing with school systems, developing the child’s social skills, as well as the ability to recognize his body and regulate his emotions, and encouraging the child’s academic progress.

There are many different approaches to working with autism, but I think Beyond Boundaries of Autism has a particularly notable approach. The main idea behind our approach is that a child is unable to regulate his central nervous system, and if he could, he would be able to better function in his world. Basically, the child is given sensory input through any of his five senses in a way that he or she enjoys.

Many people may think of an autistic child as one who is flapping his arms constantly or rocking back and forth all day and night. What he is doing is giving himself the necessary sensory stimulation his central nervous system desires so that he can feel calm and secure inside. As a therapist, I help children find socially appropriate ways to satisfy these sensory deficits. So rather than arm-flapping or rocking, I may teach a child to play football, another to read books or crush another under a mountain of pillows.

Once a child receives the sensory information his body is craving, his central nervous system calms down, and then he is able to speak more clearly, understand what is going on around him, and focus on one thing. This is where real therapy takes place. The child can be taught now to recognize his emotions, run to a safe spot if he is feeling overwhelmed, or sometimes, he may just enjoy relaxing on a couch or chair for a little while.

I also teach children to appropriate social skills and behaviors, and ways to ask for things they desire. Autistic children are also noted for their rigid routines, but once they are calmed down and focused, they can be taught different ways of doing things, and their routines and expectations begin to relax. So, all the problems briefly discussed before can be relieved, or sometimes eliminated altogether.

There are a few myths about autism that I would also like to dispel. Some people think that autistic children are really smart or have a special ability like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, which is now termed the savant syndrome. This is entirely untrue. Most do not have a special ability, and in general, I have noticed that intelligence among autistics is the same as it among regular individuals; some are above average, some below, and some are just average.

The other myth is that they have no desire for human relationships and will only form attachments to computers. While autistics do become glued to computer and TV screens much more easily than regular individuals, I have not found one who does not want any friends at all. After being taught social skills and knowing how to properly communicate their desires and affection, I have noticed that every autistic child forms a bond with his parents, while others have even made a friend or two.

Autistics seem to have less of a desire for the social world, but it seems to be just the way they are, and if they are happy with only a few really good friends, that is just fine.

In conclusion,

“…the primary focus for clinical work with the autistic child should not be the child-rather it must be the family” (Bolman, 2005, p. 1).

I agree with this approach entirely; I have worked with families where none of, part of, or the whole family would get involved with the therapeutic process. The main problem I have consistently encountered in different families is that the parents typically have unresolved problems of their own. While the child may be able to make progress if he has consistent therapy, he would make much more progress if the entire family was dealing with all of its problems.

Too often, parents sacrifice their entire livelihood for their child; this is a mistake. Sacrifices have to be made, but the parents have to take care of themselves too. Progress can always be made; it is just a matter of how much a family wants to make.

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