Parents caring for children on the autistic spectrum may have heard the phrase: “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Each remarkable child who receives a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has his or her own strengths and challenges. They are unique.
Although there can be common areas of difficulty, such as social communication and sensory processing, autism manifests itself very differently in each child.
One of the most important jobs for parents is to help the world to understand their child better. Greater understanding leads to greater acceptance, which reduces the problems faced by autistic children and their families.
There are more than 890 schoolchildren in the UAE with an ASD diagnosis, the Ministry of Community Development says.
In the run-up to World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, I’ve listed five books that helped me on my journey as the proud parent of a child on the spectrum.
'Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism'
Barry M Prizant, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks
This book was recommended to my husband and I by the paediatrician who made our son's diagnosis. Suddenly, we were sailing into uncharted waters.
She was probably used to that bewildered look in parents’ eyes. So she calmly advised that we sign up to autism parenting classes. She also told us to read this book.
It served as an empowering anchor, reassuring us that the function behind autistic traits can be understood and managed.
Autistic children, like all children, are “uniquely human” and there is often a logical explanation for their behaviour.
It also introduced the idea that we would not be alone; a network of professionals and allies could be found.
Reading it, I felt the sentiment behind the comforting words, delivered to me by a friend, resonate: “You will be fine, and he will be fine.”
Written by Dr Barry M Prizant, who spent more than 40 years working with children who have autism, it presents the stories of his clients beautifully, with dignity and insight.
Over the years, I’ve recommended this book to friends and family. I return to it whenever I need hope and information.
'The Superhero Brain: Explaining Autism to Empower Kids'
Christel Land, CreateSpace Publishing
There will come a time when most parents of autistic children want to explain to them what it means.
This short picture book is a mother’s loving attempt to do exactly that.
It details how an “autistic brain” can also be a “superpower brain”, because it entails seeing the world differently – which can present opportunities as well as challenges.
These can include the ability to hear distant sounds and focus intensely on an area of interest.
Filled with simple, retro-style illustrations, this gentle introduction to autism is great for young children.
I’ve snuggled up at bedtime to read this with my kids. I’ve also shared it with schools.
'The Reason I Jump'
Naoki Higashida, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd
Written by a non-verbal Japanese boy on the spectrum – when he was 13 – this book is an international bestseller.
Higashida shares precious insights by answering common queries.
His responses are laced with a refreshing mix of poetry and plain-speaking and we discover the soulful voice of a smart and sensitive child who cannot communicate in the usual ways.
For example, Higashida is asked the question: “Why do you do things you shouldn’t, even when you’ve been told a million times not to?”
He answers: “We know we’re making you sad and upset, but it’s as if we don’t have any say in it … but please, whatever you do, don’t give up on us. We need your help.”
Above all, this book is an appeal for compassion from one child on the spectrum, who found a way to advocate for others around the world.
'More Than Words' and 'Talkability'
Fern Sussman, The Hanen Centre
These books are simple and comprehensive guides for parents to build their children’s communication skills.
More Than Words is aimed at pre-verbal children and Talkability is for verbal children.
They were recommended to me by my son’s speech and language therapist in London.
The step-by-step guides are clearly illustrated. Each contains checklists to help parents work out how their children learn.
Some children are strong visual learners, others respond better to verbal cues.
The chapters contain explanations and strategies that are easy to use in everyday life. For example, I learnt how to use the sharing of snacks to improve reciprocal interaction during a play date.
'Successful Social Stories for Young Children; Growing up with Social Stories'
Dr Siobhan Timmins, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
It is often said that autism is not a disability, rather it’s the environment that can be disabling for a child on the spectrum.
Strategies that help children with ASD can also help their neurotypical peers.
One is the use of social stories, pioneered by teacher Carol Gray in the 1990s, to help make implicit social rules explicit.
This book is written by Dr Siobhan Timmins, a doctor who left work to find strategies to help her son.
She explains how children on the spectrum are often missing a vital piece of social information that neurotypical children pick up instinctively.
If that information can be made explicit in a simple, visual story, it can help children to gradually learn social rules. For example, “What is a conversation?” and “How can I ask for chill-out time?”
Social stories should be written in a positive, non-judgmental way.
The first step to creating an effective one is to think about the situation from the child’s perspective.
For me, social stories are a vital tool that could also help neurotypical children and adults to understand the complexities of human interactions.