Dealing with autism in child care

What to do if you suspect your pre-schooler is Autistic

Autism, although not exactly common, is increasingly more known in our society. That’s not to say it’s been proven to be more prevalent than in previous years, but we’re getting better at diagnosing it.

Pretty much everyone will have a friend or relative with a child who suffers from autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, so called because of the huge range of difficulties and behaviours it encompasses.

These include difficulties with:

  • Social interaction (e.g. Seeming unaware of others and/or disregarding social conventions)
  • Social communication (e.g. Delayed or absent verbal language, and/or reversing pronouns)
  • Imagination (e.g. Having limited and unusual interests, and insisting on sameness).

The most commonly encountered children will be those with Asperger’s Disorder, which is widely regarded as “a lesser form of Autism”, but nonetheless on the scale and difficult to deal with as a parent or carer. In the case of Asperger’s there is no language delay, although communication difficulties still exist.

Despite rumours surrounding the MMR vaccine, which were subsequently laid to rest and dismissed as unsubstantiated scare-mongering, Autism is genetic. But there is still a lot about Autism that isn’t known. It varies hugely in symptoms and levels. It’s not curable, although some parents and autistic people have found ways of dealing with it and have successfully managed to live with and operate in society at a reasonably “normal” level. We use that term normal loosely of course. At the end of the day, with any child, what is normal?!

Autism is more prevalent in, though not exclusive to males.

It’s often hugely misunderstood. And the behaviour of the kids who are dealing with Autism is also often misread or mis-diagnosed.

Generally speaking, Autism is most likely to be picked up or diagnosed sometime after 18 months, which these days means that a child may well be in child care before, during and after diagnosis.

Frequently asked questions are:

  • Do autistic kids need to go into special care?
  • Are they able to attend a regular day care?
  • Do they need specially trained carers in child care?
  • What are the pros and cons of inclusive care?
  • What are the signs to look out for?
  • What do I do if I suspect my child might be autistic?

Children with autism can be included in regular child care situations, although carers should be trained in dealing with children with ASD. Not only can the normality of the situation help the kids with Autism, but also dealing with anyone with a disability of any type on a daily basis encourages tolerance, compassion and understanding. Qualities that cannot be underestimated in today’s society.

There are many ways children with ASD can be helped in a non-specialist child care facility:

For many autistic children, visualisation is key, particularly if they have language delay. Photos on lockers, pictures, faces and emotions, coloured indicators of areas and spaces are all very helpful to both autistic and non-autistic kids.

Defined areas are also great at helping physical structure and understanding of activities. Things like mats for specific areas, divisions, reading corners, mood boards and weatherboards – anything that helps define activities is very effective.

Changing norms and adapting behaviours are also key. Autistic children often find direct contact or lack of personal space upsetting. You don’t have to sit facing children, they can be told to sit side by side, which is much easier for an autistic child. Story time just has to be slightly rearranged. Expectations of certain behaviours changed.

Journalist Josie Gagliano, has a son, Rafael, who was diagnosed at 20 months. Here she recounts how she and her son’s child care service dealt with his particular needs.

C4K: Was Rafael already diagnosed with ASD before or after starting child care?

JG: No, he wasn’t yet, but I knew by then. He was 1 year and 8 months old when he started childcare, and I already had concerns. In fact, that’s why I put in child care one day a week, to help develop him further, and because they assured me they’d had children with special needs at the centre. My son was diagnosed with mild autism at age 2.

C4K: What were the early signs for you? Did you notice them or were they pointed out by someone else?

JG: My son would not respond to his name, and he previously had. That and the fact he stopped saying any words at all were my big signs. Plus, at playgroup, he would not join the other kids to play. Instead, he was happy to do his own thing.

C4K: How did your child care then address his and your needs?

JG: They had additional funding to cover an extra teacher at the centre, so she could concentrate on helping him. The other teachers were also on board and knew how to interact with him and how to get the best out of him.

C4K: Were there any issues while he was in child care and how did you overcome them?

JG: I always needed to ensure we were on the same page, working towards the same goals. This meant having meetings and checking in from time to time. Most of the time, things went smoothly, as we had extra funding to have an additional teacher at daycare to attend to his needs.

At his special needs-specific playgroup it was a different set up altogether: very much focused on his needs and strengths and weaknesses, and working towards improving social and play skills, as well as developing his speech via sessions, and occupational therapy sessions as well.

C4K: What advice would you give to parents who think their child may be autistic or who have just found out their child has ASD?

JG: The BEST advice is: get a diagnosis ASAP. And if your hunch is mistaken and your child is not autistic, then at least you will know – it could be an alternate concern, not autism, and you could address that instead. If there is an autism diagnosis given to your child, early intervention is key. Another very important piece of advice (said with love) is: Allow yourself a ‘mourning’ period, allowing yourself the time to be sad about the loss of your dream of a raising a neurotypical child. He or she will instead thrill you and bring you joy is so many other ways, and this new way of approaching your child, and recognising strengths and little triumphs will pull you through those first few months, and the years to come.

Find out more about Josie and her son’s journey and also more about dealing with Autism on her blog

First thing is to always consult with your GP as soon as you suspect anything is wrong. Second is to talk to your child care service and discuss issues with them. Don’t be worried that you won’t find child care; most centres are willing and able to help you.

For more information on Autism, check out the following websites:

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