Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Five A’s of Raising a Child with Autism by Renée Cormier

When my eldest child was three he was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is a form of Autism. I used to love to sit and watch him play. It fascinated me to see how he lined up his toy cars and blocks to the millimetre and to see how he grouped his Legos according to colour. He always put the same colours together and placed them in the same order next to each other. He would jump up and down on his toes and twirl his fingers between realignments, but at the time, I had no clue this was anything other than a sign of pure genius. Being the youngest of five children and a new mother, I had no point of reference, so when the doctor asked me if Maurice played normally, I told her yes.

Maurice enjoys the company of his siblings.
Pictured here from left to right: Celeste, Marcel and Maurice Cormier.
 Maurice’s first words were numbers. He could count to 18 without making any mistakes when he was only 18 months old. Before he turned two he could recognize written words on sight such as stop, exit, cat, dog, etc. but he never asked for anything and he never even called me Mama until he was three years old. For years, if I asked him to hold a bag or a toy, he would just look at me. My words meant nothing to him. When he did start to talk, it was usually repeating something he heard on TV such as “each sold separately” or “Deep Space Nine”.

Maurice will soon be turning 23 and has come a very long way since then. If I had to give advice to the parents of young autistic children, I would tell them, first of all, that things can get much better and not to focus on what their child cannot do.  Secondly, I would tell them to consider that they have been given a gift and that their situation is not calamitous. Thirdly, I would tell them to raise their child using what I call the five A’s of raising a child with Autism. These are the rules I gave myself once I understood what I was dealing with and I believe much of Maurice’s success today, is because I raised him with these things in mind.

Avoid giving in to your child’s resistance to change: Autism is marked by an extreme resistance to change. As a young child, Maurice would get upset over the change in sleeve lengths between summer and winter and would cry and tantrum because he didn’t want to wear the appropriate sleeve length. I could have just kept him in the same type of shirt, to avoid upsetting him, but life is about change. All children need to learn to adapt to change, no matter how difficult it is. It took a couple of years, but eventually, Maurice had no trouble wearing seasonally appropriate clothing.
I recall an incident when Maurice’s brother and sister decided to “be each other” when I picked them up from daycare one day. To do this, Marcel and Celeste decided to wear each other’s coats and boots and sit in each other’s seats in the car. Maurice screamed his lungs out and begged me to make them change back. He couldn’t stand it. As a parent, I could have told them to not aggravate their brother and put an end to the game, but I felt it was more important for Maurice to learn to accept change, so I endured the wild screaming and crying all the way home in the car. As soon as we got in the house, Marcel and Celeste took off their jackets and boots, and Maurice stopped crying. My nerves were shot, but all was right in the world again.
Today, Maurice has become quite adept at dealing with change. We moved house several times throughout his life, he’s had to change schools, pass through many seasons, start and finish many things. No problem. If I spent my life accommodating his need for sameness, he would never be able to cope with the real world.
Acknowledge your fear, but then close your eyes and let a miracle happen: There is nothing tougher than letting a child with a disability do what every other kid does. The first bike ride alone in the street, the first trip on the bus without supervision or guidance, allowing your child to do anything independently is very scary. What if something terrible happened? It is always possible, but as a parent, you have to be careful not to suffocate your child into permanent dependence. Say a prayer and force yourself to let your child enjoy independence. If I have learned one thing in this life, I have learned that children will rise to the level of responsibility you give them. Even children with intellectual challenges need to be given the gift of independence and self-reliance and believe me it is a gift. You are being a good parent when you let your children do new things. It is okay. You are not being neglectful.
Allow your child to experience defeat: This is another tough thing for parents to do. We love our children, and wanting to protect those with extra challenges is highly natural. I never wanted to tell Maurice he couldn’t do something because of his disability. In high school, he really wanted to be on a sports team like other boys, but he wasn’t born with an abundance of natural athletic ability. I could see that, but he wanted to try out for teams. I knew he would have trouble competing with other kids, but I bit my tongue. I let him try out for teams and discover for himself what he really could and could not do. As it turned out, he found he was able to compete in sports like cross country running and track and field. Was he the best in the school? No, but he was there and he got to attend the awards dinner with all of the other athletes. He was happy, and I was happy for him.
I always made sure to let Maurice try new things, even if I thought he might not do as well as other kids. The truth is, he has often surprised me. His lack of self-consciousness works in his favour and we have a lot to learn from that. How many people avoid trying things because they are afraid of failure? Self-doubt is your enemy and doubters are poisonous. Don’t poison your child with doubt.
Accept that you will need to be an advocate for your child: When you have a child with a disability, the world will not necessarily understand what it really means. Even educators can be surprisingly ignorant of your child’s condition. As a parent, it is your job to make sure people the around him know how to manage your child. You will need to be in communication more when they are younger, but sometimes even when they are older. Swim instructors, teachers, daycare workers, deans, professors, etc. Every now and then, you will need to step in and be an advocate for your child. Don’t be passive about that.
Appreciate the differences:  Your child’s lack of self-consciousness/ self-awareness, his micro focus and his literal interpretation of the world around him are not things to worry about. They are all very important parts of who he is and they teach you many important things. When I look at my son I see proof that success happens in the absence of doubt. His in-depth knowledge of the things that interest him remind me that knowledge is power, and his literal interpretation of the world, reminds me that I need to be concise in my communication. What’s wrong with that? Love and accept all of it, for there is great beauty in all things.
Today, Maurice is a college graduate, film editor and film enthusiast. I am enormously proud of his accomplishments and proud that he has grown to be such a dependable and talented young man. His award-winning short documentary called Normal: A Story of Autism can be viewed at: https://youtu.be/9KLAWRBvLb8
Renée Cormier is a Public Relations & Communications professional in Burlington, Ontario. Contact Renée through her website:  www.reneecormier.com .

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