'Children on the spectrum need to be stretched to keep learning new skills'
Jenny Lee speaks to internationally renowned autism expert Dr Temple Grandin, who encourages parents of children with autism to help them reach their potential by teaching them manners, encourage their creativity and setting them chores
AS levels of anxiety among school-age children continue to escalate, in children with autism fear and anxiety can be three times higher. However, the solution from internationally renowned autism expert Dr Temple Grandin is simple – get children building, experimenting and failing.
"We are having more problems today with kids not wanting to fail and I believe that has to do with the fact they aren't doing enough hands-on activities and are giving up too easily.
"You get a lot of kids who do Lego, but they need to advance to using real tools and making things out of wood. Kids need more experimental free-play and less electronic devices.
"As a child I built sailing boats that tipped over and kites that didn't fly. Kids today aren't getting accustomed to the fact that sometimes stuff fails. There are some big grown-up things that have failed, like space shuttles and the Titanic. What the engineers have to do is knuckle down and figure out why they had the accident and learn from it."
Grandin was keynote speaker at a the two-day Building Capacity conference in Titanic Belfast earlier this month, organised by Middletown Centre for Autism to mark its 10th anniversary.
The demand for tickets to the conference was high, with five people applying for every space available – a sign of the urgent need for further support and funding within the field of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – the name given to a range of conditions, of varying severity, which affect a person's social interaction, communication and behaviour.
According to a recent report by Department of Health, 'The Prevalence of Autism (including Asperger Syndrome) In School-Age Children In Northern Ireland 2016', the estimated prevalence of autism within the school-aged population has increased from 1.2 per cent in 2008/2009 to 2.3 per cent in 2015/16.
The conference’s goal, like that of Middletown Centre for Autism, was to provide a range of strategies, tools and resources to those affected by autism.
"It is estimated that one in 100 children are affected by autism. But these young people have so much to offer society, and their successes and achievements should be celebrated at every opportunity.
Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers wrote over 200 years ago: 'Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn'," says Gary Cooper, chief executive of Middletown Centre for Autism.
Grandin, who is professor of animal science at Colorado State University and has become a leading expert in designing humane cattle-handling systems, was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people. A 2006 BBC Horizon film documented her work, while in 2010 her life was portrayed by Claire Danes in an Emmy and Golden Globe-winning movie.
Diagnosed with autism at age two, Grandin didn't speak until she was four, and thanks her mother for pushing her to do new things.
While routines and rituals are preferred by most children on the spectrum, the 69-year-old, dressed on her visit to Belfast in her trademark embroidered cowboy shirt, told conference-goers that "to achieve their potential, children on the spectrum need to be stretched to keep learning new skills".
With autism every social interaction has to be taught, so sufficient understandable instruction is important in delivering these "teachable moments".
"We need to give instructions instead of screaming ‘No'," says Grandin, who believes parents can learn a lot from 1950s parenting when it comes to teaching social and job skills.
"My childhood taught me to have good table manners, to take turns in board games and to shake hands with guests at family parties. All children in the autism spectrum should be expected to do daily living tasks that they are capable of doing, such as making their bed."
Grandin, whose book The Loving Push has been a global success, had a firm message for over-protective parents: "Don't shelter them. One of the biggest problems I've seen is kids aren't learning basic social skills, such as saying please and thank you, going into a store independently to buy things or ordering food in restaurants."
Like many people with ASD, she is a visual thinker – something she has used to her advantage in her job as an industrial designer.
"When you think in words, you tend to over-generalise. Visual thinkers are all bottom-up thinkers. You need visual thinkers to prevent messes like Fukushima," she says referring to the placement of back-up generators in low-lying areas of the Japanese factory, thus causing the station to blackout in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Grandin, who would like to see schools foster creativity with classes in art, sewing, cooking, music, woodworking and theatre, highlighted the importance of people who think differently to the history of innovation. These include Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who learned calligraphy, something Grandin said helps explain the beauty of Apple products and their fonts.
When it comes to employment she encourages young people with ASD to build up portfolio of what they can do and thus be able to "avoid interviews and find the back door".
Grandin, who at the age of 13 spent two afternoons a week sewing and at 15 cleaned and fed nine horses, also believes gaining work or volunteer experience before leaving high school is crucial for children with ASD.
"Outside the home, teenagers could walk dogs, fix computers, mow lawns or making greeting cards and selling them," she adds.
ASD: 'THERE NEEDS TO BE A CULTURE OF CHANGE'
ENNISKILLEN mum-of-two Anne Bulloch knows from a personal and professional point of view the challenges facing children with ASD. She is the head of special needs at Devenish College in Enniskillen, where she says that anxiety and the transition to the workplace are two of the most difficult things her students with ASD struggle with.
"There needs to be a culture change when it comes to ASD – not just in schools, but across society. It's getting employers to embrace what these children are capable off. They are going to do a woeful interview, but they may be a wonderful employee."
"We had a boy with high-functioning autism who went to work in computer services. He had no social skills, but he was a whizz. Unlike most employers, they were prepared to let the child see what he could do before judging him."
Anne's nine-year-old son Thomas has severe autism and attends Willowbridge Special School. Her advice to parents, and to herself is "never compare your child with another”.
"If I go to a birthday party with nine-year-old children and I only see the things my son should be doing then I would be totally depressed.
"You look at what your child did last year and what your child can do this year. As long as your child is making progress, albeit small, that's all that's important."
Anne and Thomas were referred to Middletown Centre for Autism (MCAC) three years ago, when Thomas was struggling with biting, due to lack of sensory stimulation and frustration from lack of communication.
"He was looking at me expecting me to read his mind and then he just lashed out because that got a reaction," says Anne.
Working alongside MCAC's Aideen Rutledge, they provided some holistic strategies Thomas could use at school, home and his childminders, such as using chewies and weighed blankets and communicating through pictures.
Anne does worry about Thomas's future.
"He's non-verbal at nine. Is he going to have speech? There's a good possibility he won't. I know his school will provide him a meaningful and productive programme up to the age of 19, but then what?
"Adult services for ASD in Northern Ireland are dire. Parkanaur is the only further education college we have in Northern Ireland. People with ASD achieve their milestones so much later, so what some young people are doing at 17, it would take a person with autism until they are 25 to achieve those skills. And if there is no education programme, do they just sit at home?"
:: For further information on the work of Middletown Centre for Autism, and courses/resources available visit www.middletownautism.com