Jessie Hewitson on helping kids with autism to have a happy childhood
Celebrating the positive qualities of autistic children – the kindness, honesty and creativity – and focusing on making them be happy is the aim of writer Jessie Hewitson. She tells Jenny Lee how she has gradually learnt not to worry about her young son's ASD diagnosis
EVERY child has the right to a happy childhood – including children with autism. One mother who is doing her all to ensure her son has just that is Jessie Hewitson, award-winning journalist at The Times.
Jessie has written the book she wished she’d read when her son was first given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and will be sharing some of the experiences that informed her book, as well as taking part in a Q&A, next week as part of Belfast Book Festival.
Autism: Everything You Need To Know About Raising A Happy Autistic Child combines Jessie's own story with tips from autistic adults, other parents, autism professionals and academics.
Her seven-year-old son, Ellis, was diagnosed with ASD at the age of two. While she admits she "spent the first two years feeling devastated", and has endured many challenges, she has learnt to celebrate difference and champion happiness.
"When he was diagnosed with autism, I was in mourning. I felt he would be leading an unhappy, lesser life. But 80 per cent of my worries never materialised. I wish I had known how close we would become; how chatty he would be; that he would have friends and be a funny, caring and sensitive boy."
Through research, trial and error, Jessie, who is also mum to three-year-old Morgan, has adapted their expectations and routines to reduce Ellis's anxiety and to help him cope and be happy.
"Supporting my autistic son to be happy being his autistic self, though living in a non-autistic world is a continuous work in progress," says Jessie who, in researching her book, spoke to many autistic adults who made her think differently about autism and feel more positive towards her son's future.
"Appreciating autism as a difference rather than a disorder really came about by speaking to autistic adults. I spoke to people were in long-term relationships and successful, albeit many in self-employment. I spoke to a successful journalist who has had nine books published and a programmer in the BBC who helped develop develop the iPlayer."
Now when Jessie is unsure of how to approach something with her son, she will message her autistic friends and unfailingly receive brilliant advice.
Often her first person to ask is Laura James, author of Odd Girl Out, who will be joining her at the Belfast Book Festival. Laura wasn't diagnosed with autism until her 40s, after she had forged a career for herself, married twice and raised four children.
"Recently Ellis was going through a stage of shouting and screaming and Laura suggested telling Ellis this wasn't appropriate behaviour by writing down why you don't shout in a very logical way – such as we don't shout because it hurts other people's ears and then they don't want to do what we want them to do. And on the same page I gave him suggestions of what he could do rather than shout," she explains.
Just as typically developing children need to develop skills to become successful adults, children with autism require the same. Through her own journey the piece of advice Jessie would like to pass on to fellow parents of children with autism, as well as professionals and teachers working with these children, is "help them be happy".
"There are very scary rates of mental health problems among autistic adults and one of the key contributing factors to this was that in the past, parents tried to help their children by reducing autistic behaviour and training their autistic child to mimic non-autistic children."
Many autistic children engage in self-stimulating behaviour, such as spinning around, flapping their hands or making noises, to cope with anxiety, but also when they are excited or happy.
Jessies advise is to "fix the environment, not the person". "If having a happy child is your goal, it's best to focus on stopping what's causing them anxiety and remove your child from an environment or situation that is causing them stress. Take away the 'stimming' and you take away their coping mechanism,"
Many people with autism also have sensory difficulties in processing sound, sight, touch, smell and taste, which is why a trip to a supermarket with flourescent lighting, background music and loudspeaker announcements can be very difficult for them.
"The modern world wasn't designed with autistic children in mind, so we need to adapt it to their needs," advises Jessie, who also uses visual timetables and familiar routines in structuring Ellis's life, particularly at holiday time, when the lack of the familiar school routine can cause distress.
Jessie's message to non-autistic parents and society in general is to learn more about autism and how we can help integrate these people into their communities.
"There are autistic children who prefer to be left alone and they shouldn't be forced to make friends. But don't assume all autistic children don't want to have friends. To be given that birthday party invite could mean the world to both the child and their parents. Parenting an autistic child can be isolating, so don't be afraid to approach them, ask them how they are and how you can support them and their child."
:: Jessie Jessie and Laura James: Understanding Autism at Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre on Monday June 11 as part of The Belfast Book Festival. For full programme and tickets visit Belfastbookfestival.com