My son has autism but has only every hit someone once. Actually, he kicked them. And it wasn’t his fault.
I received a call from his teacher saying Giovanni had gotten into trouble that day for kicking a boy in his class but they were quick to explain that it wasn’t his fault and he wasn’t in as much trouble as the other boy.
The conversation went something like this:
ME: Why did he kick him?
TEACHER: Because the other boy kicked Giovanni’s lunch order.
ME: (Stifling laughter) Oh, I see. Giovanni really enjoys his food so I can understand why he was so upset.
TEACHER: (Sounded like she was smiling) Yes, he does enjoy his food. We spoke to them both but just wanted to let you know that it wasn’t his fault.
ME: Still, he shouldn’t kick anyone.
Oh, actually, there was one more incident. I was forcing him to play soccer during my Force Giovanni To Act Normal stage and it ended in disaster. Most weeks he would refuse to play and cry on the sidelines. One week after I had shoved him on the field and he was chasing the ball his teammate got there first.
Giovanni, who clearly didn’t understand the concept of teamwork and still doesn’t was so upset he punched him in the stomach. Yep, he punched the coach’s son.
I was so devastated the coach had to console me as well as his son. That was the day I pulled Giovanni out of soccer and he started martial arts.
Author Kathy Lette spoke to Mia Freedman on the No Filter Podcast about why we need to change our view of autism. Article continues after this video.
And I don’t mean to make light of children with autism who are violent and who do lash out at neuro-typical kids. I’m just telling this story because that was the first time after Giovanni’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that I felt a moment of relief.
I thought, “Thank goodness Giovanni isn’t one of those violent autistic kids.”
Yesterday a distressed mum wrote a post called, “I know your child has autism. That doesn’t make it okay when she hits mine.” She explained that her child has autism as well and that when she approached the mum at the playground to explain that her child had hit her daughter, the mum announced that her child had autism, like it was a Get Out Of Jail Free card.
Which it isn’t.
It is a wonderful article you should take the time to read because it talks about something that can be easy to forget, which is that parents are responsible for their child’s behaviour in public, whether they are on the autism spectrum or not.
That doesn’t mean it is a parent’s fault if their child throws a tantrum or hits another child, it means it is that parent’s responsibility to keep their eye on their child and deal with any incidents properly.
Regardless of how tired or fed up they are.
But the difference with autism is that it takes education and training to learn how to lead your child through social interactions. Before I started spending time with my son at his occupational therapy I was clueless. I’d use all of the threats and punishments and methods I’d successfully used on my other kids, making the situation worse.
And not teaching Giovanni the things he needed to learn, because he couldn’t understand what was going on.
Giovanni is a big boy, wide and strong. If he wanted to he could defend himself quite nicely against the boys at school who tease him and the ones on the bus who throw water on him, but he never does.
Instead he collapses into a crying mess, unable to understand why someone would do that to him and completely clueless as to how to deal with it.
What I want everyone to remember after reading the article in question is that it's not just children with autism who are violent. Lots of kids are.
And each and every incident needs to be dealt with seriously, even if we are tired, because every single time we take the time to lead our child through the incident and explain why they didn't make the right choice, we prevent several more incidents.
The time you take to teach them is your responsibility each and every time, and it's worth it.
I don't think my son would have apologised in this situation either, but that wouldn't have stopped me from apologising for him before leading he and the other child away for a quiet moment. Children with autism do better when things are explained quietly, away from a crowd.
"Darling, remember we talked about hitting, and how that's not the right choice to make. Even when you are upset?"
At this point he would be doing his sideways stare at the ground but he'd be listening, because holding his hands prompts him to listen.
I'd kneel down in front of him, take his hands and say:
"So if something upsets you and you can't find the words to say, come to me and we'll figure it out. But we don't hit other children. That's not the right choice."
At this point he might be glancing up at me, signalling I was getting through.
Then I'd say:
"I want you to say sorry for hitting and then we can play."
Hopefully at this point he would say sorry but regardless, the lesson would have been learned and the other parent and child would feel the incident had been dealt with adequately.
We need to get serious about autism in this country. We need to start diagnosing it earlier and beginning treatment at a much younger age. It took me three years to have my son formally diagnosed because our GP and his preschool teachers were not trained to recognise the signs of autism and because I was dealing with family members who were in denial.
I still meet so many parents who are in denial about their children. They come up to me and start conversations with me because Giovanni and I are open about his diagnosis. They dig a little and ask my opinion and then explain why their son isn't autistic.
I always say the same thing. "You are thinking about it so you owe it to yourself and your child to find out for sure."
Then childcare centres, preschools, schools and all businesses need to get serious about how they run their organisations, by employing people who are trained to assist children with challenges.
One in 63 children in Australian schools has a formal autism diagnosis and that staggering statistic doesn't account for all of those children who haven't been diagnosed. The fact all schools don't have an occupational therapist on staff boggles my mind. All children, especially children on the spectrum, need early and effective intervention.
And we all need to do it together.
Early diagnosis and early intervention are KEY. I can't stress that enough.
You do not have the luxury of denial and you don't have the luxury of not dealing with your child's behaviour.
Giovanni has made so much progress since his formal diagnosis 18 months ago because I found an incredible occupational therapist to work with him. His school weren't able to assist him, his teacher's didn't know how to assist him and I had no idea what to do with him.
By finding a good occupational therapist, and paying her to attend his school, Giovanni, his teacher and I all learned how best to help him.
But it's always about the cost. The cost of diagnosing and treating a child with challenges is prohibitive. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is attempting to address it but it is a slow and painful process.
The bottom line is we all need to come together, as early as possible, and deal with children and all of their issues and challenges together.
That's why I talk about my son's autism so often. That's why I read this mum's article. That's why I'm writing this.
And that's why I invite you to become part of the conversation. Because we all benefit from being open and honest about this. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our children.