Day in the Life
By: Olivia A. Collette
Imagine living in a world where certain colors and textures cause irritation, where carrying on a simple conversation is a strain, where hearing and focusing is a struggle, and where general hand-and-eye coordination is a difficult feat. For 1 in 88 children born today, all or some of these issues are faced on a daily basis. But autism, a disorder that hinders social development and is often diagnosed in early childhood, doesn’t just impact the child who is diagnosed with it.
The current rate of autism has increased significantly over the past decade. There is no race, social class, or particular group of people that is more predisposed to the disorder, but for every girl diagnosed with autism, there are approximately four boys receiving the diagnosis. Although autism is becoming more prevalent in our society, many people are unaware of all the ways autism can affect not only the person with autism, but also their family and those close to them. This article seeks to describe the autism experience via an explanation of a day in the life of a child with autism. I will draw on my experiences with children with autism, but the examples and details given are not based on any one child in particular. It should also be noted that autism is a spectrum; the events described here are not indicative of every child with autism, but rather aim to portray a general understanding of the disorder.
In the home of most school-age children, mornings can often be hurried and stressful. Parents are usually pressed for time getting the child up, dressed, fed, and to school on time. Mornings in the household of a child with autism can be especially harrowing. Helping to dress a child with autism can often be difficult, as they can sometimes be very peculiar about textures and colors. Clothes that would feel completely normal to a typical child can feel uncomfortable for a child with autism because a child who has autism is likely to have a much more sensitive sensory system than a child without autism. Breakfast, like all mealtimes, can sometimes lead to tantrums or outbursts. Many people with autism are very particular about foods; sometimes a child with autism will only eat specific foods, while others will only eat foods of a certain color or texture. It can be very stressful for a parent to handle all of these situations and assure that their child makes it to school on time.
School itself presents even more challenges. The classroom is a place where most children learn social interactions and as well as academic lessons. Generally, students sit in a classroom for six to seven hours a day listening to a teacher and completing assignments. Many children with autism, however, have difficulty hearing and focusing, which makes it hard for them to concentrate on what is happening in a classroom. It is easy for a child with autism to get frustrated in a classroom setting, and it is also very easy for a teacher or fellow classmate to get frustrated with a child who has autism. As a child with autism becomes overwhelmed or upset, they will attempt to self-regulate, and many of the behaviors a child with autism would participate in to attempt to self regulate can be disruptive. These behaviors can include rocking back and forth, snapping fingers, making repetitive noises, flapping the arms and hands, licking objects, etc., depending on the sense that is under- or over-stimulated. It is easy to see how these behaviors might disrupt a class.
Another challenge children with autism face at school is communication. Children without autism often learn how to communicate with peers and adults at school. This is not always so for children with autism, as it can be difficult for them to make eye contact with others, pay attention, and/or follow a typical conversation. Some children on the spectrum also have trouble understanding the subtext of a conversation or understanding body language, which makes it hard for them to form relationships with peers.
Lunch, like breakfast, can be a difficult time for a child with autism. Lunchtime is many students’ favorite time of the day because they can socialize and eat with their friends. For a child with autism, however, lunchtime is not always a pleasant experience. Cafeterias are often crowded and loud, and a child with autism can feel very overwhelmed by the experience. As previously mentioned, children with autism are often very particular about their food. If the cafeteria does not serve what the child likes, or serves something in a way that the child is not used to, the child can become frustrated and act out. When this occurs at school, other children do not understand what is happening and simply think that the child is “weird,” and his or her social development is even further hindered.
Physical education can be another issue for children with autism. A common affect of autism is poor gross motor skills and lack of coordination. Because of this it is often hard to participate in the activities in physical education. For some children with autism, even if the physical ability is present, it can be hard to focus and pay attention to a game or activity, making it hard to participate. This can lead to lack of physical activity in children on the spectrum. In my experience with autism, I have also seen students have a tutor or therapist come to school to work with the child during the school day. Obviously, the child cannot miss class time for these meetings, so they often have to skip physical education class, making it even harder for them to work on their coordination and obtain the exercise they need.
After school a child with autism can participate in various activities. I know one child in particular who plays the trombone in his middle school band. He stays after school on certain days of the week to practice with the band. I also know children who go to tutoring or therapy after school. A problem many families with autism face is afterschool care. Many children with autism I have been around cannot simply ride the bus home and stay alone before their parents come home. This can be a problem for families with two working parents. Often a babysitter must be hired or an after school care program must be used.
Evenings can also be a stressful time in a household of a child with autism. Like breakfast and lunch, dinner can be a problem, and for parents who worked all day, it can be frustrating to have to handle that situation. It can also be difficult to get the child focus on his homework. Often, parents let behaviors slide that could be corrected because they are too tired to address them and do not want to have to deal with the tantrums that could erupt. Bath time can also present an issue, as many children with autism have to have the water temperature just right because they can be very sensitive to water that is too cold or too hot. Also, certain shampoos and soaps can irritate their sensitive skin.
Although this article focuses mainly on the struggles that children with autism often face, it should be noted that there are so many wonderful things about autism. Every person I have met on the spectrum has been loving and kind, and each one has his or her own particular interests. The struggles facing a person on the spectrum and the people close to them are real, but they can be overcome. Spreading awareness and understanding will make the world a more inclusive place for this beautifully unique group of people.