By Brett Eastwick
I have been asked many times if it is harder being a parent to a child who has autism. It is not an easy question to answer. Having the perspective of raising children who are more typically developing and functioning, you would think it would be easy to determine how difficult or easy it is. It just isn’t.
There are areas that, of course, are easier. Communication stands out as a major area that is easier as a parent (until they become teenagers, that is. After that, good luck). Being able to communicate directly and effectively makes life easier for your child and you. Simple things like hearing “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m happy” allow those around a child to take care of his needs and wants. Now, imagine not having that ability. Imagine that part of your brain being shut off, or only able to speak French around people who do not, or, perhaps even worse, being mute. And your hands won’t move. That is what it can be like for a person with autism.
Teaching a child how to communicate is, to say the least, a challenge. I have learners find echoics, whether just words or phrases, difficult to repeat or even aversive. Prolonged eye contact may also be a challenge for them. So much time and effort may result in being just as frustrating for both parties. I have asked myself, “Why can’t I teach my son to speak?” He can make sounds, imitate them, show you a person or item if you ask him to do so. Why can’t he speak?? The answer is easy. He has autism. He is unable to communicate the same way I do, the same way his mother and siblings do. The solution then, is clear. We have to learn how to communicate in a way in which HE is able to learn.
My son, Wyatt, uses ASL(American Sign Language)to make and maintain contact with the verbal world. It is what allows those around him to access his world. ASL is as real a language as English, Spanish or any spoken language. This is what he was able to learn to communicate with us. Why wouldn’t we use it to communicate with him? Some people ask me if I wish Wyatt could speak, if I wish he could just say, “I love you, Dad.” He does that every day. His hands are graceful and fluent. His communication is direct. Wyatt means what he says. Sign language allows his means of communication to be all that much more effective.
Brett is a therapist at Little Star Center.