Autism has established a defining presence in modern
society. About one in every 88 children born each year in New
Zealand is diagnosed with the disorder. Shey Pope-Mayell, a
year 13 pupil at Wakatipu High School, sheds some light on
the issue of living with autism.
Imagine a world alone - a world parallel to our own, similar
in every physical sense, but deprived of the ''normal''
regimes the citizens of modern society have come to live by.
This world is seemingly sparse of emotion, understanding and
even affection. This is the ''world'' your autistic child is
likely trapped in, though they probably cannot express it
Though no official definition has been stated, autism has
been generalised as a neurological impairment that can
significantly hinder a person's ability to communicate and
Autism has established a defining presence in modern society,
around one in every 88 children born each year being
diagnosed with the disorder.
No matter if you are a parent, uncle or aunt, friend or
sibling (like myself) of an autistic child, that is a truly
Especially considering how frightfully misunderstood and
stigmatised autism has been since the name was coined in
Social disinterest, lack of empathy for others, lack of
verbal communication, delayed toilet training, obsessions
with routine - it is enough to drive anyone at least a little
potty (pun intended).
Fear not! For these are stigmas upon which, throughout this
self-help discourse, I will attempt to shed the much-needed
light of understanding.
One of the most common emotions parents of recently diagnosed
children contend with is denial.
Denial that their child (neurologically at least) will never
be quite the same as their peers.
Denial that their child may never experience mainstream
But most heart-wrenchingly, denial that they as parents may
never truly know their child.
Since Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined the term autism
in the early 20th century, positively diagnosed children have
been stereotyped derogatorily as Kanner's babies, meaning the
autism symptoms present in children are supposedly caused by
the coldness and aloofness of their mothers during early
With this kind of implication being directed at mothers, it
is no wonder why people like yourself would want to deny the
presence of autism in your baby and isolate yourselves in the
kingdom of solitude and safety your family home becomes.
It is your sanctuary, away from the threatening and
judgemental serpents of the outside world.
But do you really want to do that? Do you really think that
is what your life should come to?
Well let me tell you, it should not!
And I speak from experience.
My eldest sister was diagnosed with a mild form of autism
when she was 8 years old, and my parents never gave up.
Instead of introverting themselves in an attempt to be free
from people's judgement, they set out on a restless road to
understanding, which started by seeking out an autism
specialist shortly after her diagnosis, in the belief early
intervention was the key to giving their child the best
chance at success.
They were right.
She recently graduated university with high honours and is
preparing to study for a master's degree in applied sciences.
Regardless of whether your child's aptitudes are in academia,
the arts or sport, if my family's story is anything to go by,
early intervention is your best friend when raising an
In support of this, New Zealand's leading autism research
centre, Autism New Zealand, has established itself as the
pre-eminent provider of services and support for people on
the autism spectrum and those who support them, and has
proven to be a great supporter of intervention as a tool for
So denial will not help with anything - not with moving
forward with your life and certainly not with understanding
of your child.
It is the busy shopping season at your local shopping mall.
You and your child walk intently through the crowded shops
going about your daily routine, when suddenly your child
stops dead in his/her tracks, clamps their hands over their
ears and starts to scream frantically.
You place your arms around them gently and speak reassurances
in an attempt to comfort them, but to no avail.
The hordes of people stop and stare at you both with
judgemental glares and looks of disapproval on their faces.
I want you to imagine the helplessness, the frustration, and
the emotion that not the parent, but the child would be
Autistic children have been proven to have different neural
pathways connecting different sections of their brains.
This can cause them to perceive certain stimuli like sounds,
smells and even touch differently to us.
According to the worldwide influential organisation Autism
Speaks, a staggering 25% of all autistic children worldwide
However, just because they may be unable to verbally express
themselves, it should never suggest they do not have an
identical range of emotions to us.
They feel anger, they feel frustration and they feel sadness,
just like you and me.
The key is to learn to identify this and to respect your
child's particular differences, because after all, not all
people, autistic or neurotypical, are alike.
The relationship between autistic children and their parents
can lead siblings of that child to become jealous and feel
alone as their high-maintenance sibling may be taking up all
the parents' time and attention.
This is another compelling reason why early intervention is
absolutely essential for helping autistic individuals become
If not, the relationship between the parents and siblings may
potentially be damaged, permanently.
A popular media example of a person disrespecting and taking
advantage of an autistic person is the infamous film Rain
The film portrays the story of Raymond, an autistic savant
with aptitude for mathematics, and his opportunistic older
brother Charlie, who, upon discovering his brother's talent,
uses him as a card counter in Las Vegas casinos.
Now I know what you are thinking: Raymond was a grown man,
not to mention a talented savant.
And while this is true, one must not forget that many
autistic people see relationships (particularly those with
family) as being based on trust, whereas you might perceive
relationships as being based on circumstance.
With this in mind, Raymond was simply seen by his brother as
a pawn for him to manoeuvre for his own gain, while Raymond,
with his trusting nature, obliged.
Rain Man has become one of the most influential
autism-themed films of all time.
However, many people associate autism with the very specific
personality quirks Raymond had, and forget every child is an
The stereotypical characteristics of Raymond could turn into
a profound hindrance for your child.
Some people may see them as an easy target to be taken
advantage of, and others may see your child as being of
savant ability and have unrealistic expectations of them.
The media can also have very positive effects on people's
understanding of autism, as seen in the documentary film
The Horse Boy, which portrays the inspirational story
of a father's journey towards healing his autistic son's
hindering ailments like social isolation and tantruming.
I am sure it speaks personally to many parents who may be
troubled by similar issues, which in my experience is a far
more positive and helpful message to people who might not
understand exactly what autistic families are going through.
What about your youngster's success and wellbeing in the
From my experiences of observing my autistic sister and her
career in primary and secondary education, the words
''educational excellence'' have a far broader definition than
I first thought, and apply specifically to the passions of
Firstly, teachers must understand no two autistic children
are the same, and specific learning methods must be designed
to reflect the needs of the individual.
For example, many autistic students will learn and recall
information if taught with visual stimulus such as flashcards
rather than outdated techniques such as rote learning.
Secondly, autistic children generally learn best from one to
one interaction rather than group work.
Unfortunately, modern methods of education are more suited to
extroverted learners, who enjoy group education with three to
four other peers.
Your child is probably suffering from social anxiety enough
already, without their school system pouring salt in their
But as hopeless as it may seem to assert yourselves against
the ideals of mainstream education, there are certain things
you can do to take control.
Understanding is the key to success.
With this in mind; organising parent-teacher conferences to
make their teacher understand why your child needs what they
need in order to succeed would be an appropriate first step
Helpful discussion topics may include how to increase
productivity in classroom sessions, encouraging teachers to
facilitate small group work involving only one or two other
peers when assignments are set, and if necessary, informing
teachers of when to allow a child to be excused from an
One other option you might consider is removing your child
from their current school and placing them in a new one, as
my parents did when my sister's private school was not
meeting her preferences.
Especially considering that, after they did this and
introduced her to a home-schooling programme, her test
results increased drastically from an average of 2% to 60% in
just one year.
However, I realise this prospect might not be possible for
all, due to differing issues ranging from finance to locale
and to family.
The third option is to seek help from outside the school
system, which could be provided by the Children's Foundation
For Autism, which is committed to seeing the education system
and society fully accept and include people with autism.
Autism may not have a specific definition but, for better or
worse, it depends entirely on how the people of society
choose to interpret it.
Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be stigmatic,
ambiguous or abhorrent.
Unfortunately, however, the world is far from perfect, and
that is why I have made it my mission in this guide to give
parents the tools they need to educate both themselves and
others about their children and exactly how to relate to