I’ve been a nanny for nigh on ten years now and I’ve worked with a huge number of children and parents. One thing I have encountered quite frequently is an anxiety about autism in young children. First let me say that I am not a doctor and obviously your first port of call if you suspect your child might be autistic is to consult an experienced physician. And second, let me say that autism isn’t an illness, and although it certainly has its challenges and degrees of severity, it’s by no means anything to fear. The Autistic children that I have worked with have been some of my most treasured assignments. One of the mothers with an autistic child was very shrewd when she once remarked to me: “It’s just a different way of looking at the world. It’s my job to help her connect.”
Everybody who has autism in their life quickly becomes acquainted with the spectrum. The spectrum is a diagnosis tool that allows doctors to define the nature and severity of the condition. These can range from classic Autism to Asperger’s Syndrome to Pervasive Developmental Disorder. All these points on the spectrum have different challenges but here’s a broad look at the behaviours an as-yet undiagnosed Autistic child might display:
- Difficulty in mastering communication and language skills
– A few years ago I looked after Gregory, a two year old, subsequently diagnosed with Autism who had some command of language but had difficulty in connecting with anyone around him. He would repeat the same word over and over again, as though it was the most fascinating collection of sounds he had ever encountered. He had real difficulty in relating to people, and seemed to populate his own little world with sound and movement, with no real room for anyone else. This is a very common observation when dealing with children with autism.
- Playing with toys and object in unusual ways
Gregory would also take an esoteric approach when playing with his toys. Like a lot of kids his age, he was obsessed with Thomas The Tank Engine but instead of running his vast collection of choo-choo trains along the track like the majority of other infants, he would spend hours spinning Percy’s (always Percy’s) wheels and delighting in the whirring sound it produced. An obsession with spinning and circles is also often symptomatic of some degree of autism.
- A resistance to breaks in routine
Gregory and I became very close. I showed up at 7am and left at 7pm, his bedtime. Scheduling was everything. If there was a deviation from this routine, he found it enormously difficult to cope. His parents used to dread taking him on holiday as the change in location would distress him to a state of near-constant tantrum. Even weekends had to be held to strict time regime or else all hell would break loose. This is a very common symptom across the autism spectrum and one with which parents quickly become familiar.
- Repetitive body movements
This can be a complicated stage for parents to witness as these movements can be as simple as a repeated series of movements whilst playing, a kind of self-soothing such as stroking or applying pressure to the body or a violent self-harming action like banging their head against a wall. This kind of self-stimulatory behaviour, or ‘stimming’ can take many forms and in Gregory’s case it was a fascination with spinning around and around in a circle to calm himself. These behaviours can be immensely soothing to the child, or incredibly destructive and it’s up to parents to determine what’s best for their individual child. Like any neurological state, the extent and expression of Autism varies wildly from person to person and certainly when I take on new nursery jobs I look carefully at the extent to which I will be required to support the child and, just as important, their parents. Although it may not always feel like, particularly after the twelfth-hundredth time you watch Thomas or whatever their new obsession might be, neurodiversity is a gift and loving an autism child provides as much humour, beauty and surprise as any neurotypical infant. The challenge may express themselves differently, but as that wise mother said, your job is not to suppress or ‘cure’ them, but help them connect, to give them the best chance to flourish.
Lucy Hawkins is a nursery nurse and a freelance blogger for Nursery World Jobs.