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Understanding Autism

An overview

Each child is born differently and has their own unique strengths. Today, I’m going to discuss autism. Some might not know what it is and others might want to better understand what it means. For parents of autistic children, you’re doing a remarkable job! I have immense respect for the time, energy and patience you dedicate to your children. It is critical but difficult to make them feel loved, worthy and accepted. As a summer camp counsellor (art therapy and general-bunk) at Ramapo for Children, I have experienced firsthand the fatigue of keeping your energy levels up in order to match those of children on the spectrum. However, working with this population is life changing. As a result, Ramapo was transformative. 

What is Autism?

Autism (ASD) is explained as difficulty with interaction, repetitive behaviour or speech. It is a neurological condition which influences both verbal and non-verbal communication. It also affects social cues. As it exists on the spectrum, it has a range. As per this article and my own observations at Ramapo, 

Someone with Autism could demonstrate:

  • Resistance to change – a preference of “sameness” over “otherness”
  • Difficulty in verbal expression (resulting in the use of gestures)
  • Echolalia (the use of the same word, multiple times)
  • Extreme range of emotions (e.g. laughter turns quickly into tears)
  • Preference of being alone (appears slightly aloof)
  • Social-awkwardness (can’t read social cues easily)
  • May shy away from affection (e.g. doesn’t want to be cuddled)
  • Limited eye contact (sometimes no eye contact)
  • Won’t respond to a traditional method of teaching 
  • Spinning objects/fidgets a lot (may use a fidget-spinner or resorts to stimming)
  • Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain (both physical and emotional)
  • Gross and fine motor skill development follow a different pattern
  • Doesn’t respond to verbal cues (may misread verbal cues or is totally unresponsive)

What is Ramapo for Children?

Ramapo for Children is a residential summer camp in Rhinebeck, NY. It serves a range of children, including special needs children (those who have emotional, behavioural or learning challenges) across 250 acres of land! The Ramapo approach focuses on building a sense of community. Ramapo helps children model their behaviour to meet their aspirations “We believe that all children want the same things – to love, to feel valued and to form friendships.”

What School Could Be If It Were Designed for Kids with Autism

Similarly, Tracy Murray’s approach is reflected in this article by The Atlantic ‘What School Could Be If It Were Designed for Kids With Autism’. I love that Murray’s adoption of the ASD Nest program takes the principles of CFT (compassion-focused therapy) to boost self-esteem (typically lacking in autistic children). This in turn helps them better understand social cues! The clubhouse is a safe space for children to introspect and to self-regulate emotions, while the social clubs provide a great opportunity to develop communication and patience in a group setting! The best part of the program is how inclusive it is. It reminded me of BEEP (Brookline early education program) which I stumbled across on a work trip to Boston. Working in a  special education capacity requires a great deal of empathy. It is evident that the Nest program reflects this trait. 

My conclusion

To anyone who interacts with someone on the spectrum, I can only hope that you are kind, patient and empathetic. To parents, teachers, fellow counsellors and friends to those on the spectrum, some days will be easier than others and I can sympathise with this. Please don’t beat yourself up: apply that same kindness, patience and empathy to yourself as you navigate your relationship, your behaviour and your actions. 

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