DR RADICA MAHASE
MOST movies featuring people with autism portray them as a savant, that is, an individual who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field, usually mathematics or music. In Rainman (1988), Mercury Rising (1998) and The Accountant (2016) the savant syndrome is portrayed well, with the characters all displaying some kind of super abilities.
In reality though, only about one in every ten people on the autism spectrum has some kind of savant skills. Does that mean that the other nine do not have any kinds of skill or talent? Not every child with autism is a genius, but certainly every child has some talent that may or may not be visible or developed.
Little Zidane is only six and is good at many things, especially origami, building towers with his blocks, reading and playing the piano.
His father Imran said, “New things are different with kids with autism and Zidane is no different. He is normally the person who tries new things on his own if he likes it. I have gotten him to try new things like ice cream by making it a game and once he enjoys it, it’s always a plus. But it is always a work in progress.”
Parents and caregivers are usually the first ones to catch their children’s special interests and to nurture these interests. Imran noted, “Being a parent of a child with autism there is never a time when my eyes are not on him. Parents should try to notice what their kids are interested in and help them nurture their interests. Because Zidane likes piano, when he just started playing the piano, we tried to expose him to classical music and tried to watch videos where people liked to do the things he likes.”
In the case of autism, parents usually need to find creative ways to encourage their children to engage in new activities and to help them build their interests. In this case, Imran encourages his son to learn new things and to develop new skills by always making it fun. He noted,
“Zidane is a fun little guy and loves the outdoors so it always easy to get him to explore different things outside. When he likes something, we film it and let him watch it over. He likes seeing himself do things he likes, as he feels like he's on the big screen.”
Many parents in TT have found it difficult to help their children learn new skills and develop their talents. Their financial situations, lack of opportunities within the education system, have prevented individuals on the spectrum from learning a wide range of skills and from having access to persons who can teach them.
So there are many cases where, even if a child is interested in something, opportunities to develop and facilitate those interests are not accessible or available.
However, parents and caregivers beat the odds to create their own opportunities for their children to learn new things, to express their creativity and to develop their interests.
Dr Barbara Mackinaw-Koons, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Ohio State University. noted, “Many parents feel they’re entering unchartered waters when a child can’t succeed in the traditional activities they envisioned for their child.”
She advises parents not to only focus on traditional activities but instead encourage their children to think outside the box. “With individuals who have autism, it often helps to encourage the person to follow personal inclinations, passions – even restricted interests. In this way, the individual can start to build a skill set.”
So if your child is fixated on one thing and that one thing is not exactly considered "mainstream," that’s okay, just encourage your child anyway. Like Imran does with Zidane, come up with creative ways to encourage your child and support him/her in whatever interest. Also, be open to failed attempts – not everything your child do will be a big success.
Parents also need to also get accustomed to their child’s every changing interest – Zidane was interested in music, then he started doing origami and regardless of his interest he is fully supported by his parents.
In the words of Natasa Pantovic Nuit, “Every child is an individual with a different growth rate and a varied and vast potential. Respecting the talent that is hidden within each child, we respect their potential to become kings of their trade or saviours of the world to come.”
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T