DR RADICA MAHASE
NATHAN is seven years old while his sister Gabby is nine years old. Nathan was diagnosed with autism at age three and his parents have worked tirelessly to get him all the help he needs. He is enrolled in a private special school and he attends speech and occupational therapy sessions weekly. Over the years, his parents have seen him become more independent and he manages better at school and at home.
Nathan usually has a difficult time in social situations though. Regular places like shopping malls and cinemas can be overwhelming for him because of his sensory issues. He loves Christmas but the lights are usually too bright for him and the Christmas parties that he attends at both his parents’ workplaces are always too loud. Every year his parents would take him to their companies’ Christmas parties and every year he would become overwhelmed and have meltdowns.
Many children with autism have sensory issues. This means that one or more senses are either over or under-reactive to stimulation. For some it might be noise, for others it can be lights, the type of material touching their skin or particular types of food. These can be uncomfortable and even painful for the special needs child. Thus, for them to be comfortable and to be able to cope with the stimulus, it is important to make their environment a sensory-friendly space. This means reducing the amount of sensory stimuli so that individuals with autism can tolerate being in that space – less noise, natural light, etc.
Last Sunday, Support Autism T&T hosted a sensory-friendly autism Christmas party for children with autism and their siblings. The purpose of the autism Christmas party is two-fold. Like Nathan, many kids with autism will get the opportunity to attend various events for kids but many of them are unable to truly enjoy the experience because of sensory overload. The autism Christmas party provides a space that is as accommodating as possible; a noise/music-free space with natural lighting; a space to move around freely, with art and craft activities for visual learners, to stimulate them intellectually.
On another level, the autism Christmas party is an opportunity for the children who have been diagnosed with autism to spend time with their siblings. Activities are organised for everyone and the brothers and sisters are also encouraged to participate in these. Through participation in fun activities with each other, in a controlled environment, siblings are allowed to create a bond which will facilitate more positive interactions in the home. Also, the children with autism are given educational presents that they can use at home with their siblings. Thus, Nathan is given an opportunity to participate in fun activities with Gabby and when they get home, Gabby can help him with his craft or book or whatever presents that Santa gave him. In this way both children enjoy the Christmas party and both receive presents that are aligned to their developmental age.
These are the little things that we do not think about as a society. But in the life of a child with autism, these are not little things. Being able to participate in an event, to have fun with one’s siblings, to really enjoy activities which were developed especially with you in mind, can go a long way to helping the individual’s mental development. In the midst of all the celebrations, as a society, we tend to forget that there are many children who cannot participate because events are not accommodating of their needs.
However, with a little bit of consideration and pre-planning these children can be included in everyday activities. A good example is Santa’s visit at various shopping malls throughout the country. Maybe Santa can reserve some time for those with special needs? Maybe even have a separate Santa in a more private area just for those with special needs? How about reserving a few parking spaces so that the child with special needs can get in and out quickly? It might take a little extra effort to organise but it’s definitely not impossible. If we make tiny steps towards inclusion, eventually inclusion can be a regular feature of our society. Nathan’s and every other child’s needs should be taken into consideration when we are planning events for children. Surely Santa wants to see every little boy and girl, specials needs included.
Photos by Sataish Rampersad
Dr Radica Mahase
Founder/Director, Support Autism T&T