A local mum and member of the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland wants to help other parents/carers of autistic children get the most out of the school holidays and increase people’s understanding of autism. HELEN MCGURK finds out more
SCHOOL summer holidays can present a real challenge for parents of children with autism in Northern Ireland. People with autism often encounter significant barriers in communication, social situations and making sense of the world around them.
Co Down mum Sharon Fennell whose 11-year-old son Ryan has autism explained: “The schools here close for two months in the summer. While we can use this time to meet new people, and enjoy new experiences, many children with autism rely heavily on a routine and the change can be disorientating. Some children and young people find coping without their normal routine frightening and upsetting and for many, the sensory overload can sometimes be tough for a child with autism.
“Parents of a child with autism want them to have a fantastic summer but when days don’t go so well you can feel isolated and even a bit of a failure. I’d like parents of a child with autism to know that there are at least 35,000 mums and dads in Northern Ireland who have similar experiences and great advice to share. Many of them are members of the local Northern Ireland branches of the NAS.”
Sharon has a request for people who may not be aware of the condition.
“Sometimes when you’re out and about in the holidays and your child is confronted with the unexpected or when they are overloaded with sensory information, they can panic and react in quite a dramatic way. It can be difficult when it happens in a public place. Autism isn’t readily visible, so to an outside observer it can look like your child is just being naughty when they are actually struggling hard to understand what’s going on around them.
“Some people stop and stare and even make thoughtless comments while you are busy and doing your best to support and calm your child. Their disapproval only adds to what can be an already difficult situation. When we’re sharing public spaces it would be lovely for people to understand that people of all kinds have a right to exist and be out and about.’’
Sharon added: “If more people understood and knew about autism, they would recognise what is really going on when my child is struggling, they would see that he is not merely “bold” and appreciate that he and I are doing our absolute best in tricky circumstances. That would so much more helpful than judging me or my son. It would be lovely if people could show a little more kindness, smile, and maybe even ask, “is there anything I can do to help?” That would be truly heroic!”
Sharon has some simple advice that can help families get the most out of the summer break.
“My top tip is to create some type of structure for the holidays.
“It helps my son to have an idea of what to expect each day. We write all our big events like holidays, birthdays, summer scheme days and when school starts back on the family calendar and he likes to look ahead and get an overall picture of what will be happening. His father lives in a different house and it helps him to know in advance when we will be staying there so all this information is marked on the calendar so he can access it.
“Each evening, we talk about what will happen the next day. When he was younger and had less verbal ability, I would draw pictures describing the day ahead in comic strip form. I’d sometimes also use picture cards and photos attached to a board with velcro or blue tac. As he got older I was able to write a list of the day’s tasks and events. It still helps him to have this list to focus on.’’
Sharon said when going places it pays to prepare and plan ahead as much as possible.
‘‘It helps to make sure I will be able to get my son food he enjoys or to bring some with me. I like to know possible problematic areas; when he was younger it was difficult to go anywhere that sold pic’n’mix sweets and he thought those plastic jars and scoops were an open invitation to small sticky hands and keeping him away was difficult.
“Some places allow carers to enter free when accompanying a disabled person; it’s always worth asking what discounts are available. When we go somewhere busy like a theme park, I tend to dress Ryan in a distinctive top that I would recognise from afar. I made a few t-shirts with slogans that inform people of his autism in a positive and funny way, or he may wear a lanyard around his neck with his NAS membership card on one side and my phone number and a slogan like “awesome autistic dude!” on the other. These help people to recognise that this child has a disability and I find the vast majority of people are more considerate and sensitive when they are aware.’’
Shirelle Stewart, co-director of National Autistic Society Northern Ireland said: “Children with autism want to have friends, go on outings and have fun in the summer holidays, just like any other child. Acceptance and understanding from the public can make holiday times less stressful for children with autism and their families and help them get the most out of their summer break.”
The National Autistic Society Northern Ireland provides a wide range of advice, information, support and specialist services to people with autism and their families.
For further information contact: 028 9068 7066 or email firstname.lastname@example.org