In our focus during World Autism Awareness Month, we provide exclusive advice from Dr John Irvine.

Being a parent with a child with Autism can be stressful and rewarding; in the third article for World Autism Awareness Month, Dr John's practical advice for parents is a must-read. 

Eva had been waiting to see me about Jack for a long time after he had been diagnosed by their paediatrician as ASD. She had all her questions written down. Her husband sat silently beside her.

  • Will he grow out of it?
  • Will he ever have friends?
  • Will he be able to fit into the mainstream classes at school?
  • How do I handle his incredible melt-downs when something doesn’t go right for him or he doesn’t get his own way?
  • How do I teach him to share – he just doesn’t get it?
  • How do I handle his incredible obsessions with “Thomas the tank engine”, with “Angry Birds”, and just so fussy about everything?
  • How do I handle his fears about anything new?

So I answered her questions, put her in touch with the local support group, referred her to Aspect for further assessment and professional support, gave Eva some reading material we had in the READ clinic and let her borrow Tony Attwood’s book “Asperger’s Syndrome”

I also gave her Twitch, the little cuddly monster of frustration from the WorryWoos series. Jack had become quite fascinated by this odd ball creature. Eva has made terrific progress and is very proud of the progress Jack is making.

At our last meeting, Eva was saying how hard it was to explain to friends and playmates what was going on. They just saw a self-centred boy who was not an easy child to get to know. Eva asked me what she should say to them to help them understand.

This was my advice in summary:

  • Ask the teacher to do a theme in the class on individual differences – no one is better than anyone else, just that some are tall, some are short etc, some are good at art (Jack was very good) and some aren’t, some are good at making friends and some find it harder etc. We also asked the teacher if she would do a get to know you by each child saying what they liked or admired in each other.
  • Perhaps look up the web, any ASD site you find useful but I quite like Maybe even photocopy a couple of pages for them to read.
  • Chat about the latest research and their two main areas of difficulty – one of course is communication and social skills, the other is their often very special but sometimes unusual interests.
  • As part of that chat, mention that kids with ASD function much better if the instructions are specific, and if they’re not to rushed or have to cope with too much new stuff, as they find change difficult.
  • Maybe get Jack to do some art for your friends as his way of showing friendship.

With goodwill and genuine interest, lots of good learning about each other will occur. That has been my experience.

Jack has really taken to Twitch from the WorryWoo series - says he likes the horns and the colour purple. But I have another child with similar difficulties who just loves Squeek. In fact if Luke won’t stay in his bed, mum just has to say that she will give Squeek to his sister if he doesn’t need it and young Luke really tries to stay in his bed. 

Most kids like their cuddly toys but because the Worrywoo characters are nice, and soft and colourful but a bit kinky, these kids really seem to like them. But the series offers more than that. Kids with ASD often have trouble exploring feelings with adults. Research from Cambridge University (see found that kids with ASD often explored and learnt about feelings better from animating machines and non-human characters. This might be part of the appeal of the WorryWoos. There are trials underway exploring this possibility.

For those readers who work with or live with a child with ASD, let me just share a few tips.

  • Don‘t try to do the journey alone - link up with other similar families both for ideas and friendship.
  • Don’t see a diagnosis of ASD as a life sentence – in 95% of ways these kids are just like the rest of us – we all have quirks and we all have the same needs fo caring, love, understanding, encouragement and respect. I have personally seen many of these kids grow up to be major contributors to society in their own gifted field. They love in their own way.
  • Be proud of your child’s talents but understand that outsiders may be a little timid. Be comfortable in sharing what they need to know. If they elect to increase the social distance, then you don’t need their issues anyway.
  • Talk to your paediatrician about some of the symptoms if they are causing significant concern – in some cases I have seen medication play a very constructive role in the growing years.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself for finding the going tough at times. That’s called parenthood and every child presents challenges, whatever their personality. Just make sure you look after yourself so you can do the best by the kids. As Alvin Toffler said “parenthood is the last province of the amateur”. Your child is much better in the hands of an authentic amateur, rather than a perfect parent!

In support of World Autism Awareness Month and the ‘Go colourful for autism' initiative by Autism Spectrum Australia our team will bring you exclusive information, expert insight and a huge range of activities to enhance the learning experience of children identified with Autism.

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Dr John appears exclusively for Educational Experience.