WEDNESDAY WOMAN: Voice for autistic children
AUTISM IS A LIFELONG developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.
It also affects how people make sense of the world around them as they have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination.
And according to Dr Vicky Spencer, professor of special needs education and learning disabilities at George Mason University, Virginia, United States, the reality is that the number of children being diagnosed with autism worldwide is climbing.
She indicated that the last study which was done in the United States in 2009 showed that one child in every 102 births would be identified with autism.
Speaking to the MIDWEEK NATION during a special visit to schools that cater to children with learning disabilities and special needs, the professor admitted that this rate was “extremely high”.
However, Spencer, whose two-week visit was sponsored by the United States Embassy’s Fulbright Specialist Programme, said that while research on autism was ongoing worldwide, there were still many questions about the spectrum to be answered.
She said that while the answers to these questions were being searched for, it was important for countries across the world to implement programmes and systems to properly cater to autistic individuals.
She congratulated and praised Barbados for doing such.
“Barbados is very much aware of children with autism. You can’t not be aware of those children because they will make sure you know who they are. In terms of ‘Do we have enough support in place here on the island?’
“We don’t even have enough support in place in the United States.”
Spencer said the number of children being diagnosed with autism was “climbing drastically”.
She said every day in the United States authorities were working towards getting more training and support for teachers, and the same thing was happening in Barbados.
The facilitator, who has over 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher, university professor, disability specialist and parent consultant, explained that much focus should be placed on training teachers dealing with autistic children since autism was a very special disability.
“If you go into a classroom where there is one teacher with five or six children with autism, that is extremely difficult because of the behavioural issues children with autism have.
“If one child throws a tantrum or indulges in behaviour that takes the teacher’s full, undivided attention, you have got four or five other kids unattended,” she said, adding that, “it is really important to have at least two people in a classroom with so many autistic children”.
“Parents need training too,” said Spencer.
She pointed out that a teacher is with an autistic child six to seven hours a day, but a parent is with that child, sometimes around the clock, so they too need to have support and training.
“The parent is the child’s first teacher. What we encourage in the United States is that parents and children work together because when teachers try new interventions in the classroom, it’s really helpful if mum and dad work on these same things at home because then we will have consistency.
“It won’t help if a child has to follow all the interventions and support systems at school, but then when the child goes home [it says] I can do what I want because I only have to behave a certain way at school.
“Dealing with autism is not just a teacher’s, or government’s fight, it is a worldwide fight,” she said.