Managing the Social Aspects of Autism
Posted on January 5, 2019 by All In
As parents of children with autism, it can be overwhelming having to handle your child’s health related problems. On top of that, there’s the educational and intervention programmes, financial matters and the day-to-day stresses of living with autism to worry about.
Receiving social and emotional support can make things a lot less daunting and a lot more manageable for caregivers and parents of children with autism. Schools, healthcare professionals, organisations, family members, friends and the wider community all have important parts to play. Together, a safer environment that is aware of the needs of caregivers and people with autism alike can be created so that their well-being is ensured, thus fostering an inclusive society for everyone.
Overcoming Stigma and Prejudice
People with autism have different needs and can behave differently from what the public is used to. As both parents of children with autism and people with autism, insensitive remarks, unwarranted looks and unfounded assumptions are common issues. The stigma and prejudice towards people with autism can often lead to social isolation, depression, discrimination and bullying in schools or even in the workplace. For a peek into how the stigma manifests itself in the Singapore context, you can read more in this article published by TODAY on how the general public treats children with special needs and their families.
The issues faced also extend to the parents and caretakers of children with autism, who may feel unwelcome, shameful and/or isolated, leading to similar mental health issues and even familial problems. Such stigma and prejudice may also deter parents and family members from seeking professional help, such as getting a professional diagnosis or enrolling their child in programmes that cater to special needs. These may lead to further social isolation for both parent and child, and may even prevent children with autism from receiving the help they need.
Public perceptions and attitudes
Public spaces can be unpleasant for people with autism and their caregivers. In the event of a meltdown, display of atypical, antisocial behaviour or disruptive actions, hurtful remarks may be made by passerby. They could range from the child’s lack of discipline to questionable parenting abilities. Parents of children with autism may also attract unwanted attention and become subjects of silent judgment.
Other common reactions from the public include distancing themselves from people with autism, or outright ostracism. This makes it harder for children with autism to socialise with their peers, increasing the difficulties faced in terms of developing their social skills.
While public perception and understanding of autism have been improving over the years, the appearance of normality for people with autism means that it remains a difficult task to explain their antisocial or atypical behaviour to the uninformed onlooker. In order to be treated with understanding, tolerance and respect, parents may find it necessary to reveal that their child has autism.
How Caregivers Can Help Their Children Improve Social Skills
The following methods can also be adopted in the home environment.
1. Social Stories
Social stories help children understand social situations they find confusing and allow them to handle these situations more effectively. A social story usually includes a description of the situation such as the possible emotions the people are feeling and also what the children are expected to do in response to that situation. Visual aids may accompany social stories to enhance understanding.
Autism Parenting Magazine has a useful article on how to create these social stories for children. [Link]
Modeling occurs when caregivers demonstrate the appropriate behaviour to the children. This is particularly useful for children who have difficulty understanding verbal instructions.
Role-playing provides children with hands-on experience in handling difficult situations. The children get to practice different roles in a safe environment. Role-playing is particularly useful in teaching persons with intellectual disability about personal safety, conflict management and social skills.
Through play, children learn to interact with others and receive feedback about appropriate and inappropriate social behaviours. Play is therefore an essential component in the acquisition of social skills.
How Schools Can Help Support Caregivers and People with Autism
For many parents and persons with autism, school can be an uncomfortable and tough experience. Many schools are not well-equipped to handle autism and many teachers lack the training needed to effectively cater to the needs of students with autism. Bullying is another common worry among parents and caregivers, where the special needs of people with autism may lead to abuse or ostracism. Indeed, research has shown that people with autism are significantly more likely to be bullied.
While there are a few schools in Singapore that provide specialised education for students with autism – namely Pathlight School and St. Andrew’s Autism School – many students with high functioning autism go to non-specialised, mainstream schools and often have to tackle a social climate unsympathetic towards their needs.
The Role of Teachers
Teachers and school staff play important roles in supporting and educating students with autism.
The programmes and strategies that work on their socialisation skills, education, behavioural or learning quirks and/or issues of bullying require specialised knowledge and skills. Therefore, it is extremely important that teachers and school staff receive the necessary and fundamental training so that they are able to implement them effectively.
An awareness of the special needs and challenges that students with autism may face in school would also help greatly in being able to address them.
Socialisation in School
Many students with autism face social impairment and difficulty in understanding and/or responding to social interactions. Their lack of responsiveness, inability to understand social cues and stereotypic behaviour (e.g. hand flapping, body rocking) may also discourage their peers from interacting with them. Due to this, children and youth with autism are often less engaged socially, hindering their social development and acquisition of play skills.
Moreover, research shows that in the absence of intervention, people with autism may only have limited to nonexistent social interaction and engagement with their peers. This may go on to affect their mental health, where adolescents with autism are more likely to be depressed or diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.
As such, schools and teachers may intervene and help students with autism to work on developing their social skills and in aiding the formation of meaningful friendships, especially since they provide much needed opportunities to do so. However, it is also imperative to note that each student has different needs, interests, learning styles and quirks – trial and error might be necessary in finding out the best method(s) to employ.
Keeping the needs of children with autism in mind, schools and teachers may adopt some of the recommendations and strategies that have been proposed by researchers outlined below.
Dealing with Bullying
Students with autism are significantly more likely to be teased, bullied or ostracised. This can negatively affect their mental and physical well-being, their social development, their education and can be a source of frustration and worry for their parents and/or caregivers. The issue of bullying is thus, an important matter that must be addressed, with schools and teachers playing a vital role.
The problems that students with autism may face in socialising and communicating can explain their higher likelihood of being bullied. Moreover, they may not perceive themselves to be bullied and/or may face communication difficulties as well – these may mean that instances of bullying go unreported and unaddressed for students with autism.
In order to curb bullying towards students with autism, schools, teachers and parents should work together to ensure that the following steps are taken:
1 : Educate students with autism about bullying
This can involve teachers and parents describing specific actions that may accompany bullying (e.g. shoving or name-calling), describing how other peers may react in instances of bullying and describing the feelings victims and bullies may experience. Examples could be used to aid understanding, such as through the use of video clips or pictorial books.
Assessment of the student’s understanding should be done as well. This can include the use of various examples to identify bullying behaviours.
2 : Educate students with autism about how to respond to bullying
After which, students with autism should be taught how to respond appropriately to bullying behaviours, including how to report such instances. Model behaviours could be shown to students with autism to guide their actions and language, correcting and reinforcing whenever necessary. Scripts, stories and role-playing activities may also be used to teach and assess their understanding.
In both (1) and (2), students with autism should also be given the opportunity to put into practice what was taught. This can be done in a controlled environment including the involvement of typical peers in order to teach the generalisation of these skills.
3 : Develop a monitoring system
Finally, it is important that teachers and parents track and follow up on any reported instances of bullying behaviour. A monitoring sheet and checklist could be given to students with autism for use after any experiences of bullying, including details like where the bullying took place, the culprits involved, how the student responded and how the student felt.
Here’s an example of what that could look like:
Fostering family-school partnerships can greatly aid in the education of students with autism as well as provide assurance and support for parents and/or caregivers of students with autism. Collaboration between teachers and parents can help in crafting more effective education plans that target the specific needs of students with autism and work on their skills and interests.
Building rapport and trust between parents and teachers can also help in the exchange of information and feedback on the progress of the students, ensuring that parents are involved in every part of their children’s development and that teachers are aware of the needs of students with autism.
How Healthcare Providers Can Help Support Caregivers and People with Autism
As parents and individuals with autism, communication and interaction with healthcare professionals should occur frequently and regularly. Healthcare professionals play key roles in many aspects – from the diagnosis process to the post-diagnosis process, from providing counselling and therapy services to expert advice.
Research has also shown that parents with children with autism are more likely to experience high levels of stress, anxiety and are more likely to suffer from depression. The stigma facing parents with children with autism and individuals with autism can also contribute to social isolation and poor mental health. These may result in treatment outcomes being less effective for children with autism, increased behavioural issues, flawed parenting practices, and even difficulties in implementing intervention methods. Healthcare systems should thus, be able to provide support for both parent and child to ensure the well-being of all parties.
The diagnosis process can be stressful and time consuming, involving visits to different healthcare professionals, paperwork and the undergoing of studies and questionnaires. Even before the diagnosis, parents are often stressed over their child’s atypical development patterns and failure to socialise. After the diagnosis has been ascertained, the push to find the right intervention methods, schools and programmes can be overwhelming as well with so many options available, and with some methods claiming to be more effective than others.
Research has shown that parental stress may be exacerbated when faced with a lack of personal and social resources, including an individual’s coping mechanisms and emotional support from family and friends.
Coping mechanisms that are active – those that seek to address a problem, seek help or look at things positively – have been found to be more effective in reducing stress for parents, as compared to mechanisms that avoid facing the problems. Similarly, parents with social resources are also more likely to experience lower levels of stress. This highlights the important roles family and peers play for parents with children with autism, where the provision of emotional support can go a long way in benefiting both parent and child.
Healthcare professionals thus have important roles to play not only for children with autism, but in looking out for signs of stress in parents as well. Directing parents to the relevant helplines, support groups, communities and even providing advice on coping mechanisms can help alleviate the stress faced.
Counselling and Therapy
There may be a need to seek counselling or therapy for parents as well, especially with regards to their own mental well-being or familial problems.
Here are some links to resources and helplines:
- AWWA Caregiver Service (Disability)
- AWWA Family Service Centre
- Care Corner Counselling Centre
- Caregivers Alliance
- Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT)
- NCSS list of helplines
- Silver Ribbon Singapore
- Singapore Association for Mental Health
You may also find a list of helpful resources and services here.
How the Community Can Help Support Caregivers and People with Autism
Due to the problems that many children with autism face when it comes to socialisation, communication and interaction, cases of bullying, ostracisation and stigmatisation are common. The general public can play an important role in making people with autism and their caregivers feel safe and welcome, the emotional and social support going a long way.
The first step to supporting people with autism and their caregivers would be to raise awareness about autism. Being aware of autism, its symptoms, and the possible behaviours of people with autism can mean that judgments and misunderstandings are less likely to happen.
Increasing education about autism can also lead to earlier diagnosis, thus allowing for earlier intervention for children with autism. It can also clear the air about some myths of autism, such as those that put the blame on bad parenting or bad manners, leading to a more receptive environment that is welcoming to people with autism and to their caregivers. Awareness may be spread simply by word of mouth, by leveraging on social media to share informative articles about autism, by engaging in meaningful discussions about autism and through many other ways.
Participating as volunteers, donating to causes and being inclusive in interactions and activities can also help in providing much needed support for families of children with autism.
Communicating with People with Autism and Their Caregivers
While interacting with people with autism and/or their caregivers or parents, it is important to communicate with empathy and sensitivity.
Here are some tips on how to interact with people with autism:
- Use short, direct and simple sentences
- Be aware of the environment – a crowded environment with too much noise may make it difficult for people with autism to process things
- Engage them by using their interests
- Use visual aids
- Use less non-verbal communication methods (e.g. eye contact, gestures) if there are signs of anxiety
Here are some tips on how to interact with parents of children with autism.
- Learn about autism – avoid bringing up any myths or judgments.
- Going the extra mile – the parents of children with autism may not have the time or energy to remain connected, but initiating and providing supportive messages, calls, visits or outings can help alleviate the stress.
- Be accepting and inclusive – teach your own children about autism and offer a hand of friendship.
Social Resources in Singapore
We have compiled some websites, communities, and interest groups that parents of children with autism may find useful.
Click on the name of each organization to visit their page!
|Autism Resource Centre (Singapore)||A local non-profit organisation dedicated to helping individuals with autism maximise their potential in life through advocacy and provision of services in education, employment and empowering of family caregivers or professionals.||Address
5 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, S(569739)
|National Council of Social Services (NCSS)||The umbrella body for more than 450 local social service organisations.||Address
Ulu Pandan Community Building
170 Ghim Moh Road, #01-02
|SG Enable||A local agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities through the spread of information, grants and support, employment and stakeholder support.||Address
20 Lengkok Bahru #01-01
1800 8585 885
Monday to Friday 8.30am - 6.00pm
Saturday 8.30am - 12.30pm
Closed on Sundays and Public Holidays
Communities and Support Groups
|AWWA Caregiver Support||An organisation providing a multitude of services for caregivers, including financial support and early intervention.||Address|
9 Lorong Napiri S(547531)
|Embrace Autism||A local, non-profit group founded by parents and volunteers to promote awareness and foster community among families and professionals.||Contact Number|
|Caregivers Connect (Facebook)||Part of AWWA Caregiver Service, Caregivers Connect is a Facebook community and support group that provides information, training and support programmes.||Address|
9 Lorong Napiri S(547531)
1800 299 2992
|MINDS CSSC||Support portal for caregivers to manage responsibilities of caring for those with autism.||Email|
|Let’s Play Lah (Facebook)||A group of special educators who organise playdates for children with special needs.|
|Singapore Autism (Facebook)||One of the earliest Autism Support Groups in Singapore formed in July 2009.|
|Friends of ASD Families (Facebook)||A community and support group for individuals with autism and their families.||Email|
|Beautiful Mind Charity||An organisation that aims to nurture musical talents in children with disabilities.||Address
20 Maxwell Road, #09-17
Maxwell House S(069113)
+65 9112 3538
(Ms. Anne Koo)
|Kindling Inclusion||A documentary that explores life in Kindle Garden, an inclusive preschool.|
|Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) Singapore||A non-governmental organisation that provides therapeutic horse-riding programmes to people with physical and/or cognitive disabilities for free.||Address
5 Jalan Mashhor
+65 6250 0176
|Purple Parade||A movement that supports the inclusion and celebrates the abilities of people with special needs.||Email
All content found on the All In website, has been created for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Note: The section “Social Stories” was originally published by MINDS’ Allied Health Professionals unit and republished with minor editorial amendments by All In.