I met the lovely Teegan Hughes at the Armidale Family Support Services Conference in March this year.  Listening to her presentation on engaging children with autism, I could clearly see she had a passion for respecting children who may be misunderstood by others.  I admired the way she demonstrated commitment to each of the little people she worked with and wouldn’t stop until she found a way to reach them.

I asked Teegan if she would mind sharing some of her expertise with Key to Kids, in order to add a different perspective for families who live with autism day in and day out.

MW: Thanks for chatting with me Teegan.  Can you perhaps share some common misconceptions about children with autism?

TH: Good question! I think a lot of children with autism tend to be labelled as ‘the naughty kid’ when really they are just experiencing things differently to most of the people around them.  They often just need some guidance or adjustments to their environments made to help them to be more at ease, which can help to reduce challenging behaviours. Another misconception I guess is that a lot of people assume that all children with autism have stereotypical traits like hand flapping, or making strange noises, or that they don’t speak. These are true for some children, but definitely not all.  A lot of the time these types of traits may only be used when the child is attempting to help themselves feel calmer in a situation or environment that is just a little too much for them to handle.

MW: What’s your favourite memory working with one of your clients? 

TH: My favourite memory of a client was a young boy I spent a couple of months working with, almost every weekday. He appeared very shy and like he didn’t like to interact at all. He was someone who spent lunchtimes pacing and chilling out on his own. As the weeks went on he started to trust me I guess and we shared lots of laughs during our sessions (he had an awesome sense of humour!). On my last day of working at the school, I spent the lunch time sitting on a bench seat with a teacher just chatting and my client came and sat right next to me, leaning against me and fiddling with my jacket.  Every time the teacher or I laughed/giggled at something within our conversation, my client joined in too! I have no idea if he understood what we were talking about, but I was so impressed with him and it made me so happy to see him go from the boy who didn’t want to (or know how to) interact and didn’t like people to be too close, to him changing his lunch-time ritual to come and sit with me and initiate interactions. Seeing that change and seeing how calm and happy he was is something I’ll never forget.

MW: What advice would you give a parent of a child with autism?

TH: Don’t stop fighting to get your child what they need. Sometimes you’ll find other people or organisations that will tell you what you should and shouldn’t do or what your child does or doesn’t need. But you live with your child day in and day out and you understand them better than anyone else so trust your instincts, knowledge and love for your child.  If you don’t agree with what you’re being told, or maybe you feel there is more support your child could be receiving, voice your thoughts and don’t give up.

Also, make sure you have a support network around you. Raising a child with autism is hard and can be completely exhausting, so you need to have others to help you get through. If informal supports like family and friends are difficult to find, then seek out formal supports like counselors/psychologists, therapists who work with your child and who may be able to give you some advice.

Don’t feel that you have to do it all alone. Looking for autism support groups in your area is also another great option – who better to share your concerns and triumphs with than others who are going through the same thing!

Lastly, schedule in some ‘me time’ every day even if only for half an hour at the end of the day when the children are in bed. It’s really hard to keep a household running as it is, but then you throw autism into the mix and it can get chaotic and exhausting. I see so many parents run down and giving up everything that they enjoy and they have very little left in them to keep going every day. Just that little bit of self care like taking a bubble bath, sitting down for a coffee and chat, watching a favourite TV show, or reading a book, can make the world of difference and give you the little oomph you need to get through the next day! I could give you lots of advice about strategies, but this varies depending on each child.

MW:  What are your top three tips for people living or working with children who have autism?

TH: Three things I know to work for most children with an autism spectrum disorder –

  1. Always provide literal and precise explanations (especially when there is a change to plans/routine)

  2. Use visual schedules/aides to support instructions and expectations.

  3. Allow your child extra time to process what is being asked of them.

MW:  What great practical advice.  Thanks for your time and expertise!

(Afterword:  So much of what Teegan says and does to support children with autism overlaps with the messages of ‘How to talk so kids listen’!  This emphasizes to me that clear communication with children, giving explicit rules and expectations are beneficial to any child, at any age and any social background.  Children are people and deserve to be treated respectfully!  We are all different.. whether ‘labelled’ or not.)