How To Support A Child With High-Functioning Autism

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Hanna Beech

Hanna Beech has been teaching for ten years and has a range of experience across Key Stages 1 and 2 in a large Primary School in Kent. She is a phase leader for Years 3 and 4, and also leads on teaching and learning for...
Read more about Hanna Beech

How would you feel if your child was diagnosed with Autism?

Two weeks ago, I had the following conversation.

Doctor: “What do you think?”
Me: “Um, I think that, yeah, sometimes he struggles to fit in to the normal conventions. I know that things that wouldn’t be a problem for others, somehow those things are, yeah, a problem for him.”
Doctor: “And what about you, do you think you have autism?”
My son: “I have no idea, maybe.”
Doctor: “Your son does show traits of autism. He has autism… He is highly functioning… words… words… more words… something kind… more words.”
Me (to myself): “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.”

And that is the moment I heard, out loud, that my eleven-year-old son has autism. I held it together, and the professionals were kind, soft, reassuring and knowledgeable as they spoke about what this really meant for him.

A huge milestone

The news was no great surprise and I wasn’t shocked, not even a bit, but still, something in that moment stirred up huge emotions in me.

Maybe it was the agonising year wait for the assessment date.

Maybe it was the confirmation that it isn’t just ‘behaviour’, that it is no one’s fault.

Maybe it was the fact that this means I can finally help those around him to understand him better.

His mental health had been deteriorating fast as he became increasingly aware that he was ‘different’. He felt he didn’t fit in and constantly felt that is was surrounded by people who didn’t understand him and whom he didn’t understand either. Social isolation can be horrendous, especially for a child. I was worried about the idea of a label, but I realised it might help people to pre-empt and sooth when difficulties arise.

I hope. 

More importantly it might help him to understand that actually, there is a reason that he doesn’t see the world in the same way as others might, and that’s ok.

Me: So, what next? What do we do now?’
Doctor: Nothing changes really. He doesn’t change. He is still who he always was, only now the people around him can begin to change the way they perceive his reactions to certain situations.
Me (to myself): “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.”

The reality of living with autism

Being a teacher for many years, I have worked with a huge number of children, all of whom are different in their own way. Their differences make them wonderful, interesting and real. But somehow, my son was different in other ways and those differences seem to make certain things in his life challenging for him to handle. Very challenging.

As a parent I have spent much of my time doing what many parents do, worrying about their children. “Will they get picked on?” “Will they eat their lunch?” “Will they achieve?” “Will they be happy? Please, let them be happy.” But with my son, it wasn’t only those worries, there were different ones too because, well, he is different.

Here are just a few of many examples.

Will they think he is rude?

My son says things how they are. Sometimes he responds in a manner which is deemed socially inappropriate. He takes things literally and doesn’t understand why he can’t say what’s on his mind. He asks the teacher “Why?” at the wrong time. He opens a Christmas present from a family member and says he doesn’t like it. He meets someone new and doesn’t respond when they say, “How are you?” The list goes on.

Will they think he is odd?

My son hates certain materials. In particular, denim or anything with too many seams and embroidery. He detests loud noises and flashing lights. Busy, loud places like pantomimes, discos and parties make him feel really stressed. This causes many issues from buying new clothes or bed sheets, to attending social events.

Will they call him a loner?

When social situations are difficult for you to understand, it’s easier to avoid them. My son spent much of his time at primary school avoiding others, sitting in his favourite spot and eating lunch alone. He wanted to be on his own. Despite this, because he is great company, he is always very popular. He does have friends and enjoys time with them, but big groups, staying at a friend’s house overnight and ‘banter’ can be a bit overwhelming for him.

Will they see his qualities?

My son is wonderful. He is funny beyond compare. He is smart. He is a talented guitarist. He sees things in a different way to most and is innovative. He loves animals. His laughter is infectious. He is honest, real and quick thinking. He is kind-hearted. I hope that people can see him for who he is, not just for his struggles or quirks, but for all of him. I worry that amongst all the differences, his qualities might be missed.

How you can support a child with autism

Despite my worries, along the way I have built up some experience of how to cope with my son’s autism. So, I hope that by sharing some tips and thoughts below, that I might help spread awareness of my experiences of high functioning autism, and if this can help even one person it would be worth my time!

  • Get to know the triggers: The things that would trigger anxiety or difficulty for my son became somewhat predictable. Knowing what was going to cause an issue meant that I could either avoid or prepare for this in advance.
  • Be prepared for an outburst or anxiety attack: Knowing ways to diffuse stressful situations makes you feel prepared and in control. This might be different for every child. What will calm your child? What might make things worse?
  • Share what you know: You know your child. Sharing important information about their struggles with others in their lives is a great way to make sure people feel as knowledgeable as you. Grandparents, teachers or friends – let them know what to expect (or not expect in many cases!).
  • Don’t be ashamed: You didn’t create this. Your child didn’t create it. There isn’t anything ‘wrong’. Children with autism are just different. If you are finding yourself apologising for your child too often and without real reason, stop it! Instead (if you want to) just explain how the situation appears through the eyes of someone with their needs. Educating others on seeing things in your child’s way is one way to raise awareness.
  • Read up and talk: Reading up about autism arms you with information and further understanding. Talking to others reminds you that you’re not alone.
  • Forget about it: To some extent, I just need to get over it. I know this sounds harsh, but this is what I tell myself when my worries take over. Even though things can be a lot harder, if I don’t want my son to be defined by his autism, then I need to stop thinking of his autism first. Sometimes I have found myself over worrying when really, when it came down to it, I needn’t have worried at all. Being prepared is better than being worried.
  • Reasons, not excuses: Although there will be challenges for my son, I am also aware that he is still a teenage boy. He might play up. He might push boundaries. I will always aim to separate his autistic traits from what is something else. I still expect him to grow into a gentleman. Even though at times there may be reasons for him becoming overwhelmed, there will never be an excuse for him to lose his way in relation to being respectful or doing what it right. I will continue to teach him consequences and right from wrong, because that is my job.
  • Focus on the good: Every child is unique. Embrace, enjoy and celebrate your child’s ways. Be proud of them and of yourself. When I look at my son and see how amazing he is, I shine with pride for him; and for myself too.

Although I have spent the last two weeks getting my head around my son’s diagnosis, I have already spent the last eleven years getting my head around his ways; the diagnosis is new, he isn’t. It’s not been easy, but every moment has taught me something and I wouldn’t change him for the world. Maybe its time the world changed its view of autism instead.

The 2nd April is World Autism Awareness day and April is Autism Awareness Month. You can find more information about how to take part and how to recognise and support children with Autism on their website.

10 thoughts on “How To Support A Child With High-Functioning Autism

  1. Hanna, I feel like you’ve just put exactly how I feel into words… words that I couldn’t find myself. Firstly thank you. Secondly, my 10 year old son was diagnosed on 26th March 2018 after a 4 year long battle, including Physio, Occupational Therapy, Behaviour management, Mindfulness coaching, Educational Psychology all of which prolonged the ultimate diagnosis. I hope you don’t mind but I have shared your story. And again, thank you.

    1. Hi Haley, I am proud to have shared my experiences to raise awareness and glad that other parents, who’ve been through a similar thing, can relate. It can feel like a very lonely process, but talking and sharing our experiences helps. Good luck with getting the right support for your son after all this time, and remember that you’re never alone with it all!

  2. My son was 14 when diagnosed (thanks to a new SENCO at his high school). My feelings when we got his diagnosis – relief. Everything now made sense. My husband and I are both teachers, but it is harder to see when it is close to home. Our son had lots of problems in school due to “being different”. He hated going due to bullying etc…
    After diagnosis I went to a series of sessions for parents of children with a new Autism diagnosis. This was amazing, and also helped me with my teaching. My son is now doing really well and is in the second year of his degree at a top University.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts JBL. It’s reassuring to hear that the diagnosis helped your son and your family. Its great that there were groups to get support from. It’s also very positive to hear how well he is doing now. I hope that the support my son gets will enable him to feel better understood. I’ve been reading lots around ASD to help me understand more, which is helping me learn 🙂 Hanna

  3. I have been a teacher for almost 32 years. 2 years ago I was diagnosed with ASD, Aspersers is no longer used as a classification. I was always different but I did not know how. Why I did not fit in? I did not understand why my ideas were not accepted by my colleagues. I am a creative thinker and do not fit in the box. I ask questions to deepen my understanding or challenge things which given the evidence undertaken (research) is questionable. The diagnosis helped me understand myself. Since sharing my diagnosis with my colleagues’ this has not translated in a way which helps me in the workplace. The mask is firmly on.

    I have always got on with pupils with additional support needs. They need to be listened to and respected. They need to be asked what it is they actually need to succeeded or a plan to try things out together.

    Compassion is needed, be it a pupil or in my case a teacher with a lot of experience.

    1. I’m glad to hear it’s helped you understand yourself but sorry to hear that your colleagues haven’t grasped an understanding. I agree- compassion is key. I hope things improve soon.


  4. Dear Hanna,

    Thank you for your article. It is exactly about my 12-year-old son and his experiences.
    He is an amazing boy but very different. He lives in his ideal world and finds it difficult to accept reality.
    I want him to be educated in a mainstream school and he really loves his school and children. However, every day is stress and he said that he can’t take it any longer – constantly being in trouble, mainly because of his endless “Why” and being blunt. Last Friday, he attempted to self-harm at school at the prospect of being punished for his “behaviour”.
    He was even taken to A&E. I don’t know how to make things easier for him at school.

    1. It sounds like he’s in crisis right now. From what you’ve said, his school isn’t understanding or supporting his needs, can you move him somewhere else? Mainstream schools can work just fine, as long as they understand how to support autistic children. Speak to his school about his needs and make sure they have a basic support plan in place.

      I’m sorry to hear how difficult it’s been- I hope you have someone to speak to, maybe a friend who can support you emotionally. I’d suggest you speak to your doctor who should offer some guidance to support your son, especially with the self harm. It can be so difficult, but things can improve- keep fighting for your son.

  5. I know this article is a few years old, but just reading it makes me feel not crazy. I’ve known that my son is different since he was a baby.
    But because he has no intellectual deficit and some of his unusual behaviours can at first seem quite subtle (if you’re not around him 24 hours a day) it is really, really hard to be taken seriously or believed. I’ve been trying to get him referred or assessed since he was 2 years old, and finally, at the age of 9 his referral has finally been accepted and he has been put on the waiting list for assessment, which in our area is 3½ years long – they are currently booking appointments for children referred in January 2018.
    I’m genuinely afraid for him going to secondary school in two years. I used to be a foster carer and I’ve seen what can happen to children like my son. At the moment, unless help is in place and his needs can be supported properly my plan is to home-school him when that time comes. I am extremely fortunate that he currently goes to a tiny independent school where he gets tons of one-to-one attention and extra support (but even they are sceptical about him needing an assessment, despite the fact they freely admit they give him additional support!)
    I feel so sad for my son, I get that a diagnosis doesn’t change the amazing person that he is, but it would publicly give him ‘permission’ to be who he is without apology, blame or judgement, and most importantly open the door for support and understanding for him and maybe even for me.

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