Jennifer Ratcliffe - author of ‘This Was Not On the Brochure’ a book about living your best life, even when it turns out differently to what you expected....
She is married to Brad and the mother of two sons Cameron and Coby who are on the Autism spectrum. A successful businesswoman and previously a primary school teacher, Jenn is passionate about supporting other families living with autism.
Brad and Jenn are currently writing ‘Keeping it Real’ an A-Z guide for anyone caring for children with Autism. Also, they have almost completed an app called ‘First and Then’ to support children, parents, carers and teachers with communication. Check out www.jenniferratcliffe.org to access Jennifer's book in both paperback and ebook formats.
Autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong disability that affects one in 100 children. The main areas of difficulty are in social and communication skills, and restricted or repetitive behaviours. Although there is no one indicator, there are several signs that could suggest autism spectrum disorder.
Social interaction and communication:
- Looks away when you speak to him/her
- Does not return your smile
- Lack of interest in other children
- Often seems to be in his/her own world
- Lack of ability to imitate simple motor movements
- Prefers to play alone
- Very limited social play – eg. Peek a Boo
- Not responding to his/her name by 12 months
- Not pointing or waving by 12 months
- Loss of words previously used
- Unusual language pattern – eg.repetitive speech
- Has unusual interests or attachments
- Has unusual motor movements such as hand flapping, spinning, or walking on tiptoes
- Has difficulty coping with change
- Unusual distress reaction to some everyday sounds
- Uses peripheral vision to look at objects
- Preoccupation with certain textures or avoids certain textures
- Plays with objects in unusual ways such as repetitive spinning and lining up
Source: autismspectrum.org.au (ASPECT)
Follow your instincts– As a mum of 2 boys, Cameron (15) and Coby (12) on the autism spectrum, I have obviously seen the autism indicators in different ways with my boys, but also with other children with autism. The thing that is really important is to follow your gut feelings. If you notice behaviours and things that don't seem ‘right’ to you, it's best not to ignore it and hope your child will grow out of it, a good idea is not to delay in seeking professional help. You will be glad you did. You will most likely do what I did and ask family and friends for their opinion. Be aware that a) they may not have the knowledge to make an informed decision, and b) they will most likely not want to worry you. You will hear things like…”all children are different”, or “they develop at their own rate”, or “such and such didn't talk until he was at school”. No-one wants to think that there is actually something going on that won't go away by itself or can't be fixed in some way.
Book the appointments – I know it’s not easy, as this is not at all what you were expecting, but getting help is the best thing you can do for your child, yourself and your family.. First, if it turns out that there's nothing to be concerned about, that's great and at least you know. Second, the waiting times for services can be quite lengthy, so making an appointment is better to do sooner rather than later. If early intervention is required, you want to be able to access it as soon as possible. Your GP or paediatrician will be your first port of call, then a hearing test and an assessment will most likely follow. Depending on the severity of the autism, it can take a while to be diagnosed. In our case, it was around 3 years of age for both boys, although Coby would have been diagnosed earlier if he had been assessed earlier. Even though he was quite different in personality to Cameron, his behaviours showed signs of autism too. Our paediatrician wasn't sure about whether he needed an assessment when we first took him, so we went back six months later and then he went through the assessment process. Unfortunately, that six month delay put access to services back, as he wasn't eligible for early intervention until after he had been given his diagnosis.
Do what you can – although access to early intervention services didn't happen immediately, both boys started regular speech therapy as soon as possible. There are different services available at various price points, the key is to find what is right for you and your family. Jump online and on the phone and find out what services are available to support your child and your family. There are many agencies, schools and groups that offer support and early intervention. You can access workshops, seminars and other events where you can learn about autism and how to best support your child. I remember attending whatever was available if I possibly could. My husband, Brad and I met many wonderful people by attending events and many are friends today. There was no Facebook when our boys were diagnosed, but now there are plenty of autism support groups online. If you know other families living with autism, reach out to them, as I'm sure they will be willing and able to help you on your journey. When our boys were diagnosed in the mid 2000’s, we didn't know many people in the same boat, these days autism is much more common and most people know someone who has ASD.
Meet your child where they are at – as many children with autism are primarily focussed on what is important and interesting to them, it can be difficult to feel as connected as you would like. My suggestion is that you become interested in what they are interested in and connect that way. It’s usually quite easy to see what your child is into - so if they will allow you…watch movies, swing, play with bubbles, puzzles, balls and of course play chasings with them – whatever works!
Take care of yourself– I read recently that the level of stress that autism parents feel can be measured equivalent to a combat soldier! The emotional, mental and physical stress can take its toll. Remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint, so take time for you every day. It doesn't have to be big, like a holiday to Fiji, (although that's good too – if you can!) as long as it’s something you really enjoy and look forward to. In my book ‘This Was Not On the Brochure’, there's a whole chapter dedicated to the ‘Happiness Program’ where I look at the benefits of intentionally planning special activities into your day. Even something as small as enjoying your favourite cup of tea can be powerful in supporting your mental health. Fifteen minutes reading a favourite book, or seeing a friend can make a big difference now and in the future.
I hope those tips are helpful to you or someone you know. Remember that even though it can feel lonely, you are not alone - there are other families living with autism who can support you.
Remember, there is much to look forward to, just last month we took our boys overseas for the trip of a lifetime to Disneyland! We never thought that would have been a possibility when our family when our boys were younger, but dreams really can come true!
Jennifer Ratcliffe is a wife, mother and business woman - proving that you can live a great life despite what life throws at you! You can contact Jennifer here, read her Blog and find out more about families living with autism here -http://www.jenniferratcliffe.org/blog