Grace Hanusin is a certified occupational therapy assistant from Niagara Falls, New York. She reads this column in the Niagara Wheatfield Tribune. Though not personally having a disability, she did teach school children with disabilities for seventeen years.
At her school, ‘thirty-nine percent of the students had a primary diagnosis of autism,’ said Hanusin in a telephone interview, ‘and fifty-eight percent had multiple disabilities. Many students classified with multiple disabilities had a primary or secondary diagnosis of autism.’
The National Institute of Mental Health website defines autism as a wide spectrum of disorders characterized by ‘varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive, stereotyped patterns of behavior.’ The Centers for Disease Control estimates that autism affects at least one child in 166.
Hanusin had advice for parents of children with disabilities, especially autism.
‘Many parents are in denial,’ she said. ‘In an Individualized Education Plan, many will ask for goals their child will never reach. For instance, the child may be ten and not speaking, and the parent that year wants them to say their name. Or the child may be fifteen and can’t hold a pencil correctly, and the parent wants the child to write their name. With the latter, a child first has to accomplish certain prerequisites before learning to write a name, such as correctly holding a pencil and being able to draw lines.’
She said behavioral problems often arise in students and goals aren’t met when parents ignore school communication and refuse to reinforce instruction. ‘In a way, I empathize with the parent,’ she said. ‘But in the long run they are doing more harm than good. For instance, if you are personally feeding your child when they are five and you aren’t teaching them how to eat themselves, you will still be feeding them when they are fifteen.’
Rather than spending time reinforcing school-taught behaviors at home, often parents after a hard day’s work choose the easier path of plopping children in front of a television. ‘What we teach in school isn’t going to help the child if the parents don’t (mirror) the same instruction in home,’ she said.
Lastly, for advice, Hanusin said, ‘You need to be thinking about what happens to your child when you’re gone. Go with a group home familiar with your child’s diagnosis, one offering programs throughout the week.’