When children are off the spectrum of good behaviour
ABC TV’s new series, The Slap, is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. It’s Australian drama that’s true to life, featuring all the stereotypical folk we see in backyard barbeques any weekend across suburban Australia, but featuring real-life dialogue. There’s the wog, the hippy, the slob, the cheater, and the cute young thing. But no backyard barbeque these days would be complete without a kid with autism.
So I’m calling it. Hugo’s family is one of the half a million Australian families who live with Autism or one of its variants – known as being “on the spectrum”. I’m no psych, but that’s not gonna stop me from flinging around my experience and attitude.
My ears pricked up in the opening scenes where the adorable looking kid with the mop of hair was banging around on the cupboards with wooden spoons. Kids on the spectrum often seek input by making their own noises, and ones that the rest of us find obnoxious, repetitive and annoying fit the bill (I know of a family who has to listen The Wiggles “Big Red Car” at Every. Single. Mealtime).
The beeps on my Autism Radar, or Audar, started chiming louder and closer together when the little shit trashed the Playstation controller. An almost universal feature of people living the milder forms of Autism, or Aspergers, is a seriously concrete sense of black and white, with no grey – so if the little cherub thought it was his turn, and the other kids just found the pint-sized turd a major pain in the arse, it would follow that Hugo would act out, destroying the inanimate object of his desire.
Later, Hugo destroys the CD collection. But let’s look closer. Was he destroying it, or was he taking out each CD in his own clumsy way (kids with ASD frequently have poor fine motor skills), looking to then sort the shiny disks? For many parents the first warning signs of Autism is their son’s (and there are girls with autism, but boys outnumber them more than 4:1) obsession with sorting and lining things up.
And in the finale we see a kid who does the full on “melt down”.
Trying to reign in his “not fair monitor”, overloaded with kids running around, music blaring, and a desperate desire to fit in, despite knowing that he doesn’t, leads to chaos. Overwhelmed, not getting what he thinks is right, he loses it, lashing out with the cricket bat.
So this is when one of the Dads tries to break it up. He’s rewarded with a solid kick to the shin, and he knee jerks back with a reverberating slap to little Hugo’s face. Definitely not OK, but something had to be done, right?
An almost universal element of autism is the inability to cope with excess external stimuli – these kids (and adults) can either shut down (rocking or flapping to create their own sense of order and place) or “lose it” when overloaded with noise, people and lights. I feel the same way at any Westfield on December 23rd – imagine if every classroom, supermarket or backyard barbeque felt like that?
Of course, Hugo’s lax parenting doesn’t help. When kids are appropriately diagnosed early, parents have a choice – they can pander to their darling’s disability and make it worse, or they can seek out assistance, learn their kid’s triggers and avoid at least some of the meltdowns.
We’ve all seen the little kid throw a tanti at the supermarket.
Usually right at checkout, the three year old wants the strategically placed chocolate bar (in the USA, you can find “parent friendly” checkout lines without any of these temptations – bring it on Woolies!). Mum says “no” as she wipes the 18-month-old’s nose and drops her purse.
That’s relatively normal (though I was lucky enough to have kids who, I suspect, were too deeply daydreaming to ever notice the chocolate bars).
BUT, when it’s a seven year old lying on the floor of the supermarket, screaming, wailing, and bashing his head on the concrete, stop and consider that the kid is probably on the spectrum. It doesn’t help that the parent is feeling your judgemental stare, while trying to juggle specialist appointments, battles with school, financial trauma and sleep deprivation that most of us are over with by the time our kids turn two or three.
Autism is growing in Australia and other developed nations at a frightening rate. According to Jon Martin, CEO of Autism SA, their referral rate is rising at 15 to 20 per cent per year (while their funding fails to keep pace). No one knows why so many more kids are developing Autism Spectrum Disorders. There’s no proven cure, but dietary changes and early intervention can help mitigate many of the problems.
What does it feel like to have autism? Dr Temple Grandinhas autism. You might remember her as the American expert on cattle behaviour featured on the Indonesian Cattle Export episode. She says that “meltdowns are different than ordinary anger because the entire nervous system has gone into overload”.
And maybe the guests at the barbeque would have been more accepting if Hugo’s diagnosis were shared. But heck – maybe his parents don’t even know. According to Dr Tony Attwood, the world-renowned Australian expert on all things Aspergers, the average age for diagnosis of Autism is around eight years old, so poor Hugo and his parents might linger in the dark, wondering why they are parenting a child with such annoying behaviours, for years.
There’s little doubt their parenting style isn’t helpful – to the kid or themselves, but maybe we ought to cut them all a break.
Next time you see a Hugo, don’t slap him. Give him a quiet place to calm down. Ask his parents if they could use a hand. Figure out a way to suggest they visit a psychologist. Early intervention can, and does, help.
Nic Riley lives in South Australia, knows lots of kids and adults with autism, and has a kid and a cousin with Aspergers. Nic loves their quirks, but could do without their meltdowns.
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