A Loving Dad’s Advice: Nuture Your Autistic Child
When you welcome a newborn child into your family, you will probably experience pride and joy as the parent of the infant who joined the family. As a young father, I felt this way as my first daughter entered my world and proceeded to grow and learn. Like other children, she began to speak as many months passed. She also continued to acquire an increasing range of physical and social skills.
In the subsequent years, I acquired three more daughters. One of them, Cathy, followed a much different course. She tended to keep doing everything the same way month after month, and she would engage in repetitive behaviors for long periods. She might sit on a low stool and rock from side to side for an hour at a time. She uttered her first word when she was about a year old and then didn’t speak for more than a subsequent year.
It became clear to me before long that Cathy was autistic. Yet, I learned many additional things as I continued to live with her and nurture her development. I soon realized that every autistic child is unique. No two are exactly alike. I also realized that I could do a lot to guide her developmental steps if I could just tune into her feelings and her ways of perceiving herself and the world around her. Obviously, I was in a unique position to do this, and not just because I lived with her. I was her father, and half of her genetic endowment came from me. There were bound to be some similarities between her ways of experiencing the world and mine.
The more I managed to get a clear sense of what was going on in her head, the better I was able to help her bridge the gap between what she could do and what other children were able to do. To my delight, I began to realize that, like many autistic children, she was capable to doing some things that very few children who develop the “typical” way can do.
When Cathy was still not speaking at age two and a half, I wondered whether she might perceive more meaning in the visual realm than in the auditory realm. Perhaps she would pay more attention to a printed word than to a spoken word. I decided to begin teaching her to read. I secured a little book with blank pages. On each page I would print a word or name for some object, person, or creature in our household, e.g., chair, table, Mommy, Daddy, cat, or dog.
I also drew a picture on the page to enhance the meaning of the printed and spoken word. As I showed her each page, I would say the word aloud. Every evening I sat with her and went though the words I had printed thus far. She soon began to utter the words as I showed her the pages. Both the printed and spoken words proceeded to take on more meaning for her and she began speaking more as she was learning to read. Before long her vocabulary equaled and then exceeded that of most children her age.
Before Cathy reached two years of age, I noticed another interesting feature of her behavior. One day when she sat on her stool and rocked at length from side to side, I heard her humming a series of musical tones. She started with a low tone, then a tone a major third above that, then a tone a major second down. The tonal pattern continued systematically—up a third, down a second, up a third, down a second, and so on until the tones became too high for her to continue. I found it hard to imagine any other child I had known in the preschool years creating such a systematic pattern.
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I don’t remember hearing her hum or sing melodies before this occasion, but I surmised that before she began speaking, she probably paid more attention to melodies than to spoken words. To help her with both speech and music, I began to spend a bit of time every evening sitting with her on a piano bench in front of the keyboard of our piano. There I would play the melody of a simple song while singing the lyrics. She soon began singing the songs by herself away from the piano.
Before long I had the impression that she was singing songs in the same key in which she had heard them. On day when I was standing near the piano, while she was in an adjoining room, I decided to test my hunch. I stepped over to the piano and struck a key. She then walked through the door and over to the piano, where she struck the very same key. Cathy had perfect pitch. Once she learned the names of all the keys, I could play several notes simultaneously, and while standing with her back to the piano she could name all the notes I had struck, e.g., E flat, C, B flat, and G.
By the time Cathy was four years old, I was teaching her to play simple pieces of music that were available in print. In those early years, she did not just play music, she could read. She would play melodies she had created, and by age five, she could play harmonized melodies with both hands— music that she seemed to be playing at the moment of its creation. She showed no interest in writing down her original compositions, but at times when I heard her playing a new creation, I would grab a sheet of music paper and try to write it down myself.
I remember one December, when she was probably five years old, hearing her sing a Christmas song she had created with a novel set of lyrics:
Santa Claus, Santa Claus,
Bringing you some candy.
Looks like a lollipop,
Ho, ho, ho, ho!
For several subsequent years, I took her every week to the home of a locally acclaimed piano teacher for additional lessons. By the age of six, she was ready to join other children in the first grade. Over the succeeding years she did well in school and ultimately obtained a graduate degree at the university.
In her early years, I learned an important lesson myself: if you have an autistic child who remains stuck in one pattern of behavior, instead of moving forth into the expanded range you see in other children, try to gain some sense of what goes on in the head of your child. Get a sense of what people, things, and activities arouse a feeling of love, dislike, or fear. Try to get a sense of people, things, activities, sights, and sounds that command the child’s attention. To the extent that you can do this, you are able to enter your child’s world and build within it.
Perhaps it will help to make changes, gradually or abruptly, in the physical environment of your child. It may help to sit with your child and interact using various toys, dolls, and objects meant for child’s play. You can go for walks and travel to interesting places with your child. Music and printed words were among the things I used to expand my daughter’s world. If you have an autistic child, you can find ways of doing something similar.
Richard W. Coan is now retired, after enjoying a career as a Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His teaching and research interests included personality theory and personal development over the entire course of life. His writings include poetry, novels, and books on theoretical orientation in psychology, the evolution of consciousness, and masculinity/femininity. Early in his career he published a personality questionnaire for primary-grade children, and it has been in use for several decades.
This article was featured in Issue 63 – Keeping Our Kids Safe