Since I was a teenager, I found that I could relate to children a lot better than to adults. In my career as a childcare worker, I got a lot of enthusiastic feedback from children and parents, and the son of a crèche owner once told me, ‘My mum says you’re the best we’ve ever had.’
This, I imagine, has a lot to do with my attitude. Most childcare workers have a very condescending attitude towards children, but when I’m in their presence, I don’t see myself as the grown-up amongst the little ones but as a peer with responsibilities.
While most people consider autism a disorder, it gives those affected by it a lot of gifts and talents which are rare amongst non-autistic people. When I found myself on the autistic spectrum at the age of 49 and subsequently got diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 50, I reflected on the role my autism had played in my previous childcare experiences and came to the inescapable conclusion that I owe all my excellency and successes in this area to the condition.
1. Working with Children in General
A lot of childcare workers see their group of children as exactly that – a group. An autistic childcare worker will never think of the group as a unit but as a number of individuals and treat them accordingly.
Autistic childcare workers also tend to deal with children in a respectful rather than condescending manner.
Attention to detail
While many childcare workers aim at running a functioning group, the autistic childcare worker will focus on having happy individuals. Thus if, for example, all children sit at the table and do their paintings, the non-autistic worker will be content while the autistic one will pay attention to each child. This is why I am always the first (if not the only) one who spots when a child gets upset, while many others don’t become aware until the child bursts into tears.
Autistic people are naturally inquisitive. Not only do I closely observe the children, I also try to figure out what goes through their minds.
Even though I use the term myself, I consider the word play to be condescending because every act of playing is in fact a learning experience, and what appears to others as simple play may be an experiment, the development of abilities or the practice or improvement of skills.
Likewise, in their interactions I’m always interested in the motivations and objectives of each child. This leads to advanced judgements when it comes to deciding whether or not it is necessary to intervene or offer assistance.
Autistic people know from experience that some milestones may be reached at a later stage, some things may take longer to sink in, some behaviours may be more difficult to adjust, and some situations take more time to get used to; we are also painfully aware of the devastating effect discouragement and resignation of their caregivers have on children. My patience is legendary, and I will never give up on any child.
Explanations and Choices
As autistic people, we detest following instructions without being given a good reason or not being offered choices where applicable. Because of this mindset, we will always explain the reasons behind the orders we give, and we will offer the children choices to pick from whenever possible.
Sense of Justice and Fair Play, Conflict Resolution
Autistic people have a very strong sense of fairness because we are able to see the points of view of every child and suggest solutions that ensure that nobody feels disadvantaged.
We are also famous for our ability to think outside the box. When it comes to solving conflicts, this enables us to come up with often unconventional ideas that take the interests of all involved parties into account.
On the surface some of these strengths, such as the reading of facial impressions, seem to contradict the symptoms of autistic spectrum conditions, but it should be kept in mind that children do not yet try to conceal their emotions and intentions and are therefore easier to understand by those who pay attention.
2. Working with Autistic Children
An autistic childcare worker is to an autistic child like a Cuban teacher to a Cuban child in a Norwegian school. We understand each other in a bewildering environment, more than any non-autistic professional ever could, no matter how qualified they may be.
We understand how their minds work. We can figure out what brings about a certain reaction or behaviour. We are aware of situations that may cause problems for them. We can see when they start feeling uncomfortable.
A lot of our interactions with autistic children are guided by what we consider common sense, but which only appears to make common sense to autistic people.
For example, in a crèche I worked in we had an autistic girl who used to play on her own and was entirely oblivious to the subtle advances from others.
Aware that she wouldn’t approach the other children, I encouraged the other children to approach her, and in no time at all she had lots of friends and was the centre of attention. (I even had to report to the crèche owner because the girl’s therapist wanted to know how she made such enormous progress in just a few days.)
That was in 2007. In 2014, a number of (presumably non-autistic) researchers conducted studies and found out that autistic children are ‘more likely to engage in play when initiated by peers’, something I could have told them a long time ago, based simply on my autistic common sense.
It is not despite my autism but because of my autism that I am such an excellent childcare worker, and the same can be said for many others!