Years ago, I moved to Canada to get my Ph.D. in Management Information Systems. It was during the course of this program that my wife and I noticed that our son was unable to speak or communicate. It took us a while, but we finally figured that what he suffered from was Autism. At first, we were broken.
We could not imagine why our only son had to be affected. Honestly, accepting the diagnosis must have been the most painful part of it all, but we gradually came to terms with the realities. Even if we didn’t want to, the obvious impairments we witnessed daily in our son’s ability to communicate couldn’t be more real.
I noticed that my son made no eye contact and when he looked at me, there was no interest in his eyes. He did not understand what I was saying to him. I called out to him, but he wouldn’t respond.
However, when we took him to an audiologist for a test, we were told his hearing was intact. We realized his problem was that of perception. Much like how information is handled by a computer; input – process- output, it seemed like his input system was impaired. Learning can simply NOT happen under such circumstances, yet he needed to learn to be able to function as an independent entity. Where there is no learning, there is no personal progress, NO self-preservation or control, and the result is a lifetime of heavy dependence on others.
My son was in the care of an agency for many years, and I couldn’t help but notice that their methods were not working for him. What he really needed was a defined and consistent learning style which would keep broadening his learning capacity. He had to be exposed to these lessons for at least 8 effective hours consistently to grasp any new action, word or habit satisfactorily. We also had difficulties with getting him a speech therapist as their services were quite expensive and he needed at least 4 hours of speech therapy regularly; managing autism is certainly hard work and $120 per hour was quite a stretch for us.
As a father, I did my best to save him. I spent considerable financial resources and time on searching out the various tools that could help improve his quality of life. I realized that the best thing to do for him was to keep getting him to learn new things, words, methods of communicating, all at his own pace. It would not be advisable to give up on helping him. Thankfully, I was already past the point where I wanted to just whine, get or discouraged. I wanted to give my son the best he could have. So I set about learning “how” to make his learning easier.
I started to help improve his eye contact using my own methods, and within 6 months, his eye contact had really improved. I would sometimes stand behind him and encourage him to make contact with me in order to communicate more effectively. I also tweaked his diet by eliminating sugars and decreasing carbohydrates. My wife would ask him, “What is today called?” I would tell him, “Today is Monday,” and he realized that was what he was supposed to say. We repeated those exercises over and over until he caught it. I eventually employed the use of PowerPoint and QBasic software to help him learn. He seemed to never get tired of the computer, and what’s more, it was a much cheaper method of teaching him new things.
Generally, he seemed to learn names faster than dates, coins, and feelings. Our most challenging periods with him were the times we had to change his learning pattern or whenever other people had to work with him. He liked routine, but too much routine also impeded his progress.
It’s been a long, arduous journey, but it’s also been worth every drop of sweat we put in. He has now completed 8th grade and is gearing up for high school now. He is in a regular school with other kids, goes to school on his own, and is able to perform his daily tasks. He is able to read now, and I take him with me to stores such as McDonald so he can practice making his own meal orders. He bikes, shops with credit cards and also loves to see airplanes.
In the course of my research into getting him to learn better, I discovered a refreshing concept called Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA “focuses on the principles that explain how learning takes place and Positive reinforcement is one such principle. When a behavior is followed by some sort of reward, the behavior is more likely to be repeated. Through decades of research, the field of behavior analysis has developed many techniques for encouraging positive behavior and for reducing those that may cause harm or interfere with learning. ABA is the application of these techniques and principles in order to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior." Instructors use this and other visual learning methods to help autistic children learn. I eventually learned to help my son understand words like “love” and “understand” by teaching them in practice.
I have worked as a software designer for more than 20 years so, in 2008, I started working on a passion project that eventually birthed the City of Autism. I was designing a computer application built on advanced technology, which could be used to help autistic children learn. This app is fitted out with functions that encourage them to talk and begin to communicate with others, specially created for autistic children and adults between the ages of 4 to 30 years. This application is just a part of my larger vision for City of Autism, which is to build and run autism learning centers in cities around the globe. My mission is to assist people who need the kind of help I have been able to provide my son.
The journey of teaching and raising an autistic child is a continuous one, and as one celebrates the little victories of new lessons and behavioral patterns mastered, one must gear up for the next step, and the next and the next. The good news is… no parent has to do it alone once they can trust us with their children. We are eager to work with kids and their parents alike, to make the experience bearable and maybe, even fun for them.