WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism, or autism spectrum condition (ASC) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the social and communication parts of the brain. This leads to difficulties and differences in social skills, speech, emotional regulation, forming relationships and processing sensory information.
Those with autism interpret and interact with the world differently than most people, which can make life very challenging. But people with autism also have unique ways of thinking and can be incredibly gifted in areas like art, music, memory and mathematics.
Understanding autism in foster care
Around 40% of children in care waiting to find a safe, loving home have a disability or complex needs. A large proportion of those children are autistic. Being taken away from their birth family is scary and confusing for most fostered children, but it can be extremely difficult for a child with autism to fully understand the changes happening around them. They need the support of a nurturing foster family to help them thrive in their new environment and make positive strides towards their future.
Fostering a child with autism, or fostering a child with disabilities, is a rich and rewarding role but it does come with a unique set of challenges. Children with ASD struggle to communicate their needs, wants and emotions in a way people are typically used to. The distress caused by breaks in routine, unexpected change or exposure to overwhelming environments can lead to emotional outbursts of anger and frustration, or it may cause them to mentally shutdown.
When you’re parenting a child with autism and they display challenging behaviour, it’s likely to be one of two reasons:
- They’re reacting to a situation they find stressful and/or uncomfortable.
- They’re expressing themselves differently because they don’t know how to communicate appropriately.
While this can be difficult to manage, the key for foster parents is to stay patient and remember that the child’s behaviour is not their fault and it shouldn’t be taken personally. Children with ASD react to their immediate environment, so it's about putting strategies in place to minimise their triggers and ensure that their experience in your home is enjoyable and calming.
Underdeveloped social and communication skills
- Avoids or struggles to maintain eye contact.
- Struggles with small talk or maintaining conversation.
- Doesn’t pick up on social cues such as facial expressions.
- Doesn’t understand social boundaries such as personal space.
- Has trouble recognising or empathising with other people’s emotions.
- Has atypical speech patterns, limited speech or is non-verbal.
Restricted or repetitive behaviour
- Repeats movements such as rocking back and forth. This is called stimming, or ‘self-stimulating’ behaviour.
- Repeats words or sounds over and over. This is called echolalia.
- Has an intense focus on a particular interest, such as a TV show, toy, or specific item.
- Has a strong need for routine, rituals and order and finds change distressing.
- Finds new environments overwhelming and difficult to cope with.
Trouble processing sensory information
- Hypersensitivity (over sensitivity) to sound, lights, smells, textures, tastes, body awareness and having an extreme reaction when presented with certain sensory triggers.
- Hyposensitivity (under sensitivity) to sensory stimuli. This could be that they don’t feel pain as easily, which presents a risk to themselves or others.
What are the main characteristics of autism?
As the name suggests, autism is a spectrum condition, which means people can have mild to severe symptoms and everything in between.
Some people with autism may have advanced communication skills, whereas others might be completely non-verbal. Their abilities, behaviour and communication will vary greatly, but those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do share some defining characteristics.
Here are the main differences we see in people with ASD, along with some examples of what that could look like.
Signs of autism in foster children
Marnie Clayton-Slater, Therapist at ISP talks about the signs of autism in foster children and teenagers, as well as what foster parents should look out for if they suspect that a young person in their care might have autism in her mini-series on YouTube.
Asperger's vs. Autism
What's the Difference?
The term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ was first used in the 1940s by Viennese paediatrician, Hans Asperger. It was used to describe people who were thought to have a ‘milder’ form of autism, which some referred to as ‘high-functioning autism’. However, this term is no longer used by medical professionals.
In fact, ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ hasn’t been used by doctors and paediatricians as a formal diagnosis since 2013, when it became part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
This is because as research has evolved, we now understand that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that individuals with autism have strengths and weaknesses in a range of different areas, such as sensory processing, motor skills, social awareness, communication, and more.
Helping your child with autism thrive
With the right know-how, you can help a child with autism flourish and reach their full potential. Here are our top tips and strategies for fostering autistic children.
Get to really know them
You should try to gather as much information as you can about your autistic foster child’s sensory triggers, what makes them anxious, the food they like and dislike, if they are comfortable being held or touched etc. This will help you ensure the transition into your home is as seamless as possible.
Learn how to communicate with them
As a caregiver, it’s vital you’re able to communicate with your foster child to understand what they need and how they’re feeling. When you’re fostering a child with autism, you may need to explore different methods of communication. One idea is to use cue cards with pictures, colours or words that they can show you when they’re feeling a certain way. It’s also known that people with ASD struggle to understand abstract concepts, so avoid phrases that can be misinterpreted, such as ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, for example.
Set up a sensory space in the home
As hypersensitivity to sensory stimulation can be a distressing trigger for a child with autism, they will need a safe, soothing place in the home to go to if they feel overwhelmed. Decorate their bedroom with calming colours, pleasing textures and soft lighting to create a wonderful sensory environment they can relax in.
Remember, routine rules
Children with ASD find comfort in consistency, so make sure to ingrain that into the household. This could be set meal times, taking the same route to school and doing things in the same order. It’s not always possible to stick to such a rigid schedule, but if you’re aware of an upcoming change, try to gradually expose your foster child to smaller changes so the disruption isn’t as severe.
Let them explore their interests
Many children with autism have an intense preoccupation with a particular interest, and it’s something they find an immense amount of joy and pleasure in. Allow them to engage with this, but also introduce them to new games, toys and hobbies so they can develop a broader range of skills and experiences.
Ensure their school is right for them
School is a huge part of any child’s life, but it’s very important the school your autistic foster child attends can support their special educational needs (SEN). We have our own established specialist educational needs schools at ISP that are designed specifically to help children with disabilities and complex needs learn in a safe and encouraging place.
Join support groups
A problem shared is a problem half solved, so join support groups to connect with other foster parents of autistic children, as they’ll understand what you’re going through.
Be realistic with your expectations
Change won’t happen overnight. Focus on the small wins and celebrate those, such as introducing them to a new food type or communicating with a new family member. These are all steps in the right direction, and when you foster with ISP, you’re surrounded by a team of therapists and experts who are all working towards helping your foster child grow and develop.
Process and requirements for fostering an autistic child
Fostering a child with complex needs doesn’t require you to have any previous training or education. What’s important is that you’re enthusiastic and committed to giving a vulnerable child a stable, secure home. The steps to becoming a foster parent are exactly the same, the difference lies in the specialist ongoing training you receive when you foster with ISP.
We help our foster parents become experts in what they do so they can provide the best level of care. That’s why we even offer the chance to study for professional qualifications, such as NVQ3 or a QCF Level 3 in Health and Social Care.
Resources and support for fostering children with autism
We are the founders of therapeutic fostering. It’s a specialist and powerful type of fostering that has life-changing outcomes for looked-after children with disabilities, special needs and complex trauma. With over 35 years of experience in this field, we have all the know-how and resources to support you.
- The child is placed at the centre of an individual care plan tailored to their specific needs.
- You’re surrounded by a team of therapists, education advisors, social workers and other experts who are there to help you and your foster child.
- 24/7 support whenever you need it.
- Ongoing professional training including specialist courses such as Autism Awareness, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Theraplay.
- Amazing allowances and a minimum of 22 nights respite to get a well-deserved rest.
As the leading provider of therapeutic fostering, we've placed children at the centre of our thinking for over 35 years. During this time, we've developed a fostering service that surrounds our young people and their foster families with an integrated network of professional support.
Our 'Fostering Child With Complex Needs' series is packed full of advice and support from a whole range of professionals that foster parents can tap into. This includes social workers, fostering advisors, teachers and therapists, who all work with our foster parents and the children they look after, helping them understand and manage even the most challenging situations.
Marnie Clayton-Slater is a qualified therapist at ISP Fostering and a registered member of the BACP. She has over 20 years' experience working in residential, fostering and adoption, as well as being a foster parent herself. Marnie's passionate about working with care experienced young people and their foster parents, as well as supporting people with autism.
Could you give a child with AUTISM a home?
If you’d like more information around fostering a child with autism, or about ISP and how we care for children with complex needs, please get in touch with our friendly team today. We'll gladly answer any of your questions, no matter how big or small.
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