By Bob Farster
As the owner of two Pigtails & Crewcuts children’s salons, one located in Glenview and the other in Mount Prospect, I relish the opportunity to meet children of all shapes, sizes, colors and dispositions on a daily basis. A number of those children have autism or other special needs, and my staff is trained to be compassionate and empathetic with every child, whether they’re laughing, crying or silent.
I know, from speaking with many parents of autistic children, that caring approaches, like ours, don’t always happen. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I decided to sit down with Mike, a friend of mine and the father of Mickey, an autistic child. I ask him to be straight with me: What would he like to change about the ways that people—strangers—interact with his son? What are his pet peeves? What can he teach us about autism so that we feel better informed?
Mike started out by telling me the story of Mickey’s first haircut. The boy was about to turn 3, and his hair was down past his shoulders. Mike learned quickly that Mickey needed to make a connection with whomever was going to cut his hair. He needed to be charmed, he needed to play with that person and trust that person. Mike needed to be able to tell Mickey that they’re going to “Mary’s” today, and since he likes Mary, everything was good. Mike learned that the same lesson applied to dentists, doctors, restaurants and other destinations. By letting Mickey know that they were going to see a person he liked, they avoided many battles.
Mike also said the following:
If you could change something about how people interact with your son, what would it be?
It is very hard for people to understand children or adults that are autistic. This is due to many things, such as people don’t “look” autistic. There is such a vast spectrum of autism and so many variances that there is no such thing as a “classic” autist. Understand that these kids often play among other children—not necessarily with them. People, meaning well, don’t understand these kids may have peculiar eating habits, because they tend to first test food by touch, not by taste. (You should always ask before offering them any food as there may be allergy issues as well). Understand that these kids do not usually have the same sense of touch as we have, they may be less sensitive to hot and cold or they may not feel an injury as we do, and ignore it.
What advice would you give people in how to better communicate with someone who has autism?
The one thing I would stress, especially with children, is to get the individual to make eye contact or at least look at you. And, be sure you are smiling and look approachable. Many autists do not like to be touched, so be very careful unless you truly know the individual. Also, be aware of “echolalia” where the person repeats only what you say. Talk to them in simple words and phrases, trying to find some topic that may engage them. If they appear to have a higher-level vocabulary by their response, then step it up a bit. Understand that people with autism learn by repetition and rote, seldom by just hearing words.
What frustrates you most about how others interact with your son?
Again, autists do not physically display their issue. They may avoid eye contact and/or being touched. With all the publicity as of late, more people are aware of autism, which is helping. The difficult thing is until a person has had some interaction with an autist, they don’t understand them. But most people I have run into catch on positively and quickly. A thing to remember is that you don’t let a child, especially, get away with bad behavior because of autism. They still need to learn to be respectful, to obey and to behave themselves. This is critical, because it is a social behavioral disorder that needs to be controlled as much as possible.
Are there any pet peeves you have?
Lack of understanding on the part of others. But I see this with people who don’t understand younger children and attack parents who usually are doing what they can with the terrible twos and other kid related issues.
What else can you add to give people insight about what it's like to be the parent of someone with autism?
- Remember your son, for example, is still a 7-year-old boy. Don’t excuse something because he is autistic. He needs the same encouragement, teaching, counseling and sometimes discipline that any child does to learn to be a responsible person.
- Do not be afraid of having your child labeled as autistic, or any other disability, because you may well be denying them programs and other assistance that will help them.
- Be involved strongly with every aspect of your child’s life, including school and therapies.
- Take it upon yourself to get your child involved in activities that your child will enjoy doing alone or with you. High Ridge YMCA has excellent swimming instructors who work diligently with autistic kids, for example. There are so many things that are available, see what your child’s interests are by watching what catches his or her eye on TV or the Internet and by reading with them. Museums, zoos and the planetarium are wonderful places for many of these kids and parents.
- Get involved with groups such the Autism Society of Illinois, which offers many good tips, referrals and events. Special Recreation Associations are all over the Chicagoland area and offer many programs. Your child may not be able to do well in group sports, but things like bowling, fishing, hiking and pets are wonderful in this case.
Bob Farster is the owner of Pigtails & Crewcuts salon, which welcomes all children and parents and strives to accommodate their needs. To learn more please visit the Glenview Pigtails & Crewcuts website.