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Raising Autistic Children with @spiritedsons | World Autism Day

In recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, we reached out to mother-of-two, Justine Dawson of @spiritedsons, to find out more about the condition and how it has manifested within her family. Recognition and understanding of autism has increased significantly over recent years yet there is still a long way to go with regard to educating society on the condition, removing stigma and increasing inclusion.

Both of Justine’s sons were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) just months apart at the beginning of 2020. She discusses with rare candidness the impact that autism has had on her family life. Offering an uplifting and transformative message on the subject, Justine has provided us with a wonderful insight into how she feels the condition can be managed and the unique positives that can be drawn from it.

29 Mar 2021

In your own words, what is autism?

Autism, from a medical point of view, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts how an individual perceives and socialises with others. However, from a personal point of view, autism is a different way of thinking and perceiving sensory input. While it does present its own set of challenges, those with autism also have so many strengths! And I think that it is very important to highlight and appreciate those strengths.

mother holding her two children in a field of sunflowers. Boys are wearing denim dungarees and mother is wearing a white dress, smiling
mother kissing her little boy, showing love and affection. In the background is a father holding his son and they're smiling at each other

Please tell us about the most special aspects of your relationship with your sons.

The most special aspect of my relationship with my sons is that I know them better than anyone else. Because Christian is currently non-speaking, I really am able to hone in on his gestures and his body language and the way he carries himself to better understand what is going through his head at any given time. While he may not be able to verbally communicate with me, he makes sure he is understood and heard and I think that is a beautiful thing! With both of my boys, I know I am their safe space. They can come to me whenever the world is too overwhelming and I’ll always be here with open arms.

You said your sons were both diagnosed with ASD at the beginning of 2020, how was it to hear the double diagnosis?

Receiving their diagnosis just a few weeks apart was emotionally taxing. While I saw certain signs and indicators, there is nothing like hearing the diagnosis and seeing it on paper from a Developmental Paediatrician. I remember just sitting in the car for a long while after those appointments, trying my best to hide my tears, but they just kept streaming down my face. There was a grieving process after their diagnosis. For parents going through a new diagnosis, I want them to know it’s OK to grieve. It doesn’t make you a bad parent. For me personally, I didn’t know then what I know now about autism. I was so focused on the challenges. No parent wants their child to go through life with additional struggles. I think, as a mother, it’s completely human to picture your parenting journey going a certain way. And when things don’t go the way you expected, it’s OK to mourn that loss. But it’s also so important to realise everything you’ve gained. At the time of their diagnosis, I didn’t realise their limitless potential. Now I know they can achieve whatever they have their minds set on and I’ll be there to support them every step of the way.

little boys outside in coordinating outfits. Outfits covered in strawberries and one of the boys is lounging on a sun lounger

We understand that routine is important to children with autism, can you tell us about your daily routine? Is there a particular activity your sons really enjoy doing?

Routine is important to the boys and we always try to be prepared when there is a change in their routine. We use helpful tools like visual schedules and social stories to prepare them for events that they might find scary or overwhelming, like dentist appointments or trips to the car wash. We also try to schedule as much outside time as possible because both boys enjoy the fresh air. Their favourite place is the beach! From swimming in the waves to feeling the sand crunch in between their little fingers – they’re both the biggest beach bums! Summer is their favourite time of year and being on the beach seems to really melt all of their worries away.

In the hope of promoting awareness and inclusion, what would you like others to know about autism?

There is a famous saying within the autism community by autistic Doctor Stephen Shore – “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” – and as a parent of two children on the spectrum, I find this to be so true. Christian and Gabriel are both autistic but they are very different people. Gabriel has the biggest imagination! He loves to play dress-up and act out different scenarios. He is the biggest ham in front of a camera! We always say he’s going to win an Oscar one day. He’s also a daredevil and a huge thrill seeker. While he does have sensory aversions, like loud noises, clothing tags and intense lighting, that doesn’t stop him from his next adrenaline rush. Christian, on the other hand, is our artist! He can usually be found with a crayon or marker in his hand, or swaying to his favourite Harry Styles song. I’ve read that some autistic people can hear and feel colours and I think that is true for Christian! He also pays such close attention to detail. He notices every blade of grass and every grain of sand. He has such a beautiful way of thinking and his smile is contagious.

image of boys playing outside, one is holding a stick while the other is using a toy lawn mower
image of two boys crouching close to the ground wearing coordinating outfits and smiling at the camera

Your gorgeous boys seem to have a lot of fun exploring outdoors. What changes would you like to see happen in society to promote inclusivity for those with autism?

The boys do love being outside and I hope that more education programmes realise the value of nature-based learning! I’m a firm believer that we weren’t built to sit at a desk all day. It’s important for both autistic and non-autistic children to take a break from a traditional classroom setting, get out of their seats and move a bit! I also think it’s imperative to note that inclusion is not just for the benefit of those on the autistic spectrum, but for neurotypical individuals as well. As a parent to two neuro-diverse sons, I am often told the importance of having “typically developing” children as models for my boys to learn in a classroom setting. However, it’s time to flip the switch and ask the question: what can your children learn from mine? There is so much to appreciate about the autistic mind – let’s celebrate it! Children with autism spend countless hours trying to assimilate to a word that wasn’t built for them – this narrative has to change and the first step in doing so is educating the young population on autism. I always tell parents, it’s OK for their children to ask questions. We want their peers to understand words like stimming and self-regulation. I certainly had no idea what those behaviours meant growing up.

There are so many articles on autism that knowing where to start can be overwhelming. Are there any resources you have found particularly useful that you would recommend to other parents?

You’ll have a lot of information coming at you from all different directions. You’ll want to dive right in and read it all at once. My best advice – breathe. Join your local autism or special needs parent group. After a diagnosis, it is easy to feel isolated and alone. But believe me, you aren’t! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism; and that there are over 13 million parents of special needs children in the United States alone! These parents are a wealth of knowledge and so helpful when it comes to finding resources like doctors, speech and occupational therapists and support groups. I’ve found everything from special needs swim instructors to social skill groups through my local parenting page. So join! You won’t regret it.

image of a family inside in their living room. mum and dad are tickling their sons and all the family are laughing and having fun

All images by @spiritedsons

Follow Justine, Christian and Gabriel | Instagram

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