Saturday 29 October 2016

Living with severe autism: families share their experiences

Appreciating that the autism spectrum is truly a wide and heterogeneous one (or even several?), I'd like to direct your attention today to the findings reported by Jocelyn Bessette Gorlin and colleagues [1] on the topic of "the experiences of families living with a child with severe autism."

In particular, I'd like to highlight the six areas that emerged from the "29 interviews with 22 participants from 11 families" related to family experiences and how, minus any sweeping generalisations, moves to tackle some of the issues raised in these areas might do quite a bit for the quality of life of everyone concerned.

So, the six areas:

(1) "families experienced autism as mysterious and complex because it is an invisible and unpredictable condition with diagnostic challenges." 'Mysterious' and 'complex' are words that have always followed the label of autism and as things stand at the moment, are unlikely to change in the coming years. Sure we know a little more about autism than we did a few years ago (i.e. the 'autisms', lots of comorbidity is potentially over-represented, etc) but in terms of longitudinal course and those important discussions (and actions!) about how to maximise quality of life 'for individuals' (the stress being on 'individuals'), concrete strategies are still few and far between. Diagnostic challenges? Well, certainly there are challenges to 'getting a diagnosis' in quite a few quarters still (see here for example) which is probably just as much down to money and resources as anything else. And just before you suggest that parents might not be sensitive to early issues potentially linked to autism, you're probably wrong (see here).

(2) "families described severe autism behaviors that often caused self-injury, harm to others and damaged homes." This is the side of autism that people generally don't talk about as much as they should. Acknowledging that extremes like self-injurious behaviour (SIB) aren't exactly great dinner table conversation, such patterns of behaviour are often the ones that cause the most distress both to the person themselves and their family/loved ones around them. I don't think I can stress enough how vital it is that SIB is further (a) understood (in terms of potential meaning) and (b) acted upon, particularly where a person is at high risk of hurting themselves or others (see here for example). I might also add that important issues such as wandering (elopement) in relation to autism should also be given due consideration given its potential inclusion under the category of 'challenging behaviour'.

(3) "profound communication deficits resulted in isolation between the family and child." I think this area is pretty self-explanatory. We can talk about the emerging role for assistive technologies as part of a package of interventions to aid this issue, but a lot more needs to be done in this area and indeed, is being done. And yes, this probably includes discussions around a re-framing of the communicative relationship between child/adult and family.

(4) "families discussed the unrelenting stress from lack of sleep, managing the child's developmental delays, coordinating and financing services, and concern for the child's future." I'm a big fan of caring for the carer(s) when it comes to the quality of life for families touched by autism (see here for example). To mention words like 'parenting stress' when it comes to autism shouldn't be a taboo subject (see here) the same as it shouldn't be when talking about parenting in general. There may be many ways that professionals can intervene in this respect (see here). Insofar as parents/families looking to the future of their children/loved one and tackling the sentiments of 'why I can never die' (see here), well, this is where society also needs to step up both in terms of future planning and delivery of services appropriate, welcoming and responsive to the needs of individuals. And some parents do have to do it all themselves...

(5) "families described consequences of isolation from friends, school, the public, and health providers." Although not everyone's experience, another uncomfortable issue associated with parenting a child with severe autism can be how isolating it is. It's little surprise that in the age of social media, this medium is being used to enable families to be/feel that little less isolated from the outside world. Aside from making more support agencies 'available' to families, there are a few other suggestions that might make things a little less isolating (see here).

(6) "families portrayed their need for compassionate support and formed 'hybrid families' (nuclear, extended families and friends) to gain support." See point 5. I'd also argue that the formation of those 'hybrid families' perhaps overlap with those 'kingdoms of autism' talked about a few years back. Indeed, I get the impression that talk about families and kingdoms intersecting with how wide and heterogeneous the autism spectrum is, might be one reason why there are so many varied opinions about autism from all sorts of angles...

These are all important points. Yes, I know that their relevance is going to be variably applicable to those (a) on the autism spectrum or (b) falling into that 'severe autism' bracket, but I don't doubt the lessons that could be learned would benefit quite a few people beyond the intended audience. As the authors note, their study results "could influence health care policies to improve the care for families caring for children with severe autism."

Great words indeed, but how to put words into 'life-changing' practice? Well, for a start understand that the autism spectrum is indeed a wide and heterogeneous one...


[1] Bessette Gorlin J. et al. Severe Childhood Autism: The Family Lived Experience. J Pediatr Nurs. 2016 Oct 6. pii: S0882-5963(16)30279-2.

---------- Bessette Gorlin J, McAlpine CP, Garwick A, & Wieling E (2016). Severe Childhood Autism: The Family Lived Experience. Journal of pediatric nursing PMID: 27720503

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