Navigating Social Situations With Autism

By Emilia Ismail

November 2023 FEATURE
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PARENTS OF CHILDREN with autism face many challenges, particularly when managing their behaviour in social situations. Firdaus Fishal, a special needs educator at Prospect Rainbow Centre in Tanjung Tokong, explains that children with autism often have sensory sensitivities, difficulty communicating and anxiety in unfamiliar environments, which may lead to distress and meltdowns. “Changes in routine can cause heightened anxiety, making it difficult for them to attend dental appointments, sit through haircuts or travel by plane.

“Regrettably, these social situations are not always avoidable. There will come a time when children have to go to the dentist or when air travel becomes necessary in an emergency. However, parents and caregivers can utilise different strategies to encourage compliance from their special needs children. It will be a long process, but it is not impossible,” he adds.

Going to the Dentist

For homemaker, Jegeswari Shanmugam, taking her 10-year-old son, Varun, to the dentist is her biggest headache. Like many children who have autism, Varun is afraid of the dental office’s sights, sounds and sensations.

“Even for normal people like me, a trip to the dentist is a distressing experience. So I can understand his fear,” says Jegeswari. “Even getting him to sit on the dental chair was a struggle. During the procedure, he kept moving his head and refused to comply with instructions.”

The experience has taught Jegeswari to work closely with the dentist to make dental visits more comfortable for Varun. She schedules appointments early in the morning when the dentist is likely to be more focused and not in a rush. During the procedure, she holds Varun’s hand tightly to prevent him from moving and tries to keep the session short, allocating only 15 minutes for each working visit.

Jegeswari also motivates Varun with the “First-Then” strategy by showing him what he first needs to do to gain access to a desired item or activity. “For example, Varun loves spicy food, so I’ll tell him, ‘First, we go to the dentist. Then, we’ll eat Nasi Kandar.’”

Barber Visits

When Ellyza Azmaria Akhtar took her son, Muhammad Isaac Hussaini, for his first haircut as a toddler, she was not expecting to find herself chasing him around the salon and preventing him from touching hairpins and curlers. “Once I got Isaac in the chair, he kept swatting away the barber’s hands while crying and screaming.”

Ellyza believes that the sensory aspects of a haircut, such as the feeling of clippers and the sound of buzzing, can be overwhelming for Isaac. “I noticed that whenever the barber uses the clippers, Isaac gets really afraid. And because Isaac does not like to be touched, he does not like the physical proximity of the barber or hairdresser,” she says.

Isaac, who is now four years old, has become more tolerant of haircuts after Ellyza has the barber come to their house. “It is easier to keep him calm at home because he is in a familiar environment. We usually sing along with him, let him watch his favourite cartoon show or give him some toys to play with.

“The best part of all is that getting haircuts at home has become a family ritual for us. His brother, Noah, and father now join in the hair-cutting session to help Isaac overcome his fear.

“I believe that helping Isaac reach the same developmental milestones as other neurotypical children is a journey that the whole family must undertake, and getting haircuts together is just one step in that journey,” she says.

Travelling by Air

When Lydia* took her three-year-old daughter, Melissa*, on a plane to KL for the first time, she was frightened by the sound of the turbine, which caused her to throw tantrums throughout the flight. “I thought I was prepared for the flight. I packed lots of snacks and toys, and downloaded her favourite YouTube videos to keep her occupied. But she was crying and screaming on the plane. Luckily, no one was angry at us.”

After the experience, Lydia tried telling stories to teach and reinforce appropriate in-flight behaviour from Melissa, but they were not effective. Needless to say, the family returned to Penang by bus, and now prefers travelling by land.

On the other hand, Azim Merican’s son, Aydn, has no trouble travelling by air. “We’ve been quite lucky in that Aydn enjoys flying—even in long-haul flights. Every time we fly, he wants the window seat, so I have to pay extra to ensure that. Aydn has learned to hum to ease ear discomfort during flights, which is quite amazing,” he says.

The challenge for Aydn lies in navigating the airport. Long lines at the customs clearance or waiting in public transportations that are not moving gets Aydn impatient, which leads to tantrums. “I usually just let him self-regulate his emotions, because frankly, when he’s in the midst of a tantrum, there’s no stopping him. Fortunately, many travellers and airport staff have greater ability to identify autism these days, so they are more understanding.

“However, I did get scolded by a Taiwanese customs officer once because Aydn was acting out,” he laughs.

When asked for advice about managing special needs children when travelling by air, he offers the following: “Before boarding the aircraft, be sure to inform the ground staff that you’re travelling with a special needs child. The airline will then fast track your boarding and even give your child goodie bags. Some airlines will even assign a cabin crew to attend to your needs.

“For special needs children who are afraid of the view, book the aisle seats. If your child is sensitive to sound, then buy noise-cancelling headphones. Also, I have found it useful to pin a badge that reads ‘I have autism’ on his jacket to inform the public that Aydn has special needs.”

Azim believes that exposing children with autism to different surroundings helps with their development. “I know it is challenging, but it is essential to teach them to be confident in public settings, including in aeroplanes,” he says.

*Not their real names.

Emilia Ismail

is the co-founder of Penang Hidden Gems and a writer. Her articles can be found in The Star, Penang Monthly and Penang Global Tourism.