Having recently come off the back off Autism Awareness Day on the 2nd of April, and whilst still in what is being pushed as Autism Awareness Month, it seemed particularly fitting that this past week the results of a study from the researchers at Dublin City University School of Nursing and Human Sciences were published, finding that Ireland has similar around the same rate of autism affecting the population at around one per cent.
As much as this figure may appear minute when taken at face value — that’s still one person in every one hundred that is afflicted with the disability. Furthermore, that is an even greater number of people that are parents of autistic children that have to deal with all of the struggles that raising a child with autism entails.
Despite its prevalence today, what actually defines autism is still a massive grey area for the uninitiated, and hence numerous organisations dedicated to raising awareness are still working as tirelessly as ever. Because of this lack of awareness, the mere mention of the word causes people to immediately think the worst when a young child is diagnosed with it, as for many the first point of reference is something like Rain Man, or the idea that their child will not have the means to properly communicate, verbal or otherwise.
In reality autism can manifest itself in many different ways being that the symptoms of it cover an entire spectrum, and as such the severity of it is wide-ranging. Two people diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) can be affected by it in varying manners, have skills that the other does not, and encounter issues that the other does not.
Autism Ireland describes how autism is “often referred to as the ‘hidden’ disability because people who are on the autistic spectrum show no significant physical difference to their peers, rather it is their behaviours that mark them out as different”. Such behaviours relate to primarily social factors, such as how one communicates and interacts on a social level.
As such, not only is it of importance for the disorder to be diagnosed as early as possible, it’s integral that the necessary work is put in early so as to improve a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially.
One mother who realised this through circumstance was Zarah Doyle, whose son was diagnosed with ASD several years ago. Through experience, she realised the difficulty both parents and teachers have in making significant progress with the social aspect of an autistic child’s life, and took it upon herself to set up Kidzcraft, an extracurricular group operating on a Saturday in Kildare with the specific intention of offering a social outlet to children with ASD and a means for them to mix with one another.
“It’s no secret to anyone with an autistic child how difficult their teachers have it,” she explains. “They obviously have their academic requirements and there just isn’t enough time in the day to strike a balance between that and the social side, especially with so many kids needing one-to-one attention.”
“That’s what caused me to do something myself. I was looking for any other local social groups or outlets for my son and there just wasn’t much out there. It goes without saying that these things hit closer to home when it directly affects your family and it’s what forced me into taking action myself.”
This consequently led to the creation of Kidzcraft in September 2014, with its ethos being that “we at Kidzcraft offer a holistic approach to social development through a child centred curriculum. Our aim is to create a happy, healthy environment where each child has the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential. We have a stimulating and caring environment with friendly, professional staff. In line with best practice, we follow the guidelines set out by Hometrain. Our core values are underpinned by working with parents, families and the surrounding community.”
Though its beginnings were modest, the groups have grown at a staggering rate. Initially ran by two people with a solitary class of five children and hosted in an old, no longer used primary school, they have now expanded to two groups of twelve children (split into two separate age groups of 3–5 and 6–10) and now have six staff on the books, with four further volunteers and most importantly are doing so in a state of the art ASD unit at the primary school that replaced the one they formerly resided in.
“More than any personal pride, the most gratifying thing is seeing the progress that the children make”, confesses Zarah. “The group was set up to so these kids could enjoy themselves and grow socially, and to see that happen first hand, as well as receiving feedback from parents as to how they’re also seeing it at home, makes it all worthwhile.”