Come What May
While listening to Sandy Howarth speak about autism and its related concepts with proficiency, it is easy to take her for a doctor.
An interior designer by profession, Howarth was unaware about everything medical, until her first child, Steven, was born. As an infant, her son was diagnosed as being autistic. Since then, learning and understanding autism became a matter of necessity to Howarth. She also released the first edition of her book No Matter What in May 2009. The book is based on her experience of teaching her autistic son.
Born in Sri Lanka, Howarth first came to Dubai in 1991, along with her husband. Steven was born in 1994 and 15 months later, Howarth realised that all was not well with her son. “I wondered at this point if he was deaf as I would continually ask him if he wanted a biscuit and get no response from him. But on showing him the biscuit, he would happily take it from me and eat it. I tested his hearing by playing a Disney video as he woke up. He recognised the sounds of his favourite Disney videos, which told me that Steven was not deaf,” says Howarth, who now resides in UK. Before the diagnosis, Howarth hoped to resume work, but the diagnosis altered her plans for life. She decided to focus all her attention on Steven.
After the birth of her second child — a daughter — in 1999, Howarth shifted to the UK with her children in search of better specialist teaching, while her husband remained in Dubai.
But once in the UK, Howarth explains that she grew disillusioned with the system. She placed her son in a special autistic school, but soon learnt that he was not making any progress. “In fact, he regressed in all areas that I had successfully taught him whilst in Dubai,” explains Howarth. “Knowing my son’s potential and through a lack of choice, I withdrew him from school and taught him at home myself.”
With a toddler to take care of, Howarth had to juggle between home schooling her autistic son and attending to the needs of her baby daughter. She managed to do both with great difficulty and insists that today, her 10-year-old daughter is her greatest support. “She understands Steven and is very good with him. She is never made to feel left out as I let her know how much I appreciate her.” Howarth tutored herself on skills that were required to teach him, like physical therapy, play therapy and behaviour therapy. And gradually, Howarth says, Steven began to make progress in leaps and bounds. But, home schooling a child with special needs was an expensive affair. “Speech therapy is so expensive. When I taught him at home, I hired and trained psychology students to deal with him. Soon, the cash just ran out and I was not even using experts!”
As her son was ‘statemented’, Howarth hoped that the provision for one on one speech therapy sessions with her son, who she describes as having limited communication skills, would be provided to her. “Steven’s progress proved to the Local Education Authority (LEA) the effectiveness of the home programme. I took the LEA to tribunal because Steven’s educational needs had not been addressed accurately.” While the LEA agreed to help him continue his education at an autistic school of her choice, Howarth remained far from satisfied. “Unfortunately, this school was also unable to show progress in Steven’s learning,” she explains. Now, she has resumed teaching Steven on a daily basis when he returns from school.
It was then that Howarth took to writing the novel, No Matter What, in an effort to seek some answers through her writing. “I had exhausted my energies in requesting the additional support that Steven desperately needed. The coping strategies (in the book) are based on my experience and what I believe to be effective when dealing with an autistic child.” The book encourages parents of special needs children to recognise how much their children are capable of achieving and to help them reach their potential. The book also includes advice in dealing with everyday situations, development skills and coping with the condition. But most of all, it imparts the message that they should love their child, no matter what. “I know initially at the time of diagnosis, my initial reactions were shock, trauma and helplessness,” says Sandy. “But my love for Steven made me feel stronger for him.”
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