Getting an autism diagnosis for your child can be a life-changing event for you and your entire family, but you’re not alone in this. Here are tips, from educational consultant Adam Soffrin, on what to do next.
It’s estimated that in the United States, 1 in every 68 children has autism, with over 3 million people diagnosed in total. Multiply that by the families and friends of these people, and you may find that nearly everyone has a connection to someone affected by autism.
As an educational consultant working with schools and families with children with disabilities, I’ve experienced this connection firsthand. Here are some tips you can use to ensure that your child lives their best life.
First off, take a deep breath
A diagnosis of autism doesn’t change who your child is or what they can accomplish. Research has grown exponentially over the past few decades, and there are always new treatment ideas and strategies being studied at colleges and research institutes across the country. Researchers have developed effective programs to help children with autism develop their communication, social skills, academics, motor skills, and vocational training so they can live long, healthy, productive lives. All of this starts with you, and the sooner it starts, the better.
Prepare for early intervention
While there is a critical period in child development from ages 0 to 3 years, you should look into different therapies for your child at diagnosis. There is no cure for autism, but there are therapies that can help create foundational skills for your child to build on as they grow and develop.
While early intervention is recommended, it’s never too late to determine if your child is eligible for certain therapies, including:
- speech therapy
- occupational therapy (OT)
- physical therapy (PT)
- social or behavioral therapy (ABA, FloorTime, etc.)
Learn to listen without your ears
Learn to listen with your eyes. Having a delay in speech development or being nonverbal does not mean your child isn’t communicating. Everything we do, even silence, is communication. The sooner you understand how your child communicates, the easier it will be to interact and respond to their language.
Speech therapy may focus on a number of aspects, including:
- articulation (how we make sounds with our mouths)
- nonverbal communication (symbols, sign language, or voice-output communication devices)
- social pragmatics (how we use language with other people)
Just remember: Everything your child does it trying to tell you something, so be sure to listen!
Become familiar with “gross” and “fine”
Children with autism sometimes have motor coordination issues that need to be addressed. There are two main types of motor functions: gross and fine.
Gross motor skills involve big body movements and muscles. Physical therapy (PT) tends to work on these skills, such as crawling, walking, jumping, and navigating stairs.
Fine motor skills, on the other hand, are small, delicate movements, such as writing, zipping up a jacket, or buttoning a shirt. For these, your child will work with an occupational therapist. These skills tend to take a good deal of motor skill and hand-eye coordination, and they often need extra practice.
Try to think of fine motor skills the same way you would think about teaching someone algebra. There are a number of complex movements and motor planning strategies that go into learning each activity, and much like algebra, they need to be taught and mastered in order.
Understand they experience a different sort of sense
You may have seen children with autism sitting in adaptive chairs or “stimming,” or making repetitive movements such as rocking their bodies or flapping their arms. These movements are typically due to increased sensory needs. They are no different than the habits someone without autism may have, such as chewing on the end of a pencil or tapping their foot. These behaviors all serve an internal purpose, but for children with autism, the repetitive movements may be disruptive in certain situations.
Occupational therapy tries to develop a sensory “diet” that provides the input a child needs in a controlled, socially appropriate way. If a child needs to jump up and down to calm themselves, OTs will build activities that offer the same input that jumping provides. This could include trampoline breaks, foot squeezes, or sitting on yoga balls.
Engage in applied behavior analysis
Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is one of the most researched and most widely accepted forms of behavior therapy for children with autism. There are many strong proponents of ABA, citing it’s empirical base. ABA practitioners believe that behavior is a function of a environment. By manipulating the environment around a child, we can provide the structure to help them learn and develop new skills.
Another popular therapy for social and behavioral skills is FloorTime, which involves child-directed, play-based therapy.
Don’t be afraid to try something new
Horse therapy, social skills groups, swim lessons, music, art… there may not be a strong research base for all of these programs, but if your child is happy and successful in them, keep it up! Not every therapy has to be about data and progress — recreation and leisure may be just as important to a well-rounded child’s development.
But don’t go too far…
Be cautious about “miracle cures.” Some people may try to prey on your parental instinct to want the best for your child. Look at every new treatment with a skeptical eye, including medical treatments and interventions. Be sure to talk with your doctor before trying anything new, especially if it involves strict diets, home remedies, herbs, and unregulated medications. Sometimes things that sounds too good to be true probably are.
Remember: You can’t change your child, but you can change
Finding time to practice when you and your child are neither hungry nor tired will help you to have more patience with these tasks. Also, realizing that what may be important to you that your child master might not seem important to them.
Your child is still your child, whether or not he or she has a diagnosis of autism. Show them compassion, understanding, and kindness. Protect them from the evils of the world, but don’t hide them from it. Teach them to love and be loved. Remember that a diagnosis does not make them who they are.
Adam Soffrin is a Bay Area-based educational consultant, working with schools and families to ensure children with disabilities receive inclusive, appropriate, and supportive educational services. Adam also chronicles his work as a special education teacher and behavior analyst on his website.