My son is 16 years old and is on the autism spectrum. He started speech therapy at age three and applied behavior analysis (ABA) at the age of four. He’s had occupational and music therapy and social skills groups led by therapists. A whole lot of therapy! Some of the therapies have been at school, some out in the community, and a lot have been in our home. I’ve liked some therapists more than others, and I’ve found some more competent than others. I’ve learned something from all of them.
Here are five really important things that I’ve found helpful.
1. Behavior is communication
This point is huge. If your child is nonverbal, slightly verbal, or just has trouble expressing needs and wants, behavior is a very big clue. I’ve been at this game for a while and sometimes in the middle of life I just forget this. We were at the beach recently, and my son kept going over to the shower and drinking from it (you know, the one with the sign saying it’s not safe to drink the water). After repeatedly telling him not to do that I realized he was thirsty (duh). It may not always be that clear-cut. If your child keeps running away from you, consider the possibility that (s)he is running towards something. There is often a reason behind the behavior if you stop to try and consider it from the child’s perspective. Ask yourself what motive could your child have that they can’t express.
2. Ask “How do you feel?”
Ask it often. Maybe, in the beginning, you won’t get an answer. It’s so important for children with autism to be able to express feelings that this should be practiced continuously. If you don’t get an answer, provide two or three options for the child. If you know the answer (maybe your child is screaming, and it’s lunchtime), then prompt the answer, “Mom, I’m hungry.” Maybe when you ask you will get a nonverbal answer (sorry if an iPad is thrown at you, but you’ll know the child wants the iPad). Checking in regarding feelings can help reduce frustration on everyone’s part.
3. Idle hands are the devil’s playground.
Many kids on the spectrum need structure. They need a schedule, and they need to know what’s coming next. This is often hard to provide at home, especially for kids who don’t have a lot of interests. I had a hard time keeping my son busy, particularly because he didn’t/couldn’t do many things on his own. One therapist suggested I provide chores for him. I wasn’t sure what he would be able to do on his own in the house. It turns out this was one of the best suggestions I ever received. In the beginning, we made up chores just to keep him busy. We took all of his socks out of his drawers and brought them into the living room. He put them away one by one. We took all of the cans off the pantry’s shelves, and he had to replace them. This developed over the years into skills he can use productively around the house and possibly transfer to a job one day.
4. Independence is key
No matter what you see in your child’s future—an independent living situation, a group home, a full-time job, or vocational training, you want your child to be as independent as he/she is capable of being. Don’t do something for your child that (s)he is capable of doing for himself/herself. If your child can say “milk,” make him/her say it before you provide it. If your child can sign ‘milk,’ make him/her sign it. Don’t give it to the child without the request. You may know your child wants it, but someone else may not. If your child can put his/her clothes in the hamper, don’t do it for them. This can be a springboard to other independent skills, such as putting away dishes or taking responsibility for his/her own belongings.
5. Presume competence
I remember a friend’s reaction watching my son unloading the dishwasher. “Wow! How’d you teach him to do that?” I was a little offended, but I opted to educate rather than show my disappointment. I said, “He’s capable of a lot more than you’d think. He just has to be taught little by little.” Other people will underestimate your child often. Be willing to try things. Break them into steps. Provide visuals in the form of pictures or words. Be there for support. If it doesn’t work today, try again tomorrow, next week, next year. Timing is everything.
As parents of special needs kids, we have learned no two kids have the same needs. Everything on this list can be altered to your child. Do things according to his/her capability with the hope of stretching that capability little by little. We have to go at the child’s pace, not ours. A step forward is a step forward.
Diana Romeo is a full-time stay at home of two kids, a 14-year-old neurotypical girl who is equal parts sweet and sassy, and a very sweet 16-year-old boy who has autism. She has a degree in business management and has worked in human resources. She enjoys reading, writing, cooking, walking, and yoga. She has been published in Autism Parenting Magazine and Exceptional Parent Magazine.
This article was featured in Issue 72 – Sensory Solutions For Life