Helping an Autistic Child (page 6)
There are many things parents can do to help autistic children overcome their challenges and get the most of life. From learning all you can about the disorder to getting your child into therapy right away, you can make a big difference.
This article will teach you where to find government and educational services, how to choose effective treatments for your child, and where to look for support. Plus, you’ll also find parenting tips to help make daily home life with an autistic kid easier.
Helping an autistic child
If you've recently learned that your child has an autism spectrum disorder, you're probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy, and a diagnosis of autism can be particularly frightening. You may be unsure about how to best help your child. You may be confused by conflicting treatment advice. Or you may have been told that autism is an incurable, lifelong condition, leaving you concerned that nothing you do will make a difference.
While it is true that autism is not something a person simply "grows out of," there are many treatments that can help children learn new skills and overcome a wide variety of developmental challenges. From free government services to in-home behavioral therapy and school-based programs, assistance is available to meet your child's special needs. With the right treatment plan, and a lot of love and support, your child can learn, grow, and thrive.
As the parent of a child with autism or related developmental delays, the best thing you can do is to get your kid in treatment right away. Don't wait to see if your child will catch up later or outgrow the problem. Don't even wait for an official diagnosis. The earlier children with autism spectrum disorders get help, the greater their chance of treatment success. Early intervention is the most effective way to speed up your child's development and reduce the symptoms of autism.
TIPS FOR PARENTS: Helping a Child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder
Don’t wait to seek treatment.
Early intervention is the most important key to autism treatment success. Seek help as soon as you suspect a problem in your child. Don’t wait for a diagnosis. You don’t need one to start treating your child’s symptoms.
Learn about autism.
The more you know about autism spectrum disorders, the better equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions for your child. Educate yourself about the treatment options, ask questions, and participate in all treatment decisions.
Become an expert on your child.
Figure out what triggers your kid’s “bad” or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your autistic child find stressful? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems and preventing situations that cause difficulties.
Accept and love your child for who he or she is.
Rather than focusing on how your autistic child is different from other children and what he or she is “missing,” focus on what makes your child happy. Enjoy your kid’s special quirks, celebrate small successes, and stop comparing your child to others—developmentally-challenged or not.
Be patient and optimistic.
It’s impossible to predict the course of an autism spectrum disorder. Don’t jump to conclusions about what life is going to be like for your child. Like everyone else, people with autism have an entire lifetime to grow and develop their abilities.
With so many different autism treatments available, and it can be tough to figure out which approach is right for your child. Making things more complicated, you may hear different or even conflicting recommendations. When deciding on an autism treatment plan for your child, keep in mind that there is no single treatment that will work for everyone. Each person on the autism spectrum is unique, with different strengths and weaknesses.
Your child’s treatment should be tailored according to his or her individual needs. You know your child best, so it’s up to you to make sure those needs are being met. You can do that by taking the following important steps:
- Put together a trusted autism treatment team. As a parent, you have the ultimate say when it comes to your child’s treatment. However, treatment planning is a lot easier if you have trusted professionals you can turn to for advice. Autistic children often have a range of treatment needs best served by a team of specialists. In addition to a pediatrician, your child may benefit from the expertise of other doctors, therapists, and teachers.
- Develop a personalized treatment plan for your child. Build on what you know about your child’s unique needs and abilities, and work with your treatment team to build a plan that targets your son’s or daughter’s weakest areas while taking advantage of his or her strengths. Each team member can provide a unique perspective on autism, helping you come up with a comprehensive, well-rounded therapeutic approach.
As you design your child’s autism treatment plan, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are my child’s strengths?
- What are my child’s weaknesses?
- What behaviors are causing the most problems?
- What important skills is my child lacking?
- How does my child learn best (through seeing, listening, or doing)?
- What does my child enjoy and how can those activities be used in treatment?
When looking into a specific treatment provider or an alternative therapy, it’s also smart to do your research. Learn what evidence there is for the therapy’s effectiveness, how safe it is, who will be working with your child, and how progress will be measured.
A Good Treatment Program for Autism Will:
- Build on your child's interests.
- Offer a predictable schedule.
- Teach tasks as a series of simple steps.
- Actively engage your child's attention in highly structured activities.
- Provide regular reinforcement of behavior.
- Involve the parents.
DO YOUR RESEARCH!
Questions to Ask an Autism Treatment Provider
The National Institute of Mental Health suggests a list of questions parents can ask when planning treatment for an autistic child:
How successful has the program been for other children?
How many children have gone on to placement in a regular school and how have they performed?
Do staff members have training and experience in working with children and adolescents with autism?
How are activities planned and organized?
Are there predictable daily schedules and routines?
How much individual attention will my child receive?
How is progress measured? Will my child's behavior be closely observed and recorded?
Will my child be given tasks and rewards that are personally motivating?
Is the environment designed to minimize distractions?
Will the program prepare me to continue the therapy at home?
- What is the cost, time commitment, and location of the program?
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what autism treatment plan is chosen, parental involvement is vital to success. You can help your child get the most out of treatment by working hand-in-hand with the autism treatment team and following through with the therapy at home.
Free U.S. government services
Under the U.S. federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities—including those with autism spectrum disorders—are eligible for a range of free or low-cost services. Under this provision, children in need and their families may receive medical evaluations, psychological services, speech therapy, physical therapy, parent counseling and training, assisted technology devices, and other specialized services.
Children under the age of 10 do not need an autism diagnosis to receive free services under IDEA. If they are experiencing a developmental delay (including delays in communication or social development), they are automatically eligible for early intervention and special education services.
Early Intervention Services (Birth through Age Two)
Infants and toddlers through the age of two receive assistance through the Early Intervention program. In order to qualify, your child must first undergo a free evaluation. If the assessment reveals a developmental problem, you will work with early intervention treatment providers to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). An IFSP describes your child’s needs and the specific services he or she will receive.
For autism, an IFSP would include a variety of behavior, physical, speech, and play therapies. It would focus on preparing autistic kids for the eventual transition to school. Early intervention services are typically conducted in the home or at a child care center.
To locate local early intervention services for your child, ask your pediatrician for a referral or use the resources listed in the box to the right.
Free Government Services for Autism
For more information about IDEA or to locate services in your state:
- Call the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities at 1-800-695-0285 or explore their State Resources page.
- Search the Early Intervention State Contact List from the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.
- Visit the U.S. Department of Education’s IDEA web site.
Special Education Services (Age Three and Older)
Children over the age of three receive assistance through school-based programs. As with early intervention, special education services are tailored to your child’s individual needs. Children with autism spectrum disorders are often placed with other developmentally-delayed kids in small groups where they can receive more individual attention and specialized instruction. However, depending on their abilities, they may also spend at least part of the school day in a regular classroom. The goal is to place kids in the least restrictive environment possible where they are still able to learn.
If you’d like to pursue special education services, your local school system will first need to evaluate your child. Based on this assessment, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will be created. An IEP outlines the educational goals for your child for the school year. Additionally, it describes the special services or aids the school will provide your child in order to meet those goals.
KNOW YOUR CHILD’S RIGHTS
Working with the School System on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
As the parent of an autistic child, you have a legal right to:
- Be involved in developing your child’s IEP from start to finish.
- Disagree with the school system’s recommendations.
- Seek an outside evaluation for your child.
- Invite anyone you want—from a relative to your child’s doctor—to be on the IEP team.
- Request an IEP meeting at any time if you feel your child’s needs are not being met.
- Free or low-cost legal representation if you can’t come to an agreement with the school.
To learn more about your options and legal rights, see the Autism Society of America’s guide to the Individualized Education Plan.
Parenting tips for daily life with an autistic child
Learning all you can about autism and getting involved in treatment will go a long way toward helping your child. Additionally, the following tips will make daily home life easier for your both you and your autistic child:
- Be consistent. Autistic children have a hard time adapting what they’ve learned in one setting (such as the therapist’s office or school) to others, including the home. For example, your child may use sign language at school to communicate, but never think to do so at home. Creating consistency in your child’s environment is the best way to reinforce learning. Find out what your child’s therapists are doing and continue their techniques at home. It’s also important to be consistent in the way you interact with your child and deal with challenging behaviors.
- Stick to a schedule. Autistic kids tend to do best when they have a highly-structured schedule or routine. Again, this goes back to the consistency they both need and crave. Set up a schedule for your child, with regular times for meals, therapy, school, and bedtime. Try to keep disruptions to this routine to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable schedule change, prepare your child for it in advance.
- Reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement can go a long way with autistic children, so make an effort to “catch them doing something good.” Praise them when they act appropriately or learn a new skill, being very specific about what behavior they’re being praised for. Also look for other ways to reward them for good behavior, such as giving them a sticker or letting them play with a favorite toy.
- Create a home safety zone. Carve out a private space in your home where your child can relax, feel secure, and be safe. This will involve organizing and setting boundaries in ways your child can understand. Visual cues can be helpful (colored tape marking areas that are off limits, labeling items in the house with pictures). You may also need to safety proof the house, particularly if your child is prone to tantrums or other self-injurious behaviors.
- Make time for fun. A child coping with autism is still a kid. For both autistic children and their parents, there needs to be more to life than therapy. Find ways to play and have fun together. Don’t obsess over whether or not these activities are therapeutic or educational. The important thing is to enjoy your child’s company!
Finding help and support
Caring for a child with an autism spectrum disorder can demand a lot of energy and time. There may be days when you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or discouraged. Parenting isn’t ever easy, and raising a child with special needs is even more challenging. In order to be the best parent you can be, it’s essential that you take care of yourself.
Don’t try to do everything on your own. You don’t have to! There are many places that families of autistic kids can turn to for advice, a helping hand, advocacy, and support:
- Autism support groups – Joining an autism support group is a great way to meet other families dealing with the same challenges you are. Parents can share information, get advice, and lean on each other for emotional support. Just being around others in the same boat and sharing their experience can go a long way toward reducing the isolation many parents feel after receiving a child’s autism diagnosis.
- Respite care – Every parent needs a break now and again. And for parents coping with the added stress of autism, this is especially true. In respite care, another caregiver takes over temporarily, giving you a break for a few hours, days, or even weeks. To find respite care options in your area, see the box to the right.
- Individual, marital, or family counseling – If stress, anxiety, or depression is getting to you, you may want to see a therapist of your own. Therapy is a safe place where you can talk honestly about everything you’re feeling—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Marriage or family therapy can also help you work out problems that the challenges of life with an autistic child are causing in your spousal relationship or with other family members.
To find autism services and support in your area:
- Autism Source – Search a directory of autism resources, including legal and financial help.
- Autism Speaks – Click on a U.S. state to find services for families coping with autism.
- Autism Society of America – Locate your local chapter of the Autism Society of America.
- The Respite Locator Service – Find respite care services and programs in your state or city.
Related links for Autism diagnosis and treatment
General autism parenting tips and advice
Tips from Parents of Children with ASDs – Advice from parents of children with autism, including home safety tips, school issues to watch for, and how to foster unique abilities. (Autism Society Canada)
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew – Thoughtful article on the unique needs and perspective of autistic children. (Ellen Notbohm)
Living with Autism - Guide to successfully living with autism, including how to cope with stress on the family, make the home safe, and deal with sibling issues. (Autism Society of America)
Life Journey Through Autism: A Parent's Guide to Research (PDF) – In-depth guide teaches parents how to evaluate autism research and choose treatments for their children. (Organization for Autism Research)
Reprinted with the permission of Helpguide. © 2001-2008. All rights reserved.
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