Your child has autism. You know it. The rest of the family knows it. His teachers and therapists know it. Maybe even a few of his classmates know it. But when should HE know it? And how should you tell him?
It’s something many of our FOCUS Therapy families grapple with at some point. The answers really depends on the individual. Some parents opt to tell their child when they’re very young, hoping an early understanding of why they struggle more with certain things might make it all less confusing. Other parents wait until their child becomes aware of their differences and starts asking questions. A few parents wait until their child is older with a better ability to fully understand their diagnosis. Our FOCUS speech, occupational and ABA therapists know there isn’t one right answer, but we’re here to support our patients and help guide families in these discussions.
Recently, a patient’s mother asked about the best way to handle some of the questions her 7-year-old son on the spectrum was asking. Christie Lawrence, a registered behavior technician (RBT) with our Fort Myers ABA therapy team, herself the mother of a teenager with autism, offered her thoughts.
“I would say the most important part of informing your child of their autism diagnosis is to empower them,” Lawrence said. “Autism can bring many gifts, and it’s so important to teach our children to find and focus on their strengths and build confidence from their success.”
In the field of behavior science, we commonly use the phrase “function of behavior.” As behavior analysts at the Fort Myers ABA therapy team at FOCUS, figuring out the “function” of a child’s behavior is hands-down one of the most mission critical parts of the job.
As parents or caretakers, it will be so helpful for you and your child too if you’re able to determine why a behavior occurs. When we don’t know what truly causes a behavior and respond reactively, we may be unintentionally reinforcing that behavior. Why is my child facedown on the floor screaming when I told him we were eating tacos tonight? Why is he nonstop kicking the back of his sister’s car seat even though I’ve begged, cajoled and yelled at him to stop?
All behavior has a reason. A function. If you’re looking for a different outcome or response, it’s imperative to find out why it’s happening in the first place. And understand that, for example, if the answer is attention (a common incentive), yelling or having an otherwise big response to it may be having the opposite effect.
Early Intervention Speech, Occupational, ABA Therapy Preparing Wave of People With Autism for Workforce
As rates of autism diagnoses climb steadily, roughly 500,000 teens with autism are poised to enter the workforce over the next decade, according to advocates at Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism. Yet the majority of those people with autism struggle to land their first job, and 4 in 10 won’t work at all in their 20s. The spectrum is incredibly broad, so each comes to the table with their own strengths and challenges, but there is no question those who receive early intervention ABA therapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy fare much better long-term.
Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated autism prevalence rates by 15 percent to 1 in 59 children. That’s more than double what the rate was in 2000. Part of this has to do with improved awareness, earlier diagnoses and improved treatment models. Research published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health indicated early diagnosis (before 24 months, as early as 12 months) leads to earlier eligibility for intervention services (like ABA therapy), and other evidence-based research has indicated clear indication early intervention is causally related to better prognoses – including success in education and employment.
The AFFA reports that while most adults with autism want to work, fewer than 60 percent can land a job. The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability. Yet an adult deprived of early intervention therapies as a child has missed out on a critical development window to address significant challenges associated with everyday function and independence. This isn’t to say it’s ever entirely “too late” to initiate intervention strategies, but our ABA therapy team members know it’s most effective when it starts before age 5 (and the earlier the better).
Many of our FOCUS pediatric speech therapists were initially drawn to this field in part because we share a love of language. Sure, some of us are self-professed grammar nerds and logophiles, but in working with kids with special needs, we’ve seen that the real beauty of language is the way it facilitates communication and sparks connections. That’s a universal truth of language, but in helping children overcome speech delays, receptive language deficits or phonological disorders, we’ve come to appreciate language on a whole new level.
In stacking the developmental blocks for communication, social interaction and connection, one of the best (and easiest) things any parent can do: Read bedtime stories. This is especially true for kids with special needs, for whom language doesn’t come easily. Frequent storybook sessions help children learn new words, recognize the importance and subtle differences of tone, inflection and pitch, explore complex feelings and confusing interactions in a safe space and better grasp the intricacies of the world around them.
Most children – even if some have shorter attention spans – love bedtime stories. (Although story time can be anytime, bedtime is ideal – especially if you’re child is antsy – because you’re more likely to have a captive audience just before bed, as opposed to morning or mid-day, unless they still nap. Plus, many parents who work find it difficult to nail down a story time routine in the morning rush or simply can’t swing it on their lunch hour.) Making stories-and-snuggles part of the nightly groove works best for most, gives kids something to look forward to and a chance to wind down. And, as most parents of kids with special needs know, having a routine is a lifeline.
Even if your child doesn’t seem to understand the stories, follow along or pay much attention, research shows they still glean advantages from the one-on-one time, routine and mental exercise. Most speech, ABA and occupational therapists would argue children who struggle with expressive and receptive language skills may even need those bedtime stories more than most.
Parents of children with autism are acutely familiar with “meltdowns.” Over time, they grow attuned to them, gain a better sense of what and when to expect them and become increasingly adept at avoiding the most obvious triggers, reducing frequency and minimizing the effects.
FOCUS Fort Myers ABA therapists know that to outsiders, meltdowns and tantrums can seem analogous. The reality is they are very different. It’s not the result of a child or person who is trying to be difficult or disruptive (though many autism parents are familiar with the looks and judgments of people who assume so). Meltdowns occur when a child is utterly overwhelmed and often unable to express that in a way that is appropriate or easily understood.
Further, ABA therapists recognize meltdowns aren’t the only way someone with autism might express these intense feelings. It might also manifest with the person withdrawing from or avoiding a situation or interaction. It’s unique for every person, and often, recognizing these other indicators can signal to parents, teachers and caregivers when it’s time to intervene or remove someone from a situation.
The adjustment of starting a new school year is tough on everyone (parents included!). There are the earlier bedtimes and alarms, tighter schedules, new teachers, classmates and after school activities – all a bit jarring for many children. This is especially true for those with autism, for whom a change in routine can spur overwhelming anxiety.
Our Fort Myers ABA therapists at FOCUS know dislike of change is one of autism’s most common diagnostic symptoms, manifesting in a range of ways, including avoidance, distraction, negotiation, resistance – or a full-blown meltdown.
With federal health data now indicating 1 in 65 children in the U.S. has an autism diagnosis, more parents and caregivers are learning how best to navigate challenges with transitions – whether it’s something as seemingly small as moving from playtime to mealtime or as major as starting a whole new school. It’s important to understand both why transitions are so tough for kids the spectrum and also how we as parents, teachers and therapists can help it all go more smoothly.
Most families of school-age children are familiar with the “summer slide,” that break in routine that slows the momentum of progress in the long, lazy days of summer. Fort Myers behavior therapists at FOCUS know “the slide” can be especially keen for kids on the autism spectrum because they are so reliant on routine. Routine is often imperative for people with autism not just to thrive, but in some cases to function at all without a massive meltdown.
The two primary areas of struggle for many children with autism:
- Social interactions
- Strong reliance on stability, sameness and repetition.
Many kids get that from the strict schedules they follow at school. Summer poses some challenges on this front, and some days it can feel like episodes come on suddenly and the whole day just unravels. Our FOCUS behavior therapists and occupational therapists will work to help you and your child keep your cool through these episodes – and hopefully even prevent them.
Smartphones in the hands of little ones is generally frowned upon, and usually for good reason. Researchers have linked excess screen time to speech delays, stunted socialization and repetitive motion “tech ache.” BUT – it’s not all bad.
In speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy and sometimes even physical therapy, we’ve found at FOCUS Fort Myers that smartphones can have some pretty amazing applications – and we’re discovering new uses all the time! (We LOVE when parents share their own ideas too!)
There is no getting around the fact these small, glowing boxes are an integral part of our daily lives, with approximately 92 million smartphones in the U.S. – a figure that’s still growing. Limits on screen time are important – necessary even (and, let’s be honest, not just for kids). But our FOCUS occupational, behavioral and speech therapists are embracing the many ways this technology has become a key tool in achieving occupational, behavior and speech therapy goals.
Learning how to use the toilet is a pivotal skill for every child, and one’s “readiness” can widely vary. ABA therapy can help children with autism and other delays master the potty with positive reinforcement.
Toilet training is all too often a frustrating and sometimes tearful experience for many families and children. Parents understand it’s a critical milestone that allows their child to participate in so many activities with reduced risk of negative consequences like as social stigma, poor personal hygiene and discomfort.
Recognize that many typically-developing children struggle with this. A child with autism spectrum disorder is going to have even more difficulties due to challenges with language and communication, sensory processing, motor planning, social skills/ social thinking and behavioral control. It will take more time – and that’s Ok. But with a solid, consistent plan, it will happen.
FOCUS is gearing up to begin offering applied behavioral analysis, or ABA therapy (behavior therapy), to children in Southwest Florida. ABA is one of the most effective early intervention treatments for children with autism spectrum disorder and other conditions. Behavior therapy rewards positive behavior, and can be applied to a host of life aspects, including nutrition.
A 2014 study of 6,000 children and teens on the autism spectrum revealed they are more than twice as likely to be overweight and five times as likely to be obese as their typical peers, which in turn translates to many other associated health issues. A more recent study of nearly 50,000 children with autism in the U.S. revealed much higher rates of conditions often associated with obesity, including high cholesterol and hypertension.
Researchers speculate there could be several different issues going on. Things that can make them susceptible to unhealthy eating patterns include:
- Heightened senses;
- Aversion to new tastes and textures;
- Higher rates of gastrointestinal and sleep issues;
- Higher likelihood of being on medications for anxiety, depression or epilepsy that can affect weight gain;
- Fondness for routine.
Further, they tend to have social and motor skill impairments and have an affinity for screen time, which can result in limited physical activity. What’s especially concerning is that a 2015 study found that unlike a lot of typical children who outgrow their weight problems in their teens, children with autism too often do not. We aim to help change that.