January 30, 2010

Helpful Hints

As a parent of a child with autism, you face many uphill battles, from teaching self-help skills to helping your child develop social skills. Through trial and error, as well as wise counsel from therapists, we have learned a few things along the way that have been helpful for Will. In sharing them with you, please don't see them as imperatives (they may not work with your child or family), but as suggestions and/or encouragement. That being said, let's dive in:

  • Tantrums & Meltdowns: This was a huge problem for us when Will was 3. They happened at church, at the grocery store, and at home. Will would get extremely worked up over something trivial and it was very difficult to get him calmed down. Our in-home trainer suggested something that worked well for when it happened at home: a sample carpet square. We put the carpet square out in the living room and anytime a meltdown occurred, we made him sit on the carpet square until he could calm himself down and we could work out the problem. I would say, "When you stop crying, kicking your legs, etc. I will talk to you." This was definitely a process, because, as you can imagine, he didn't want to sit on that square! The first few times, the tantrum escalated because of the square. I would have to keep taking him back to the square and it may have taken 30-45 minutes just to get him calmed down. But because I stuck with it, he learned over time to quickly calm himself down so he could avoid the carpet square.
  • No Excuses: Our general philosophy with Will is no different than how we parent our other children. The autism is no excuse for bad behavior, it just may take longer to work on the bad behavior. We held high expectations for Will, but, of course, offered him grace. We really had to stick to our guns, which is exhausting, but now several years into things, I see it's totally worth it!
  • Structure & Transitioning Well: Because children with autism work so well with a very structured environment, we tried to give him that as much as we could. We developed a daily routine and gave him lots of warning about upcoming transition. Still, I try to give him a run down of the day ("We're going to run errands. First, we're going to the grocery store. Then, we're going to a friend's house. Then we're going to eat lunch.") Really big changes in our routine still throws him off so I just think it's always going to be a struggle.
  • Social Skills: Anytime someone would knock at our door or speak to Will at church or anything like that, he would panic. He would refuse to make eye contact or to say hi. This was a very difficult thing considering my husband is a minister and we were constantly having people in our home or around acquaintances who wanted to say hi to Will. It was an endless frustration (being so social myself) to have a child who hated it so much. My strategy was, again, to stick to my guns about making him say hi. We'd talk about it before we got to church or before someone came over ("Will, a friend is coming over. What are you going to say when you see them?"). Then, when someone spoke to him, I would prompt him until he said it. It was a process, but now we're at a point where he is interested in people being in our home and shyly says hi. Eye contact is still difficult so when I'm trying to talk to him, I point to my nose and keep it there as I say, "Look right here."
  •  Echolalia: This was one of the hardest things to deal with. He often repeated our questions or repeated video lines. We just continued over and over and over to give him the words when we asked him a question ("Will, what did you do at school today? Say: I played with my friends.") And we always corrected him when he started saying video lines ("We don't say video lines"). He still says video lines, but we still correct him.
  • School: Outside help has been so great for us and for Will. Both school districts we've been involved with so far have been great. I suggest trying to have as good of a relationship with your child's teacher as possible. We take every opportunity to say "thank you", show them appreciation, encourage them, and reinforce what they are doing with Will at school. We have had 2 teachers who are really communicative about what is happening in school and 1 who is less communicative. With the less communicative, I try to check in every once in a while and let her know that I'm available to help reinforce what is happening at school. 
  • Reward: Find out what your child really responds to and use that as a reward. For Will it has ranged from stickers to lollipops to getting to hold his toys in his hands. For example, when someone would come over and he wouldn't say hi, I would take the toys he was holding in his hands and say, "When you say hi, you may have your toys back." It always worked because he loved those toys!
  • Never, Ever Give Up: I remember driving along in the car firing simple questions at Will in the backseat and crying at his silence. I would have given anything just to have a simple conversation with my son! I wanted him to know my love and to know his love for me. I wanted the connection that other mothers around me were experiencing. Now, after several years of hard work and lots of love, I have those things. Although it's hard to see it sometimes, there is hope. And even when days are hard, there's always tomorrow!