Autism Advice

Since my oldest was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism at age 5 many years ago, I have welcome the opportunities of talking to other mothers who are facing a similar start to their journey. It's always important to me to be honest and not sugar-coat my story. I put this here in case it helps even just one family along their way.

1) Find the subject matter expert with credentials in what your instinct is telling you might be different about your child. I spent many years in and out of early intervention appointments, doctors, and therapist offices trying to figure out if we were dealing with Autism or not. It is critical to find someone who has spent a lot of time researching, diagnosing, and working with children whom have the 'difference' you suspect.  I had a child psychiatrist tell me nothing was wrong and to buy the book Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. She was not a specialist in Autism. That was valuable time he should have been getting speech and learning at a young age how to engage with others before bad habits were developed. 

I found my expert by attending an advocacy group in my town comprised of moms who have kids with Autism. They were the best source of direction.

2) Get over the fear of a "label".  My son has struggles no matter what we do or don't call them. Finding out what it's called was the key to unlocking a treatment plan and path for support to help him learn the way he needed to learn. Without a  'label' the medical industry may not cover costs and at school it was the only way he was going to be able to join the mainstreaming program and aids that helped guide him. Without the label, he would not have had the tools available in the community or in school to develop and grow as quickly as he has. Pretending it's not there won't make it go away. Especially if it's a challenge the child will need to learn to manage and work with their whole life.

3) It's not your fault. You have done nothing wrong. It's okay that you aren't a Developmental Pediatrician, Speech Pathologist, Physical Therapist, Neurologist, Neuropsychologist, Behaviorist, and Occupational Therapist. (These are all the specialists many children on The Spectrum work with.) It would be great to put life on hold, go get those degrees, then come back and be everything you wish you were right now so there wasn't such a steep learning curve. Be kind to yourself. You're enough! You'll learn quickly and these people will become part of your village raising him.

4) Grief is often part of the process of finding out about a child being different. Many moms I've been in touch with have experienced going through all the stages of grief. It's normal. I slipped into a clinical depression and needed help. It's okay to need medical help while you cope and adjust. It's a lot to process and adjust to. I was so overwhelmed, sad, and worried about his future it felt like the plans we had in store for him came undone like a rope being unraveled. It would have been so beneficial if I had worked with a therapist. Not everyone will struggle like I did, but if someone does please know it's okay to find yourself professional support.

5) It's okay if a therapist is a bad fit. I've had to break up with therapists (PT, OT, Speech) for various reasons. It's so hard, but important to remember your new mission on your resume is to be your child's best advocate. So if personalities aren't clicking with the therapist and the child, their feelings about changing isn't the priority. If the therapist isn't quite getting how the disability impacts the child or you're not seeing progress with your child, look for another therapist. The best way to phrase it is 'we're just going to try another approach'. Often you can try another available therapist at the same clinic or ask other moms about their contacts.

6) Your husband is going to be coping with this at a different pace. This is normal. I think we've all seen the high divorce rate for parents impacted by having a child on The Spectrum. It's a lot of added stress to a family. Men and women cope with things differently. Counseling could be helpful for some families. Make time for regular date nights!

7) Finding your advocate voice can be intimidating, but is crucial. Especially when trying to work with schools and the IEP process. Using a local parent support network is highly recommended. Learning your child's rights is important (see IDEA Law and read FAPE). If necessary, ask your child's doctor (the subject matter expert) for referrals for advocates you can hire or even attorneys who specialize in advocating for kids with special needs. 

8) Siblings are part of this, too. In my case, I have 2 younger children who had had to do a lot of waiting and watching. While they are learning patience and the beauty of helping another, they also need to get the 1 on 1 attention when possible. When old enough, find simple ways to explain how the other child is different and share some of the goals he or she is working on. My middle child was really hurt that HE didn't get to have his own Miss Meagan for OT, but once he understood why she came and what they were working on teaching my other son, he understood. 

9) Have an 'elevator speech' prepared to explain your child's struggles and the best way to help him or her. For swim team or a substitute teacher at church, I have learned a quick overview is helpful to give that person a heads up that things operate a little differently and a little more patience and guidance is required. It's always met with a smile and I check in to make sure behaviors aren't too out of control (unexpected change can be really stressful for my son). 

 10) Be sure to take a break. You need to secure your mental health so your canteen doesn't get empty. Know what helps you relax a bit and step away from the demands to take a breather. Some love the movies others a social night out with fun friends. People will offer to help you- this is how they can. Let them put the kids to bed so you can get a break.