Receiving a diagnosis that your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be overwhelming and life-changing, and you probably have lots of questions. What happens next? How can you help your child? Though there is no one-size-fits-all approach on how to support your child, here are some key takeaways to help you and your family ease into a new routine.
“When parents receive a diagnosis of autism for their child, I tell them that they will experience many feelings, which may include relief, joy, anger, sadness, grief and confusion,” explains licensed mental health counselor Emmaleigh Badeaux. “These reactions are quite normal. It is a tough diagnosis to receive, and parents may feel overwhelmed by the recommendations of their diagnosing provider. I also tell parents that brains with autism are amazing in many ways, that things that are murky to us can be so clear to them — like memories, patterns, details and facts about areas of interest.”
“People with autism have wonderful strengths, as well as areas where they’ll need help to develop, just like we all do,” Badeaux continues. “There are evidence-based interventions that are incredibly effective in teaching social, communication, emotion regulation and other skills. Many times, children are at their lowest level of functioning at the time of the diagnosis, as they haven’t received any targeted interventions, so parents can take comfort in that, knowing that their child will soon be making progress.”
Talk with an Expert
When a child receives a new diagnosis of ASD, Badeaux recommends that parents talk with a professional they trust, such as their child’s pediatrician. “Autism is a spectrum, and your medical providers will be best able to explain where your child is on that spectrum in terms of functioning, treatment and prognosis,” she says. As the saying goes, once you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve just met one child with autism. Every child is unique!
Don’t Believe Everything You Read Online
The internet can be a tricky resource, given that parents may read about children who have different presentations of ASD or treatments that are not evidence-based. In addition, there are well-intentioned people who make poor recommendations based on their limited understanding. If parents do want to read online, they should seek out research-based recommendations from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Build a Support Team
Children with ASD can benefit from a number of professional supports, and the first place to start is with an evaluation. Badeaux recommends that parents seek evaluations for speech, occupational and behavioral therapy for their child.
-Speech therapy helps with language difficulties, such as understanding idioms, comprehending language and expressing their thoughts.
-Occupational therapy helps to address food selectivity, sensory differences and fine motor challenges.
-Behavioral therapy addresses social skill deficits, emotional dysregulation, compliance and attention, and the ADHD, anxiety or depression that may go along with their ASD diagnosis.
In addition, parents can reach out about scheduling an evaluation for special education services if they think their child may benefit from receiving additional support at school. “Parents may also benefit from enlisting their own mental health professional, as they are facing increased challenges on a daily basis, and need support for themselves in order to properly support their child,” Badeaux adds.
Make a New Friend
Parent Wendy Hasser recommends that parents reach out in their network to find another parent with an autistic child. “Several friends offered to set me up on ‘blind mom dates.’ Talking with other moms going through similar experiences has been one of the most helpful things for me,” Hasser says. She recommends joining Facebook groups, such as Indy Parents Special Needs Community, to find local resources and get connected. National groups can include Autism Moms Support Group and Autism Inclusivity for parents seeking additional support.
In between appointments and therapy, parents can start to implement rewards or positive feedback at home as a way to help their child succeed. “Our brains are wired to repeat an activity in which something positive happens after it — like getting paid after going to work or feeling satisfied after a good meal,” Badeaux explains. “When we break tasks down into small steps, rewarding completion along the way, then kids are learning new skills while also feeling pride and accomplishment in their achievements.” For example, by giving your child a high-five or enthusiastic praise after brushing their teeth, you can increase the likelihood that they will brush their teeth calmly again tomorrow.
Root for Your Child
Children with autism thrive with a team approach, where there are people in their lives who are actively rooting for them to succeed and empowering them with the skills necessary to do so, Badeaux explains. “Parents benefit from this support as well, knowing that they are not alone in loving and teaching their child. An effective and supportive treatment team can make a world of difference for both parents and children!”