Hearing for the first time that your child has autism can be an overwhelming experience, bringing panic, fear, relief, denial, sadness, anger. Your mind is likely spinning with a million questions: What does this mean? What do we do now? How do we tell our family, our friends? Will our child learn to talk? Will our child have friends, be successful in school, get married?
Whatever your questions, you want the best for your child. It is time to begin accessing the services and supports needed for your child to achieve his or her very best. Now is the time for you to:
▪ Take a deep breath. Take time to process your feelings. There will be good days, and there will be bad days. Take things one day (or minute) at a time, and you will successfully navigate this new journey.
▪ Know that you are not alone. There are many other parents sharing this journey with you. You are now part of a community — a strong, loving and empowered community of parents, family, teachers, therapists and professionals who will all strive to improve your child’s life. They can relate to your feelings, and they can offer help.
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▪ Put things in perspective. Remember that your child is the same sweet baby you fell in love with! Your child is no different today than yesterday. He or she has the same unique, endearing traits. Nothing has changed except that you now have a name for your child’s condition, and with this name comes information, support and resources. Consider reading “Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew” by Ellen Notbohm to begin putting everything into perspective.
▪ Get support. Parents of children with autism often experience stress, which can affect their family and their child’s behavior in negative ways. In addition to reaching out to those close to you, connect with people you don’t know but who have similar feelings and experiences. The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of Miami offers many resources, including support groups, education, training and case management, for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.
▪ Educate yourself. Learn all you can about the diagnosis and about the therapies and programs with the best results. Visit the Autism Speaks, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institute of Mental Health websites for more information. And never be afraid to ask your child’s doctor questions.
▪ Access medical services. Autism is a complex disorder and varies in children, with some needing minimal support, while others may have complex behavioral and medical needs. It is important to act quickly after a diagnosis. The sooner you start intervention, the better the outcome for your child.
Current guidelines recommend that children with autism be involved in educational and instructional interventions for a minimum of 25 hours per week, year-round. While the specific services and intensity needed will vary based on your child’s unique strengths and challenges, most children will benefit from a combination of therapy and specialized educational programming.
For individualized treatment recommendations, consult with your doctor or consider seeking a comprehensive psychological evaluation. Free developmental screenings can determine if your child is eligible for publicly funded early intervention services, such as Early Steps, and special education programs like the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resource System. Private assessment and treatment services are also available through your health insurance or self-pay.
Treatment programs may involve therapies for core symptoms — persistent deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior — and associated difficulties such as behavior problems, speech and language delays, deficits in daily living skills and motor difficulties. These co-occurring issues can be addressed by speech and language, occupational, physical and social skills therapies, as well as behavioral parent training.
Behavior therapy, or Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), is one scientifically validated treatment that addresses the core symptoms of autism. High-quality ABA should be conducted under the supervision of a board certified behavior analyst. For help finding an ABA program right for you, contact CARD or visit www.bacb.com to search for a provider in your community.
▪ Have hope! Information can empower families. Knowing about your child’s autism diagnosis can help you move forward and improve your child’s outcomes. Children can make remarkable progress with appropriately tailored therapies and interventions. You are now better equipped to mobilize resources, to be more confident, and to be hopeful for your child’s and your family’s future.
To sign up for CARD’s weekly email or to schedule an appointment for an evaluation, visit UMCard.org.
Meaghan Parlade, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the Intervention Services Coordinator at CARD at the University of Miami. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.