By Sarah Johnson
So, what comes after the diagnosis of autism? Life will undoubtedly change, and one of those changes should include methods to help your loved one cope with autism.
It is most important to remember that your loved one is still the same person that they were before. They still hold the same dreams, aspirations, dislikes, and quirks. Autism is not who they are, it is only another part of who they are. They are still developing- discovering new things about themselves. If you approach this diagnosis with a negative attitude, it may hinder what your loved one is able to achieve. Showing your loved one unconditional love, patience, and support will help them to make the most out of their different abilities.
One of the biggest things you can do to help your loved one thrive is to provide structure and a schedule. This includes consistency. Autistic individuals have trouble transferring skills that they have learned in one setting to another. For example, even if your loved one uses sign language to communicate in a school environment, it may never cross their mind to use sign language at home to communicate. A consistent approach, in this example using sign language both at school and at home, can prove to be most beneficial for the reinforcement of learning. A great way in which you can be consistent is to find out what techniques your child is using at therapy and apply those same practices at home or in other settings. You may also want to consider moving therapy sessions to varying environments. Instead of sitting in an office building, maybe the session could take place at a park or in the library. This will help your loved one to further apply their learning to different settings. In addition, it is very important to be consistent in the way in which bad or challenging behaviors and situations are met.
Having a set schedule is a huge part of being consistent. Those with autism do best when they follow a highly structured routine- giving them the consistency they want and need to function at the best of their ability. Additionally, since individuals with autism also tend to suffer from anxiety, a schedule is a great way to relieve the symptoms of anxiety. Providing a dependable schedule and setting expectations for the day reduces levels of anxiety. Schedules can also promote independence. The individual following their schedule is able to navigate their day with little to no direction. Plus, having a schedule eliminates any possible power struggles. If you have a schedule that tells your loved one what to do, they can’t argue with it as they might argue with you. Pencil in regular times for meals, school, therapy, TV time, and bed. Try not to allow any disruptions to this schedule; if something comes up that is absolutely unavoidable, prepare your loved one for it well in advance. Since reading can often be a problem for those with autism, sometimes the best solution is to create a visual schedule where pictures correspond with each activity in their daily routine. This schedule should be kept in a place where your loved one can see it, and, if any changes do need to be made, make sure you explain to your loved one why the change is being made. This can help to avoid a meltdown.
In addition to following a consistent schedule, rewards for good behavior and positive reinforcement should be taken into consideration. Praise your loved one when they do something well or when they learn a new behavior or skill. Keep in mind to be very specific in naming what exact behavior you are praising your loved one for. Instead of saying, “Good job,” say, “Good job staying with me and using your inside voice in the library.” This behavior can not only be praised in the form of words of encouragement but also in the form of stickers or maybe some time to play with a favorite toy or do a favorite activity. Offer smaller rewards for smaller improvements and bigger rewards for bigger improvements; however, it is just as important to abstain from offering rewards when goals are not met. Even if your loved one is visibly upset at not having achieved their goal, refrain from offering a reward until the goal or behavior is achieved.
At this point, it is time to develop a personalized autism treatment plan. Since autism manifests itself differently in different people and there is such a wide array of treatment options available, it is important to find a good treatment plan. This treatment plan should, according to the National Institute of Mental Health: build on the interests of your loved one, offer a predictable schedule (as previously discussed), teach tasks as a series of simple steps, actively engage your loved one’s attention in highly structured activities, provide regular reinforcement of behavior, and involve you, the parents or caretakers. Sometimes it can be hard to develop a plan as individual and unique as your loved one. Here are some questions you can ask to get started: What are my loved one’s strengths – and his or her weaknesses? What behaviors are causing the most problems? What important skills are my loved one lacking? How does my loved one learn best – through seeing, listening, or doing? What does my loved one enjoy – and how can those activities be used in the treatment and to bolster learning?
Developing a personalized treatment plan often requires a combined treatment approach incorporating several different types of therapy. Common treatments include behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, play-based therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutritional therapy. Although this wide variety of choices can seem overwhelming, remember to tackle the biggest challenge that your loved one faces first. You don’t have to treat everything at once. The treatment plan developed should be sustainable- both for you and your loved one.