If you suspect your child may be neurodivergent, you may wonder what to do if they receive an autism diagnosis. For some parents, the news of an autism diagnosis can come as a complete shock. Others expect the diagnosis, and some even feel relief upon receiving it. However, most parents whose child receives an autism diagnosis struggle to imagine what their child’s life will be like with a developmental disability. If this is you, do not feel alone.
The most important thing you can do is recognize that while there may be no cure for autism, there is hope. Your child will learn, grow, and gain new skills. The first steps are highlighted here, which include educating yourself about your child’s autism diagnosis and adjusting when possible to meet your child’s needs. Additionally, parents should seek professional therapeutic services as soon as possible.
Learning About Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often results in difficulties in social interactions, behavior, and communication. Children with autism can also exhibit repetitive and restricted interests or behaviors. In 2013, changes in diagnosis criteria altered the autism diagnosis process. Now Asperger’s and PDD-NOS are considered autism spectrum diagnoses. However, even with these changes, families continue to feel comfortable using the terms that work for them.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the name suggests, falls along a spectrum of severity. Some children with an autism diagnosis will be verbal, while others will be nonspeaking. Those considered “high functioning” may be able to advocate for their needs and communicate effectively. In contrast, children described as “lower functioning” may be completely nonspeaking. Your child’s symptoms and capabilities will fit into one of three levels of diagnostic features that indicate severity.
Level 1: This level facilitates the need for “support” and is the lowest impairing level in severity. At level 1, children are considered “higher functioning.” This means they typically do not possess significant impairments related to their cognitive and verbal abilities.
Level 2: This level requires “substantial support.” These children have some cognitive or verbal deficits that impair their daily living. Their social impairment is apparent even with support.
Level 3: This level requires “very substantial support” and is the most severe category. Children at level 3 are considered “lower functioning.” These children have significant impairments in their cognitive and verbal abilities. In most cases, they cannot live independently as a result.
Symptom presentation will vary along the spectrum but may include:
- Struggling with social situations, such as making eye contact or noticing nonverbal cues.
- Being rigid and unable to adapt to any changes in routine.
- Exhibiting repetitive behavior, including spinning, dropping to the floor, or hand flapping.
- Devoting attention to preferred interests such as characters or tv shows.
- Repeating words or phrases, known as echolalia
- Having trouble with imaginative play or pretend. For example, instead of pushing a toy car, they may obsess with spinning its wheels.
In 2022 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released these autism statistics, which determined that 1 in 44 children has been recognized as having autism spectrum disorder. These statistics also confirmed that it is more commonly diagnosed in males than females. While the cause of autism is still not understood, it is believed that genetics and environment play a role. Therefore, it is not a parent’s fault that their child has autism.
My Child Has an Autism Diagnosis. What Can I Do Now?
1. Implement Visual Support
Children with autism tend to learn better visually than verbally in most cases. There are enormous benefits to a visual representation of language to communicate with your child. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is one example of a system of symbols and pictures used by children with an autism diagnosis. If you notice that your child might benefit from a system like PECS, consult a professional, such as a pediatrician or behavioral therapist. Provide your child with visuals whenever possible.
2. Familiarize Yourself with Positive and Negative Reinforcement
The most effective means to alter a child’s behavior is to adjust your response to their behavior. Behaviors you respond to and reinforce, like giving in and buying candy during a tantrum at the grocery store, are the behaviors that will increase. Knowing this, it is essential to be cautious about how you respond. Positively reinforcing negative behaviors like tantrums create more negative behaviors. You will see less of that behavior when you respond to behavior with a negative consequence, like removing attention or limiting access to a toy.
All children, including those who are neurodivergent, are more likely to grow and learn when motivated and reinforced. Below are some examples:
- Create a visual rewards system like a chart for your child. They receive gold stars for appropriate behavior. Upon earning specific numbers of stickers, they can trade in for more time with a preferred toy or activity.
- Offer your child options throughout the day, giving them a sense of independence and control.
- Provide your child with immediate verbal praise when they do something you want to see more. This can include using language, cooperating with demands, and transitioning appropriately between activities.
- Negative behaviors like tantrums or screaming are often attempts to communicate. These behaviors may seem unnatural and are best left ignored if the child is not in danger. Over time, your child will engage in more appropriate ways to get your attention. You need to teach them that those disruptive behaviors will not result in the access they want.
3. Increase and Strengthen the Structure
Children with an autism diagnosis often function best in structured environments. They work best when the day is as predictable as possible. As previously described, increasing structure is usually best executed in the most visual manner possible. To do this:
- Have your child follow a schedule for the day that includes pictures and words that describe events.
- Keep a visual list of rules.
- Present your child with a visual warning before an activity ends. This could be showing a clock or holding two fingers to show two minutes left.
4. Be Conscious of Sensory Difficulties
Many children with an autism diagnosis struggle with sensory sensitivities. Sensory difficulties mean the child’s five senses may be processing information differently than a neurotypical person. These individuals can be hypersensitive and respond strongly to stimuli like bright lights or loud noises. Or they may seek out strong stimuli, like pressure from deep hugs or landing on the floor. They may even seek out flashing lights and loud noises. The more aware you can be of your child’s preferences, the more comfortable you can make their environment.
5. Get the Services Your Child Needs
You will consistently hear on your new journey that early intervention is vital. Your child can learn more while their brain is still developing and growing. If your child has already been evaluated, consider their provider’s recommendations for aftercare and see how they fit your family. Contact your school and let them know about your child’s autism diagnosis so they can begin creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will ensure that the school accommodates your child and meets their needs.
When seeking supportive services, consult your developmental pediatrician to explore your options, like Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy, that can help. Besides ABA, additional services to consider are:
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Social skills groups
- Psychiatric services
- Medication management
How Does ABA Help with an Autism Diagnosis?
ABA therapy for autism symptoms helps reinforce desired behaviors and discourage unhelpful behavior. BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) and RBTs (Registered Behavior Technicians) use various techniques to encourage language development, communication, and other skills to achieve independence. Several studies have examined its effectiveness. Many aspects of ABA help your child achieve their goals by supporting the child where they need it. Treatment plans will differ depending on the patient’s age, unique needs, and the family’s therapy goals.
How Can ABA Centers of America Support Your Child’s Journey?
ABA Centers of America realizes that your child is your world, and you will always want what is best for them. Selecting ABA therapy after an autism diagnosis is choosing to trust a science backed by extensive research and data. By implementing ABA therapy in your child’s life, you can look forward to progress in areas related to communication, development, and advocacy. Ultimately, the goal is to make your child as independent as possible to live a whole and satisfying life. If you’re interested to learn more about ABA therapy and how it can help your family call us at (844) 923-4222 for a free consultation or visit abacenters.com.