It was after the autism diagnosis and about six months into the early intervention journey with my son that some techniques learned in ‘autism parent training’ stopped becoming ‘therapy’ and just started to become ‘normal life’. Some strategies have come and gone, but the ones below work so well for both of us that I still use them three years on. These days it’s just the ‘way we roll’ and doing things this way feels as natural to me as breathing.
- Offering choices. Lots and Lots of Choices. It is a tool to encourage my son to communicate and to help him form his own ideas and opinions. It also helps with setting boundaries, and means I can save a flat-out ‘NO!’ for the really important stuff (like safety). For example when my son communicates to me that he wants to eat some ice-cream and I really don’t want him to be eating ice-cream, I say: ‘you can have an apple or you can have a sandwich.’ That’s the two choices and ice cream is not one of the choices. Sure there might be a protest (or two…) but he gets my drift! I also offer choices to help him feel empowered. As accessing verbal language can be an effort for my child I want to help him find other ways that he can feel like he has the ability to control him environment. So I might say: ‘Would you like to have your milk in the green cup or the pink cup this morning’. It doesn’t really matter which one he chooses, but by giving him lots of opportunities like this he is able to express himself in a positive way.
- Giving Transition Cues. I give my chid a cue to let him know when it’s time to transition from one activity to another. It could be leaving the playground to go home, or playing a new game, or coming to sit down for lunch. It is even more useful to use transition cues when I’m requiring my child to move from a highly preferred activity to a less preferred activity. A cue can be verbal (‘two more minutes then it’s time to go’), visual (a clock, a picture, or a photo), a sound (bell ringing, singing the ‘Clean up’ song) or even flicking the lights off and then on again to give a warning that something is about to change. I have found all children seem to appreciate a transition cue.
- Being involved. Getting down on the floor with my child. This was challenging in the early days for me when my child was 18 months to 2 years old. I got right down to eye level with him (not just bending over him), and got fully engaged with whatever he was doing. I tried not to think about all the jobs that needed to be done, I stayed away from TV and social media and I just focused on being in the moment and being engaged. These days it can be a game, a toy or an activity, but joining in with whatever my child is doing, supporting his ideas and expanding on them has done our relationship the world of good. Even 5 minutes can be bonding!
- Awareness of prompting. This for me means being aware of how much I intervene to do something for my child that he could do with less help from me. Prompting can include physical prompts, verbal prompts, gestural prompts, and visual prompts. Even waiting with ‘that’ look on my face can be a prompt. For example as my child was (and is) learning to get dressed it could take a while and the temptation was to do it for him. As much as possible I try not to physically do it for him but just refer him back to the visual (picture) schedule taped to the wall, so that he could try and do it (more) by himself. It’s about letting my child do what he can for himself, by himself. I try to be conscious of scaling back the amount of physical and verbal prompts that he might need to complete the task, without him getting too frustrated. Plus waiting for him to ask (initially he used a sign before he could say the word) for my help before I jump in has been a big lesson. Every bit of independence my son has is a gift.
- Mixing It Up. An autism diagnosis can come with rigid thinking or repetitive patterns of doing things. I have tried to address this by keeping the ‘headline’ routines as steady as possible so he feels secure, but I try to vary up the details. For example I drive different ways home with my child, I walk to the park different ways with him, I mix up the games we play, I cut the food different ways, sometimes I even move the furniture…whatever I can think of really. The days I know he will struggle to cope with change I go easy, but other days when he is travelling well I throw in the changes to help him deal ( a bit better) with the inevitable changes in routine that happen in every-day life.
- Visual, Visuals, Visuals. For my son pictures are more easily processed than the spoken word. He just ‘gets’ it when I show him a picture or use visuals to schedule out the plan for his day (like a visual diary). The pictures seem to just ‘stick’ in his mind easier than words. He continues to improve in his ability to understand, retain and follow verbal instructions…but visual supports are his number 1. They also help him to calm down if he is upset about something, and are far more effective than me or someone else telling him to calm down.
On top of this, lots of tickles, games of chasey, big cuddles and having fun never go out of fashion for my son! None of these strategies come with a guarantee but they are pretty great most of the time. Three years after diagnosis they have become my ‘new normal’. Feel free to share your favourite child rearing strategies with me, or try some of mine and let me know how they go!