How to Help a Child with Autism Thrive

Parents with a child with autism want one thing – the best possible life for their child. The path to that dream starts with finding the right treatments and therapies, and a dedicated team to guide your child along that journey. But another important part of any autism success story is rooted at home. Metro Parent’s Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive, sponsored by Gateway Pediatric Therapy, has you covered in both areas. Get expert tips and advice for parents of children with autism that can help them make the most of autism therapy PLUS find out what you can do at home to help your child with autism thrive – physically, emotionally and socially.

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Expert Advice from Autism Therapists

Where do you start if your child was just diagnosed with autism? Where can you find help to give your child with autism the best chance at living their best life? The solutions aren’t always simple, but finding a quality team of experts like those at Gateway Pediatric Therapy is essential to helping a child with autism thrive.

Expert health professionals with years of experience in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy, Occupational Therapy (OT) and Speech & Language Therapy can help guide you no matter what stage you are at — from initial diagnosis to adapting to new challenges as a child on the spectrum grows up. But first it starts with a diagnosis — and the earlier that is done, the better says Leah Trombley, M.A., BCBA of Gateway Pediatric Therapy.

“Research has shown that early intervention is key, to a child’s overall development and well-being.” Once your child is diagnosed with autism, it’s important for parents to seek therapy right away. 

That means finding an autism therapy provider that you can trust and can walk you through the steps you’ll need to take to get started after diagnosis. This includes guidance based on an initial ABA evaluation, which helps the therapy team get a clear picture of the child’s needs. A treatment plan is then designed with the family’s input to create specific strategies for each child.

“It’s important for families to understand that an ABA assessment is different than an autism diagnosis. The diagnosis has already been completed before they start with us,” says Rachel Enright, M.A., BCBA, Gateway’s Vice President of Clinical Development & Strategy. “During the assessment in our office, we start to get to know the child and hear what the family is experiencing on a daily basis and ultimately work together to start to outline short-term and long-term goals.”

Those goals could include everything from toilet training to overcoming picky eating to building a flexible summer routine and more. Gateway Pediatric Therapy also helps to identify additional treatments that make a positive difference in the development and life of their patients. A good example of this is the integration of an occupational therapist who might help a child whose who has sensory issues, such as displaying a reduced or heightened sensitivity to sound, touch or taste, for example.

“A lot of the time, what we see in the field or what parents mention that they notice at home is either an overload of sensory information, which causes the child to shut down if they are hypersensitive to certain sensory inputs — or they’re sensory-seeking, so that can sometimes appear to look like attention-deficit disorder or ADHD,” says Andrew Beveridge, an occupational therapist at Gateway Pediatric Therapy.

A quality autism therapy team also works together to solve other challenges a child on the spectrum may have, or address concerns from parents. For example, they might help parents understand the importance of repetitive behavior, or stimming, and help to shape these behaviors if they are harmful or interfere with learning.

Therapists might also use ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to help a child with autism better process feelings of frustration or anger. Therapists can also help your child learn to better communicate, sometimes with alternative augmentative communication, if needed.

One of the most important things to remember is that no two people are exactly the same, and so neither are any two treatment plans. That’s why a plan to help a child with autism thrive must include partnering with an exemplary autism team that offers personalized and thoughtful care for their patients.

A great example of this at Gateway Pediatric Therapy is how they help a child on the spectrum who is also visually impaired. “Sometimes we just have to change our teaching strategies a bit,” says Paula Baloga, M.A., BCBA, clinical director of Gateway Pediatric Therapy‘s Sterling Heights location. “We may not be able to model things in the way we would with a sighted child, but we have other ways of reaching them by leveraging auditory and tactile perception.”


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Helping Children with Autism at Home

Parents aren’t usually therapists in the technical sense, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t equally as important in ensuring a child with autism thrives.

A child on the spectrum spends more time at home than with their therapy team, so there is a lot of opportunity to add on to the positive work your child’s autism therapy team is doing, especially if you can create a therapeutic space for your child in your home and engage in parent training.

For instance, your therapy team may be working on some of the underlying reasons why your child has food aversions, but they can still offer you advice for battling picky eating at home. Or, to see more progress in your child’s autism therapy outcomes, you can get advice on how to augment that therapy at home, such as these tips on speech and language learning at home.

“One or two hours a week for a child on the spectrum is not a lot,” says Marika Gaul, a speech-language pathologist at Gateway’s Bingham Farms location. “The more involved the family is at home, the more likely they will be successful.”

There are also some situations that arise at home that can’t be manufactured in therapy — and parents need help. Traveling is notoriously challenging for children on the spectrum since it disrupts established routines and there is less environmental control, but limiting a child’s world isn’t the answer and certainly doesn’t promote their long-term independence. Some pre-planning can help set a child up for success, and this can help parents and caregivers include their child on regular errands out in the community, too.

“You can create a visual schedule so your child will know that the trip will start at home, stop here, stop for lunch, and then get to Grandma’s house. Use pictures for kids who can’t read to offer a visual for what will happen and in what order. This really helps with routine,” says Shayla Whitt, Supervising Board Certified Behavior Analyst with Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Dearborn.

Managing screen time is a challenge for all parents, but can be an even tougher fight for those whose children are on the spectrum. Autism therapy experts, like those at Gateway, can offer some guidance in minimizing how much time kids spend glued to digital devices. And sometimes things beyond our control disrupt routines and cause challenges at home for children on the spectrum and their families.

Case in point, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent education and therapy disruptions created a lot of strain on families in general, but even more so for those with children with autism. Getting tips for helping kids with autism cope with “new normal” rules can go a long way.

In addition, parents and caregivers are in the perfect position to work with their children on self-care skills and to engage in outdoor activities with them, too.

Shantinique Jones, Assistant Clinical Director at Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Owosso, explains why this is important: “If a family wants to work on handwashing, we all need to practice this goal across environments. If we recognize that a child starts to scrub their hands on their own for five seconds, that’s great feedback that we share with parents so they are aware that their child is still learning but doing some things on their own. The family can have the same expectation at home, and they can communicate this with grandparents and across all the different environments where a child would wash their hands.”

That consistency will make this self-care habit more likely to be fully adopted and it reinforces, through skill generalization, self-confidence and independence in your child.

The team at Gateway also offer parents general advice on how to interact with their child with autism. One of their biggest pieces of “aha” advice is working to avoid using the word ‘don’t” and instead focus on what they call a “giver mindset,” or positive reinforcement.

“It’s easy to respond with a ‘don’t do that’ or a ‘you can’t use that’ when a child acts out, but those statements make it hard for kids to know what they should be doing instead,” says Lisa Bingham, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA, Clinical Director of Gateway Pediatric Therapy‘s Lansing clinic. “Rather than telling a child not to run, the parent could say to the child, ‘I would like you to walk with me to the car,’ or ‘let’s use our walking feet through the parking lot.'”


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Social Skills Tips for Kids with Autism

To help a child with autism thrive, you want them to have the skills needed to live a full, independent life. That includes learning how to communicate their wants and needs. Experts and parents can partner to help a child set and achieve goals to realize that. But another big piece of that dream for parents of children with autism is for their child to have the social skills needed to have rich, rewarding relationships.

The Gateway Pediatric Therapy team offers social skills tips for kids with autism to help in that all-important effort. This advice can be very specific, such as how to help kids on the spectrum develop social skills during social distancing, or, on the flipside, how to help children with autism navigate the busy, socially-stimulating holiday season. There’s also some very practical tips for helping your child manage strong emotions.

Two of the most common social situation opportunities for parents with children on the spectrum are improving interactions with siblings and tips for attending school successfully when you have autism. For sibling interactions, it’s essential for the brother or sister to be a willing participant. And, Stephanie Maldonado-Velazquez, BCBA, Practicum Manager for Gateway’s Dearborn location, says you can help them feel good about helping their sibling on the spectrum. “Explain, in an age-appropriate way, that he or she can serve as a role model for appropriate play behavior for his or her sibling,” she says. “Siblings often feel a sense of great satisfaction when they can help their brother or sister. It fosters a sense of pride.”

Part of success for a child on the autism spectrum is appropriate “function of behavior,” or effective use of communication to get their needs met. “With ABA, we identify these functions which help us decrease challenging behaviors and replace them with safer or more appropriate behavior that still helps a child get their needs met,” says Nicolai Kowalski, BCBA, Assistant Clinical Director at Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Sterling Heights.

For kids with autism to succeed in school, the most important thing is developing an IEP and establishing good communication. “I can’t stress enough how important it is for parents to collaborate with the school and the district to share any and all diagnostic information early on,” notes Sam Hancock, BCBA, Vice President of Clinical Operations.

To truly help a child with autism thrive, you need a team of people who contribute to the shared goals. That work with experts, parents, schools and supporters will help support a child’s growth and development, and can provide building blocks that contribute to job skills, allowing a teenager or young adult to experience increased independence along with a sense of pride and accomplishment. It also means you can spend more time focusing on the fun things in life, like planning summer activities and trips.

With a team of experts like those at Gateway Pediatric Therapy, a dedicated family that works to build rapport with their child with autism, helps their child continue therapy lessons at home, and some mindfulness in expanding a child’s social circle – along with skills to navigate them – you’ve got a recipe for success for a child on the spectrum.


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