When kids begin ABA therapy at Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for individuals with autism and other developmental needs in Madison Heights, they gain access to scientifically proven methods that help them learn to communicate, become more independent and learn how to engage with their family as well as interact within their community.
But how does that early intervention help parents who have suddenly learned their child has autism or another developmental disorder?
“We know that when a 2-year-old starts to learn how to talk and build life skills, they’re less likely to become aggressive or frustrated. But few people talk about early intervention for parental coping skills. Having the proper mindset and coping strategies can really help the family move through the process as well. When parents can learn to live in a mindful way, they can impact both themselves and their children.” says Jamie McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Owner and Executive Director at Healing Haven.
“All research indicates the sooner a child gets services, the better the outcome, regardless of severity,” says Kristofer Picano, MA, TLLP, BCBA, LBA, a diagnostic specialist at Healing Haven, adding that many of Healing Haven’s clients come to them from a simple phone call from parents wanting to know more about their child’s behaviors.
But when parents learn their child has a developmental delay or a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, many experience some form of grief. And experts say that’s normal.
“We are breaking the news to parents that the ideas and hopes and dreams they have for their child will look different,” Picano says. “But the silver lining is that parents get answers to their questions, guidance for what to do next, and possibly insurance-covered services that their child might not have had access to before a diagnosis.”
Empowered by knowledge
“A parent’s journey begins with their child’s assessment, which can provide a lot of information. We provide those diagnostic evaluations for kids, and that’s where their process starts,” says McGillivary. “Sometimes a parent is on the fence about having their child evaluated because of fear that an evaluation will confirm that their child does have developmental difficulties. That fear can manifest as denial, the first stage of grief. Unfortunately, if a child is having difficulties, denial can cost the child precious time.”
Many times, parents feel completely helpless in the face of their child’s diagnosis. What’s different about Healing Haven’s approach is that parents are empowered from the beginning through a strong support system that includes information, an understanding community and plenty of counseling. Throughout the process, Healing Haven’s multidisciplinary approach helps parents work through their cycles of grief.
“One of our tenets is kids are kids first, before they are kids with autism,” says McGillivary. “This is your child and you love them no matter what, and a label doesn’t change who they are. Acceptance is a big piece for our families who, with help, begin to recognize the beauty of the child in front of them.”
That level of acceptance — though it’s not always immediately apparent — is part of the grieving process which, for parents of kids with autism, is never linear, says McGillivary.
“You will bounce back and forth. Things begin to go well and you feel like you are in a state of acceptance, and boom — here comes a birthday party and you are right back to that anger stage. Something triggers you. Acceptance is an active process that parents will find they have to strive for on an ongoing basis,” she says.
The power of acceptance
Because of that cyclical nature of grief, when parents can learn to sit with their feelings — no matter what they are — they begin to harness a powerful coping mechanism that ultimately helps decrease their suffering.
Specially trained counselors support Healing Haven families to learn this difficult but critically important skill.
“Sometimes you have to sit with your discomfort,” McGillivary says. “You have to be in it to know you don’t want to be in it, and that’s motivation to learn these skills.”
Learning how to cope helps your child function better, too. “It’s our job to teach parents that you have to take care of yourself to take care of your child,” she says. “You are modeling being healthy and flexible and accepting — all of which we teach our kids on the spectrum.”
Most of all, McGillivary encourages parents to be gentle with themselves. “It’s a journey of three steps forward, two steps back,” she explains. “If you embrace this mindset, find the joy in life and live in the present, you can find silver linings. If you can recognize silver linings, you will find more positive behaviors to reinforce and this will bring you closer to your child and your overall goal.”
Learn more about Healing Haven at thehealinghaven.net.