How Setting Goals Will Benefit Your Child With Autism

When you level-set your expectations, you put yourself on a path for setting goals that are satisfying and achievable, says Jamie McGillivary at Healing Haven.

For the parent of a child with autism, the act of setting goals — and then achieving them — is a huge win. Nothing feels more satisfying than to look back with your child and say, “Look how far we have come.”

While it may be tempting to leapfrog over the little things and start setting goals for graduating from school, starting a career and living independently, a more successful approach is to level-set expectations and raise the bar gradually over time, suggests Jamie McGillivary, BCBA, President and Founder of Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children and teens in Madison Heights.

“We always say that the sky is the limit for our kids, and that’s true, especially within the means of what they are capable of achieving,” McGillivary says. “Every parent has expectations and typically these have been set by the experts in child development, but when your child is outside of that curve of learning, how do you figure out what they are capable of?”

Fortunately, as a parent of a child with autism, you can lean into professional help. You are the expert on your own child, and your BCBA’s role is to help you set realistic and achievable goals based on your child’s age and development — and their learning profile of strengths.

“The real trick,” says McGillivary, “is to figure out how to use those strengths to build upon areas of struggle.”

Start with the basics

When you’re setting goals for your child with autism, start by building an understanding of typical development. If your 3-year-old isn’t sitting and listening for 30-minute stretches, take heart! It’s completely normal for a toddler to be on the move and it’s developmentally inappropriate to expect otherwise.

“Take care not to create goals that are inappropriate for your child’s age and development,” she says. Consider your child’s learning as a road map, with goals as destinations along the path that eventually help you arrive at your destination.

Living in the present moment will help you both in setting goals that are appropriate for your child and in feeling grateful for every step — no matter how seemingly small — your child achieves. “An achievement one parent might take for granted is miraculous to another parent. When you live in the moment and focus on those little accomplishments, the celebrations are richer and sweeter because you are one step closer to your larger goals,” McGillivary says.

Whether your expectations for your child include learning to tolerate being in an environment with multiple people, learning how to sit and pay attention for extended periods of time or one of a dozen daily life skills, expect to customize based on what is achievable for your child right now.

What setting goals looks like

When you’re brainstorming appropriate goals for your child with autism, share your hopes and dreams with your child’s BCBA. And share your child’s strengths and struggles, too.

“Our goal as BCBAs is to teach the skills that are the most socially significant for the child and family,” McGillivary says. “We want to help your child reach the greatest level of independence and happiness.”

Today, you may be working on helping your child learn to request some juice. “Later down the road, they may be learning how to request a peer to play with them,” she says. “Now they’re taking all that language they’ve developed and learning how to have conversations. These skills all lead to independence and happiness later on.”

Expect your BCBA to officially review your child’s goals at least twice yearly, but they should also be monitoring your child’s progress on a daily basis.

But what if things aren’t going as you expect?

“If your child is not making gains, it’s not their fault. As BCBAs, we will assume the issue lies in the teaching and in the selected goals. When we find ourselves “stuck” on a goal, we adjust and break it down,” McGillivary explains. BCBAs are data-driven for a reason and should stay on top of the data consistently.

If your child is learning how to request their juice, for instance, the BCBA may be teaching them how to communicate their needs and will choose an appropriate word or approximation of a word to use. But if your child is struggling to meet this goal successfully, the BCBA should come at it from another direction, perhaps teaching them to point instead. The goal is adjusted to maximize success. Then they can come back to the original goal a little later down the road.

“We should always have five or six tricks up our sleeves so if your child is struggling to get from point A to point B, we can try another way,” she says.

What you’ll both learn from setting goals

In the act of setting goals and helping your child achieve them, you’ll both learn patience and perseverance.

“When you create that roadmap, you won’t be meandering or stumbling around to try to reach your goal,” McGillivary says. “Instead, you will know where you are going and how to get there.”

And, while it may sound contrary to the larger goal of happiness, satisfaction and independence, learning how to relax into your plan will help you in the long run.

“The greatest struggles come when people are stuck on what ‘is’. Try not to fight what is, and instead relax into your plan. If it doesn’t work, you’ll reevaluate and readjust,” she says.

Most importantly, consider your child.

“Kids have a lot of say in this, too,” McGillivary says. “One of my favorite sayings is, just because your child can’t talk doesn’t mean he has nothing to say. Even if your child is nonverbal, you’ll learn what motivates them and discover how to make them an active participant in what they learn and how they get there.”

Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA therapy services for children and teens. Visit

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