When your child receives a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder or another developmental delay, your job as a parent changes, perhaps dramatically. All of a sudden, words like “assessment,” “evaluation” and “eligibility” take on a new meaning as you navigate the world of therapeutic and educational opportunities.
This can be a dizzying world for a parent, but the good news is that there is help along this path, says Heather Eckner, M.A.Ed., Statewide Director of Education Initiatives with the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM).
“Through a comprehensive Navigator Program, AAoM offers free professional consultation services across the state to help parents navigate concerns related to their child’s diagnosis. By answering questions and assisting in identifying appropriate resources and support services, the AAoM Navigator Program can help parents pull together a comprehensive plan of services and supports for their child,” Eckner says.
Here, we share some valuable information for parents who are just beginning this process.
Two separate avenues of support
Typically, there are two paths that parents can follow to gain therapeutic support for their child, and the two paths operate independently. This means parents may have to relay information between the two entities. Just as there is no manual for parenting, there’s no checklist for acting as a case manager for your child, says Eckner.
“There’s no right or wrong starting point, and that’s why the Navigator is so helpful,” she says. “Communication is critical and the parent is the central hub. However, there are many inherent intricacies and the Navigator can provide consultation and information to help guide families down the right paths at the right times.”
The medical route involves a diagnosis that aligns with the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V. This diagnosis is typically made by a psychologist or a physician such as a pediatric neurologist, developmental and behavioral pediatrician or a psychiatrist. The educational route involves establishing eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA and the related Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education, or MARSE.
Parents of kids who have been medically diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are often surprised to learn that this diagnosis does not automatically confer eligibility for special education through the school district. The AAoM Navigator, however, can help parents understand the steps required for their child to qualify.
Experts typically recommend that parents pursue both avenues of support for their child.
“These two systems operate separately. However, integrating an intervention plan for a child based on their individualized needs often leads to best outcomes,” Eckner says. “The AAoM Navigator can really help with this.”
Expert help for parents
When parents contact the AAoM Navigator, they gain a support system to help pursue all paths for their child. “There’s a lot of information and the systems are often complex, but Navigators are here to help families prioritize their child’s needs,” Eckner says. “There are multiple things to do and to know and Navigators are skilled at helping families take everything step by step so they don’t get overwhelmed.”
Experts recommend accessing services as soon as possible to produce the best chance for therapeutic effects. “We empower parents to trust their instincts, their gut, if they feel something is not right. Even prior to a diagnosis, parents are welcome to contact the Navigator Program with questions or concerns they might have,” Eckner says.
Another helpful resource is a virtual training program offered through Autism Alliance of Michigan called Watch Me Grow. This free training helps parents, caregivers, early educators, and daycare and foster care providers recognize developmental milestones and red flags. This free program is funded through the generosity of the Carls Foundation and will be offered this spring and summer. Register online at Watch Me Grow — Autism Alliance of Michigan.
“We are here to walk alongside the family, and it’s an ongoing process,” Eckner says. “We have knowledgeable people for families to talk with and walk through everything. It’s so important to have help understanding the process in order to make the best decisions.”
Contact an AAoM Navigator at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-463-2266.
Learn more about the Autism Alliance of Michigan at autismallianceofmichigan.org.