When your child first receives an autism diagnosis, it can be hard to find the silver lining. This is especially true if your child has consistent behavioral issues. To maximize their success, you will be called upon to take stock in ways that most other parents are not.
You’ll wonder when to push forward and when to sit back and allow everything that makes your child wonderful and unique to prevail. To know how to provide the best support, you need to know your child’s strengths and learn how to build upon their unique characteristics. That’s not always an easy thing to do.
“There’s a beauty and a struggle in this need to recognize your child’s strengths,” says Jamie McGillivary, President and Founder of Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children and teens in Madison Heights.
“Most parents of children without an autism diagnosis simply don’t have to think about how their child is developing. On the other hand, parents of children with autism need to be hyper-attuned to how their children behave. But each step forward can be celebrated and recognized as a blessing,” she says.
As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, McGillivary helps parents uncover their child’s strengths. She knows the value of reaching beyond autism awareness and autism acceptance to an authentic celebration of the very real contributions of people with autism. And she shares an understanding of what individuals with autism need to achieve their potential. She encourages people to understand that acceptance is an active word. It does not imply taking a passive role.
Recognizing differences as gifts is important, but McGillivary encourages families to take the next step forward to creatively help their children build on those gifts to work toward a life of independence and fulfillment.
ABA therapy can not only help identify each child’s unique gifts, but it can give parents a road map for building upon them, says McGillivary.
“The whole purpose of ABA therapy is to help families recognize their child’s strengths and help them work to close the gaps in the skills they don’t yet have but will need in order to reach independence,” she says. “We always say we have the expertise in ABA and autism, but parents have the ‘Ph.D.’ in knowing their own kids. We work together to figure out the barriers that get in the way of using those strengths to build new skills. Then we walk alongside parents to knock down those barriers.”
How do you recognize your child’s strengths?
Instead of thinking five steps ahead — to high school, college and career — parents of a child with autism must live in the moment and deal with what is right in front of them at any given time.
“In doing so, you are more likely to see tiny stages of growth and celebrate these, rather than have the expectation that this growth will happen naturally,” McGillivary explains. “Living in the present moment is truly a better way to live. It helps you escape the worry of the future, which is a natural worry for any parent to have. Decreasing the heaviness of that worry will help parents be present for their children and in turn promote growth.”
Teachers and BCBAs will be able to see your child’s strengths with unbiased eyes, so ask others what strengths they see, and be ready to think broadly about translating those strengths into future skills.
If a child has the uncanny ability to recognize musical notes by ear or can hear the nuances of Pokemon cries, they may also be able to pick up on a foreign language. Perhaps they could be skilled at learning a complex sequence of data quickly and efficiently.
Or, if they have an affinity for building with Legos, they may later learn to build more complex objects as a carpenter or even enjoy engineering.
When you can identify a child’s strengths, you can then creatively and systematically start to introduce activities that could later lead to independence or a specific profession down the road.
“Kids with autism tend to think outside the box. This can be a major strength which we as parents and professionals need to encourage,” says McGillivary. “But sometimes children struggle to get their point across to the world. This can manifest as frustration or disruptive or dangerous behaviors, which can often be barriers to success.”
ABA resources can help you reduce those barriers while you continue to highlight strengths, she adds.
See the world from their eyes
When you’re struggling to see your child’s strengths, it helps to look at the world from their level. Sit with them as they line up toy cars. Watch and study what they are doing, maybe even participate with them, suggests McGillivary. What are the advantages of this behavior? Is it to soothe or bring comfort? Are they arranging by color or size? Try to figure out the why.
“Does that repetitive action of lining up cars equate to something that you might do as an adult? Is it fulfilling a need? Repetitive actions bring peace. We ascribe judgment to repetitive behavior just because it has been given a label, but that is foolish,” she says. Instead, understand that it’s a powerful and unique coping skill.
Celebrating neurodiversity should be at the heart of all ABA programs, so work to find a therapy center that shares your philosophy and belief system.
“As BCBAs, our greatest calling is to teach in a way that will help people maximize their potential,” says McGillivary. “We never want to negate what makes them unique and beautiful.”
Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA therapy programs for children and teens. Visit thehealinghaven.net.