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Autism: What Every Parent Should Know

Autism: What Every Parent Should Know

by Sara Whitaker

Autism. The word that strikes fear into the heart of every parent. Today, it is estimated that one child out of every 88 is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. 

Children diagnosed with ASD usually struggle in three key areas: social interaction, language and behavior, and while there still aren’t a lot of answers about autism, many believe that it occurs very early in brain development. Most signs and symptoms aren’t evident until the toddler years – between the ages of two and three, and it is much more common in boys than girls – 1 out of 54 and 1 out of 252, respectively.

But what makes this diagnosis so mind-boggling, is that it looks and acts different in every child. So when the “a” word is associated with a child that you love it’s natural to wonder what that will mean for your family. I’m only still learning what it means for mine.

Last year, the wonderful staff at my son’s pre-school noticed that he wasn’t interacting with children in his class the same way as the other kiddos. He didn’t seem to engage in a lot of two-way conversation and he became fractious when he transitioned from activities. To be honest, we didn’t think much about it. Graham (or Grahammy as he’s been lovingly dubbed at school) has always been quiet and reserved; and after all, he was just two. We had just moved to town, he was in a new school, a new church, a new house and we had a new baby on the way. We were adamant about well-child visits and he had hit all the developmental milestones for the most part. But prior to his second birthday, he had some hearing loss due to chronic ear infections and we’d had his tonsils and adenoids removed and tubes placed. We were advised that it was completely normal for his speech to be a little delayed, so in our completely anti-helicopter parenting style – we forged on.  After all, he was reading, reciting his a-b-c’s and counting. No. Cause. For. Concern.

But as the weeks went on, the school’s concerns grew and we agreed to have him observed by our local school district. We were stunned to learn that some of the characteristics and quirks that make our curly-headed, blue-eyed guy who is he is — are some of the very things that put him on the autism spectrum. For instance, instead of a lovey or favorite stuffed animal at night, he was comforted by the texture of my wedding rings (sensory alert). Rather than having conversations about what he saw or asking “what’s that?” questions, he would wow us with his a-b-c’s and 1-2-3’s over and over (repetitive language patterns).  Sometimes he was coy and didn’t look at me when I spoke to him, so I assumed it was his shyness (lack of eye contact). And instead of being an alpha male, jumping and climbing at the playground or building towers, he chose to snuggle up with us, sit quietly and read books or recite flash cards (poor use of fine motor skills and repetitive behaviors).

My husband and I (both extremely extraverted) genuinely thought Graham was a shy, quiet little guy and doggone it – we would support that. So when we got the diagnosis back, we realized that like many parents, we under reacted as the symptoms simply masked themselves as a phase or minor delays. How could we have missed that and what did this mean for our family?

For me this meant applying what I do in my “day job” to help me with my mom-job. By day I’m a communications manager and it’s my responsibility to drive alignment and engagement through the voices of our leaders to ensure our entire team receives and understands those messages loud and clear. I use a number of vehicles, work through communications plans and strategies — all to ensure that our systems are healthy, functioning and sustainable.

I’m very new to the world of ASD, but over the past six months, I’ve learned that autism is very much a communications disorder – so I drew on my training and experience, hoping it would help – and it did. Some children are visual learners and some are auditory. Some children (or adults for that matter) struggle with written communications due to dyslexia, vision problems, etc., while others find it hard to sit still in class due to ADD or ADHD. There’s also another group entirely, who don’t wear a label or have a diagnosis that struggle in some way. All of these people have one thing in common – they receive and process communications differently. The same goes with autism.

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By facing these communications challenges head-on through early intervention, children as young as 12 months who are diagnosed with ASD have a high success rate of being mainstreamed by the time they enter Kindergarten. There is still so much that is unknown about autism, but a recent study showed that interventions based on relationship-based training routines and intense speech and occupational therapy can teach children at an early age how to manage their autism and the challenges it can present.  

As parents, there are some very scary things we face and ASD doesn’t have to be one of them. In our home, we weren’t facing a sad diagnosis and we don’t see ourselves different than any other family. Our challenges are just different – no worse, no easier and Graham is a happy, loving little guy with a few close friends, who still tests boundaries and pushes the limits like other toddlers his age.

What every parent facing ASD should know is that building your “village,” as I call it, is key. Those who are closest to us buy-in to our system – the one we created. Here, we have exceptional educators, outstanding therapists, amazing co-workers, great friends and some resources who have “been there and done that.” It’s important to know that in our community, our day care centers, pre-schools, educational institutions and caring physicians stand ready to help parents of children with ASD.

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