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Helping Your Child Fly: Navigating the Trajectory of Autism

written by: Rebecca Dean • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 3/1/2016

As a developmental disorder, the difficulties associated with autism can grow and change across age. This makes it difficult for parents and teachers to know exactly which aspects to support or what to fight for. Learn some of the first steps you should take, and aids you may need on your journey.

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    Imagine an airplane taking flight. We may not know its exact trajectory before takeoff, but we can still set goals to guide its path. Just as airplanes must keep a smooth trajectory, parents should always be finding ways to move their children forward in their development. Even in times of turbulence, explicit goals can help make that journey smoother.

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    Checking In

    Before you board a plane, you need to enter the airport with a destination in mind. Parents and teachers can work together to identify the issues that cause the biggest barrier to a child’s progress.

    Because autism covers a wide range of function, every child is different, and even the needs within a child can change. Does the child need support with social communication or behavior management? Does he require tools for concentration or ways to reduce repetitive behaviors? Parents and teachers might have different perspectives on the same child, so collaboration can help fast-track that check-in process.

    Once you’ve identified the general area of a child’s needs, it’s important to choose more specific and individualized goals. Think of this in terms of narrowing the destination down from a continent to a specific country. While it’s easy to follow the tourist trail and go with the popular tour operators, a more bespoke service is sometimes required. In real terms, this might mean ignoring a lot of the general one-size-fits-all suggestions available online and thinking more about what your child needs.

    LoveToKnow outlines the social, occupational, and behavioral areas you might want to target and gives specific examples of the kind of small manageable goals to aim for, such as sustaining activity with a peer or teacher for more than 10 minutes or accepting changes in routine 70 percent of the time. These are the typical tick boxes that clinicians use to assess children’s levels of functioning — targeting these concrete skills can result in tangible outcomes.

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    Learning the Language

    If you’re traveling somewhere new, it’s helpful to be able to communicate. The same is true for how you set a child’s goals — you need to think about supporting his needs in a variety of different settings.

    Provide him with core skills that will translate across different domains. For example, do your child’s speech issues with the therapist translate into the play setting with his or her peers? By introducing broader, more challenging objectives that complement the core strategies for your child, you can help achieve fluency.

    The language you use as a parent or teacher is also critical. Children don’t respond well to always being told “no." Instead of telling them what they can’t do, try encouraging more of what they can do. This is more likely to motivate them to achieve the goals you set.

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    Loving the Layovers

    On a long-haul flight, there might often be a layover, breaking that long journey into shorter, less tiring stages. This is exactly the approach you should take when setting goals.

    Convincing a child to dress himself might seem impossible, while asking him to put one arm in a shirt or fasten the Velcro is much more manageable. It turns small steps into accomplishments, boosting confidence to try something bigger next time.

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    Passing Through Security

    Making sure children pass through the goals you set with a sense of achievement and confidence is important for their future motivation. This is why it’s crucial for parents and teachers to agree on manageable but moveable milestones. Once they’ve passed through one checkpoint, there’s a farther one for them to reach. This should be supplemented with praise and reward (small stickers or certificates work well) so it doesn’t always feel like the goalposts are being shifted.

    The first time you pass through security at an airport, you might feel a little anxious about what to do and what to expect. But once you’ve done it a few times, you’ve got your belt off and liquids ready. Having consistent, structured goals allows your child to preempt and prepare.

    Parents and teachers can also use these markers to track how far the child has come and adjust the final destination accordingly. It might be that the child is capable of reaching a more distant continent than you originally thought, or perhaps he needs to travel a little closer to home first. But in mapping out the journey, you have the power to assess and evaluate.

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    Knowing What to Pack

    The luggage you take will depend on where you’re going. There are no ready-made kits to go alongside the goals you set for your child. As a general rule, however, children with autism tend to struggle the most with organization and memory. So helpful aids might be:

    • Recording devices/smart pens: Encouraging children to record lessons and therapy sessions will give them something to reflect back on. For children with reading difficulties, there are many audio devices on the market that will translate text to speech or act as a screen reader for other electronic formats.
    • Organizers: Whether they’re electronic or paper-based, organizers that use color or category systems can be user-friendly for students, giving them some autonomy to take control of their own schedules.
    • Transcribers: Individuals with autism can sometimes have motor difficulties and, therefore, struggle with handwriting and processing complex math problems. Devices are available that will break down complex sets of information and/or convert speech into electronic notes.

    All of the above aids can help children accumulate a user-friendly bank of notes tailored to their needs. But just as you might not keep your seatbelt fastened for the whole flight, you should encourage your child to loosen the straps a little, too. Allow him to tackle some of his smaller goals unaided so he can learn to cope with the hand luggage only.

    If parents and teachers can work together to create a supported and consistent map for the future, the child following it can fly high.

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    About the Author: Rebecca Dean is the president of Tiny Tots Therapy Inc. and a partner in Therapy Nook and Kids Blvd Sensory Gym. She earned her degree in occupational therapy and is certified and trained in sensory integration. Rebecca believes in a holistic therapeutic approach and realizes that alternative methods, combined with traditional therapy, allow children to acquire functional and developmental skills and retain them.

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