When my son, Noah, was diagnosed with Asperger's 15 years ago, we were told he needed to have speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, sensory integration therapy and join a social skills group. I felt like I had to do everything the doctor recommended or else I'd be missing an opportunity to help my child. I spent a large proportion of my time driving to appointments and sitting in waiting rooms with lots of other moms. And I wondered, how will I know if this is the right thing to do?
Getting practical help
I'm so thankful for the great therapists we had through the years who helped us understand why Noah was struggling and gave us real tools to help decrease his frustration. When Noah was younger he talked all the time, at a loud volume, without taking a breath. Asking him to stop, ignoring him or walking away resulted in a huge meltdown. He would follow me around the house talking through bedroom and bathroom doors, while I was on the phone, when I needed to run an errand, and when his brothers or father wanted to talk. His social skills teacher thought we should teach him to "bookmark" a conversation because he loved to read. The concept is simple, you can "bookmark" a conversation (or put it on "pause") to take a break and set a time to continue it in the future. We used the strategy with great success for many years and in middle school Noah started using it with us, "Mom, can we bookmark this conversation until tomorrow?"
Deciding what works for your family
- Make time for your child's interests and strengths: I think one of the hardest things for me was feeling like we were using all our time to "work on" his challenges and we weren't focusing enough on his interests and strengths. As he got older we made sure he had activities he liked out in the community (piano, fencing, anime club) and at home (board games and reading). It wasn't "all therapy all the time."
- Prioritize challenges: It's hard to work on everything at once. Even though we were told to get him 5 different kinds of therapy when he was diagnosed, we started with what was getting in his way the most.
- Ask questions: It's important to understand the goal of any given therapy you might try. Ask your therapist about reasonable goals, how often you should meet to determine if the therapy is useful, and how you'll know when it's time to do something different or stop altogether.
- Connect therapy to your child's goals: As my son got older he was involved in deciding which supports were most useful. When we disagreed about which supports were needed we tried to align the therapy with his personal goals. For example, he wanted to stop going to traditional social skills groups in high school; but he wanted to be able to hold a job and go away to college. So we made a list of the skills needed to succeed in those settings and talked about the different ways to gain them without a traditional social skills group.
- Take a therapy break: A friend of mine who has a daughter older than Noah explained that they took therapy breaks occasionally. It gave them time, money and energy to focus on other things that mattered to their family--like a family trip.
- Ask about generalization: For most kids on the autism spectrum, generalizing a skill learned in one place (like therapy) to another place (like home or out in the community) is challenging. Talk to your therapist about how to help your child use what they're learning in more than one setting.
- Remember that you can make choices that work for your family: If you feel overwhelmed, it is okay to shift your time, money and energy to help you feel more balanced.
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