Imagine taking your child to the doctor, having your child diagnosed with a life-long condition, then being basically told to have a nice day. That was me when my daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. No guidance. No game plan. Nothing.
After recovering from the feeling that I was hit in the face by a shovel, I got to work. I googled “autism” on reputable sites, and I created my own plan for her based on a 100-day plan after diagnosis. Now, after countless years and too many therapies to count, my daughter is a happy, creative, smart, loving woman who is learning her place in this world. She has done speech, therapy, occupational therapy, talk therapy, physical therapy, group therapy, therapeutic riding, music therapy, etc. She continues with most of those, including going to “school” at the Transition Center in Cedar Rapids, which focuses on job skills, social development, and volunteerism.
When therapists have clients who are either diagnosed with or suspected having autism, we need to remember that autism is a diagnosis that affects the entire family and/or caregivers. Remember that loved ones will start the grieving process when they receive that diagnosis. They will grieve the loss of the child they thought they had. They will grieve what that may mean for their family. And they will feel so alone and isolated.
Through my work as a clinic therapist, I welcome clients who are on the autism spectrum. While some therapists shy away from clients on the spectrum, others welcome them. I won’t sugar coat and say autism clients are easy. They are not. You need to find out what makes them happy or sad, angry or calm. You need to know what they like to do and what triggers them. You need to bring in parents and/or caregivers and work as a team. What does that sound like? It sounds like therapy for anyone. However, autism is a way of processing information, which is most definitely different. Learn the physical signs of processing. Is it staring? Fidgeting? Talking to oneself? It depends on the person. But it is a necessary step to helping them reach their goals.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that 1 in 44 people have autism. It crosses racial and economic groups. It is, however, four times more prevalent in boys. Early detection helps most, so that therapies can begin at a young age. My daughter missed that window and was not diagnosed until she was 7. My oldest son was diagnosed at 28, after being treated for years with severe depression. Being your loved one’s advocate is essential.
What happens if you do not have or know someone with autism? People on the spectrum want to be treated with grace. Have you ever seen a child melting down at a grocery store and given the person they are with a dirty look? Consider the sensory output of a store: bright lights; a plethora of colors, smells, shapes, sizes; the overhead music; and the multitude of people speaking in a variety of volumes and moods. Sounds overwhelming to neurotypical people. It is incredibly overwhelming to those on the spectrum. Instead of judging the person, smile at the parent/caregiver and ask if you can help. Most will say no, but they will be grateful that someone took the time to offer grace instead of judgment.
Written by Barb Flagel, LMSW. Barb is a Clinic Therapist at Tanager Place’s Mental Wellbeing Clinic. She is a Certified Aut-Play Therapist and Certified Grief Counseling Professional. Barb also serves as the President for the Corridor Autism Resource Expo.