Personal story about Autism: a parent's perspective on early intervention


The six-year-old boy who walks through the door is exceptionally cute but his protective helmet warns me that something is amiss here. It takes only my hello to start him screaming and hitting his head - for the next fifteen minutes! He does not want to be here. At the Judevine Autism Program at East Central Regional Hospital (ECRH) we train parents to use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) methods to bring their child's behavior under control and to get them ready to learn. This boy, we could already see, would be a challenge.


six years old is 'middle age' for autism interventions

But, if truth be told, we knew that before the boy walked through the door. He was six - that's young for most things but it is "middle age" in the world of autism treatment. If a child with autism has not had some basic behavior training by age six, he may well have learned behaviors that will be disturbing and difficult to change. This is said to encourage those parents of young children diagnosed with autism to get help by age three. It is not said to discourage those parents whose children have already passed that magic age.


For them, let me say, it is never too late to start treating a child with autism - much can still be accomplished - but it will be much harder! My favorite Bible verse is "Love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). This gives me hope as a parent because I have made many mistakes with my kids - it's never too late to start over. We have worked with children and adults with autism of all ages. We have yet to have one that did not benefit in some way - for some it may only have been that the person with autism sat down when we said, "Sit down."


early intervention

Our goal is to teach the parents of persons with autism how to apply the ABA techniques in their daily lives and in training sessions. In our workshops we always tell parents that having a child of three slap you in the face is not pleasant but much easier to deal with than a young man of twenty-three doing the same thing! It is so important to start early - when the child is pliable, has not learned so many inappropriate behaviors, and is small enough to physically manipulate, if necessary. With that said, let me explain the purpose of this story:


We have trained hundreds of children with autism. The ones that are easier to train are always those who have been taught some basic respect for others at an early age. It has nothing to do with their level of autism or even their intellectual abilities. It has nothing to do with the level of skill or intelligence of the parents. It has everything to do with how early the parents began to expect good behavior from their children and not to tolerate outrageous behavior.


a personal experience with behavioral issues

This was brought home to me with my eldest daughter Charity. At age two, she defined the term "terrible twos". She always did the opposite of what she was told, she was mean, she hit others, she tantrummed, and she was just not a pleasant child to take anywhere. She did not have autism but she had severe behavior problems that were getting more and more out of control.


One night her mother had a dream. In the dream she was calling for Charity to come to her and get away from the road. Instead, Charity ran the other way - right into the path of a big truck. We took this as a message from God that we had better do something fast or we could lose our daughter. We started to expect good behavior from her and gave her consequences for inappropriate behavior. When we told her to do something, and she didn't do it, we made her do it. We said what we meant and meant what we said. It worked. She turned into a wonderful child who people actually wanted to be around. This story is not meant to scare you - but if that is necessary to motivate you to take action, maybe it's not so bad to be scared. If your child is behaving inappropriately - get help as early as you can.


In many ways a child with autism does not learn the same way other children learn. For some children it seems as if they grow up on "auto-pilot". We don't have lessons on language, but they pick it up any way. We don't teach them to walk or run or jump and play, but they do all these things. Kids without autism are able to pay attention to the important things and to shut out the unimportant things. They pick up the natural cues around them to learn how to imitate and to create new behaviors. Kids with autism have a difficult time focusing on what's important and usually need specific training to teach specific skills.


children with autism do learn

Kids with autism do learn, however. They, like all kids, want things and learn ways to get those things. In most cases, kids without autism eventually learn to use language and appropriate behavior to get the things they want. Kids with autism may not learn these things so easily. Instead, they learn other ways to get their needs met. They may scream or hit to get what they want. Kids with autism are great independent problem-solvers and they always take the easy way out. Sometimes what they want is to be left alone.


So, like the little six year old you met at the top of this web page, they may learn that their behavior can effectively back people away and get them things they want. Tantrums are nothing more than a learned response to get the child with autism something he wants - either something he desires to have (like a cookie) or something he desires to avoid (like work or physical contact).


All kids learn the wrong things sometimes. Children without autism can often be turned around rather easily (like my daughter was) but when kids with autism learn the wrong things, for some reason these things stick with them - sometimes for years. When a child of six has learned these wrong things for three to four years, you may have a severe problem on your hands. Getting him to learn a new way to get what he wants, will take a lot of time because first you must teach him that the old way no longer works. That means ignoring the tantrums (which can be very hard to do) and giving a consequence for aggressive behaviors (which can be even harder to do). Depending upon the age and size of the child, these things can be next to impossible to accomplish. Like I said earlier, though, if your kid is past age three, it can still be done. It will just be harder.


suggestions for those who have just received a diagnosis of autism

So . . . start early. Please! As soon as you get the diagnosis, do this:


1. Read Let Me Hear Your Voice by Catherine Maurice (a great introduction to ABA).


2. Purchase an ABA manual (Behavior Interventions for Young Children with Autism by Catherine Maurice or A Work In Progress by Ron Leaf & John McEachin) and begin working with your child.


3. Expect your child to behave. If you tell the child to do something - make it happen even if you have to use hand-over-hand assistance to make it happen. Teach your child an appropriate way to get what he wants (e.g., ask or sign or point to pictures of the things he wants in order to get them). See your child's speech therapist for specific ways to improve communication.


4. Contact someone in your community who is trained in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to teach you how to work with your child. If you have the money, you can hire an ABA consultant and ABA therapists to work with your child. If you do not have the money, you may have to sacrifice your career to work with your child from age three to six to teach him what he needs to learn before he goes to school. What he learns now will determine how independent he will be as an adult. There is no guarantee that ABA will cure any child of autism, but he or she will be better off for having learned some important skills. You have a small window of opportunity to teach him. Use it wisely and put everything else on hold. Your child is the reason God brought you into this world at this moment - there is nothing else more important!


5. Pray - the Lord knows autism and will always help!


Do not lose heart. If your child is already older than three - start with what you have but begin to expect good behavior from your child. Have a person trained in ABA methods observe your interaction with your child and take their advice on how to change your interaction patterns to improve your child's behavior. It can happen! May God bless your journey with your child.


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A parent's personal experience on diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and the need for early intervention