The Westview School Blog
When it comes to parenting a special needs child, there are many things to consider: therapies, schools, medications, the list goes on. However, arguably one of the most essential therapeutic strategies to help your child is evaluating and caring for yourself. To have the physical and emotional energy to fulfill all the duties of a parent (especially an autism parent), you must make sure you are mentally healthy. How many times have we been on an airplane and heard the flight attendant advise, "in case of an emergency, secure YOUR OWN oxygen before helping others next to you." In the case of raising a child with autism, it is essential to "secure your own oxygen" before you can be expected to help your child. Parents who are stressed, feeling anxious about the future, or having depressed feelings about their child's current stage of development, are more likely to have trouble helping and supporting their child in the ways they need. If you really want to help your child, challenge yourself to make these parent coping strategies a habit:
1. Prioritize your self-care.
There's an old adage that says, "empty cups can't pour." Think about the things that fill your cup, and make time to prioritize them. Taking care of yourself is a selfless act because it sets you up to be in the best position possible to continue to advocate and care for your child's needs.
2. Engage with other Autism parents in the community.
You are not alone. Other parents and caregivers of children on the autism spectrum are going through similar situations as you. Expand your social circle to include support from other parents who understand what you experience. Shared experiences help build connections and can decrease feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.
3. Minimize anxiety by staying present.
The past is already done, and the future is not promised. Remind yourself to focus on today. When you worry about the future, you miss an opportunity to be grateful for what you have in the now. Be intentional about identifying what you are thankful for right now to help minimize your anxieties about the future.
4. Focus on your child's strengths.
Try not to focus on the negative. It is much more beneficial to focus on your child's strengths. There is no advantage mentally or emotionally to only see your child for the things they can't do. Knowing where your child's strengths lie and keeping them at the forefront can help you use that knowledge to supplement the areas where they need more support.
5. Plan time for fun.
All work and no play does not equal success. Sometimes your child (and you) need a break from it all. Taking time out from the hard work to laugh and play can improve your overall quality of life.
Remember, you are the most important person to your child, and they need you to be physically, emotionally, and mentally strong. Your child needs you to be strong enough to continuously advocate for their acceptance, accommodations, and inclusion within their community. Being strong doesn't mean that you won't have bad days. Improving your well-being doesn't mean that there won't be challenging times, but hopefully, these strategies will help you build healthy self-care habits and, in turn, will help you work better with your child at home.
Jelisa Scott is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and a Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA) in the state of Texas. She received her bachelor's in Psychology from Louisiana State University in 2010, her master’s degree in Behavior Analysis from the University of Houston Clear Lake in 2014 and is currently in school to earn her doctorate degree in School Psychology from the University of Houston. Jelisa has been working with children with and without special needs since 2008 and has gained experience providing in-home ABA services, parent training, classroom consultations, navigating ARD meetings, decreasing severe problem behavior, improving verbal behavior, social skills training, and early childhood intervention.
This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, October 7, 2021. WestviewEDU is an education series presented by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. For a full list of WestviewEDU sessions for 2021/2022 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of The Westview School, the sons of founder, Jane Stewart shared a personal reflection of their early memories of The Westview School and what the legacy of 40 years of Westview means to their family.
A little over forty years ago our mother, Jane Stewart, brought us (Joey, Alan and Steven) all together in the family room and told us she was starting a school for children with disabilities. She had been volunteering at The Briarwood School for a few years and a group of parents came to her and asked if she would consider teaching their children privately. These parents recognized our mother's compassion and love for all children.
Overjoyed that Jane could now offer personal attention and schooling to a population in need of facilities, she turned our “game room” into a school during the day. We have many wonderful memories of coming home from school and watching our mother teaching and caring for her students. Often, we would join our mother rather than playing video games. That time was always very special to us. The parents were ecstatic, and the children made remarkable progress during the time they were with our mother in our home. In fact, one of our mother's first students, whose doctor told her parents she couldn't be helped, years later not only graduated from high school but was also prom queen. Our mother knew that amazing things were in all of us.
After a long discussion, our mother and father, Joel Stewart, decided to purchase a small house on Westview Drive in the Spring Branch area of Houston to expand the school, its facilities, and number of students. The Westview School was born as was the beginning of one of the most successful and ground-breaking schools for children on the autism spectrum in the country. This was a defining moment for our mother, one which filled our family with pride and love. The growth of the school meant so much to her.
As The Westview School evolved, so did our involvement as a family. Alongside our mother was our father, who not only gave his generous support to the school but also brought with him his financial and regulatory acumen. Additionally, throughout high school, we volunteered our summers working various jobs doing maintenance, painting, and building on the school grounds. The most rewarding was when we volunteered as teachers' aids, running with the children on the playground, helping with art projects, singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, and even happily laughing and getting soaked with the students on the slip and slide. These are the types of experiences that are so memorable and special to us.
The expansion of the school to its current location on Kersten Drive was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. We were honored to have the late Barbara Bush preside over the opening ceremony. She graciously spent time with the students and recognized the importance of the school. This was an experience we will never forget. Most importantly, there would be a much larger school that could accommodate the growing population and could offer even more benefits to the students including a robust multidisciplinary team. Our mother made sure there was a small student-teacher ratio so that the current students received the same personal attention as her first students received in our game room.
The school expanded once again and added another building offering even more opportunities to students. Throughout the forty years, there have been many talented and brilliant individuals who have worked at the school and served on the Board to turn the school into what it is today. We are grateful that the school and staff have committed to the mission of our mom in providing a nurturing and positive environment. The teachers and the entire staff are dedicated and caring individuals. We continue to be impressed by the incredible work and enjoy watching the school and the students thrive.
Throughout our lives, we always felt that our mother was a miracle worker, and it really showed when she worked with children. Her caring, gentle and intelligent approach, based in love for each and every student, showed through at all times.
Joey Stewart is a feature film producer and restaurateur that lives in Dallas with his wife Laura, an interior designer.
Alan Stewart is happy to coordinate marketing and VIP programs for music, wine and NFL clients including Duran Duran, Matt & Kim, Westport Rivers Winery, and the Indianapolis Colts. He lives on a farm on the coast of Maine with his wife Lisa who is in the legal field.
Steve Stewart is a physician and Chief Medical Officer of a hospital in New Mexico and lives in Albuquerque with his wife Amy, a lawyer, and their two sons, Wells and Flynn.
Like most of us, you probably didn't plan or prepare for your child's autism diagnosis. You may have sought an evaluation for your child because they were struggling in fundamental ways. Maybe a family member shared a concern about your child's development. However, perhaps your child's challenges were not readily apparent to everyone in your family. Autism, like many behavioral or learning disorders, is not always easy to recognize. There is no blood work or definitive medical test. Following an assessment and diagnosis, you faced a myriad of choices and decisions, such as finding the right school and therapies necessary to promote your child's development. This complex process has yielded a wealth of information about your child, more than you ever thought possible. You are mobilizing your resources and moving forward to help your child achieve their potential.
Now is the time to share valuable insights you've learned about your child with the people who mean the most to you. This journey will take resilience, and support from family can make the difference between feeling isolated and feeling valued as the head of your child's team. Certain family members may have been with you since the first step of the journey. Some may want to help but are not sure how. Other family members may be more resistant. You may have heard relatives say, "let them be a kid," "wait and see," or "don't compare them with others." What challenges will you face in educating your family about your child?
In choosing how or whether to share information about your child's diagnosis, it helps to remember that: "Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family." –Anthony Brandt
When you begin the journey of sharing your child's autism with friends and family members, here are five talking tips to help you through the process.
1. Misunderstanding Autism
When you decide to share your child's diagnosis with a family member, they may have limited knowledge of autism. There is much information and misinformation about autism; maybe your relative has seen a movie about autism or knows someone with autism, and they do not believe that the diagnosis fits your child. In recent years, the medical field has moved toward a spectrum conceptualization, and children on the spectrum may vary dramatically in their strengths and challenges. Autism is diagnosed behaviorally, and many symptoms are on a continuum from typical to atypical. Sometimes, what we don't understand is intimidating; the first step is to acknowledge those feelings. You may have experienced a range of emotions when first receiving the diagnosis, including sadness, anger, acceptance, and new joys.
Not only can you validate your family member's feelings, but you are also in the best position to educate them and communicate what your child needs. When you share your child's diagnosis with family members, be prepared to educate them on the basics:
● Autism spectrum disorder is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that starts in utero and is generally lifelong. Experts agree that it is genetic, although they have not isolated a single, specific gene or combination of genes.
● Autism spectrum disorder is associated with varying degrees of challenges in specific areas. Every child on the spectrum differs significantly in the associated behaviors, the severity of symptoms, and the optimal intervention. However, all children may share a common difficulty modifying their behavior to respond to social conventions and expectations.
● Autism spectrum disorder is not caused by environmental factors, although they certainly play a role in mediating behaviors and promoting strengths associated with autism spectrum disorder.
● Parenting does not cause autism. Children with autism are born to parents of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, socio-cultural backgrounds, and religions.
3. Address fear of labeling head-on
Families may resist the diagnosis because they worry a diagnosis may become a label, limiting your child's educational and social opportunities. This concern may be more pronounced than if your child were dealing with a medical condition associated with a definitive medical test and treatment regimen, such as childhood diabetes.
Remind family members that people make judgments all the time; some may be accurate and others false. We can only focus on doing what in our hearts we know is right for our child.
Point out that the diagnosis does not define your child. Autism is a way of being in the world that may one day be an essential part of how your child identifies him or herself, but it may by no means be the only way.
I had a foster child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was three years old. In middle school, learning about the diagnosis helped him understand why he gravitated toward certain activities and avoided others. Talking about the diagnosis enabled him to embrace both his strengths and challenges and to appreciate his individuality. By the time he reached community college, it was and remains an essential aspect of how he sees himself in relation to others. Now, there are so many other facets of his identity and how he sees himself in the world, including artistic aspirations and peer relationships, that his questions are less and less centered around autism.
4. Point out the value of a diagnosis
A diagnosis helps you understand and gives a framework for responding to characteristic behaviors. For example, if you know that your child is prone to meltdowns when overtired, you avoid overscheduling daily activities.
A diagnosis also enables you to take advantage of early intervention services. Early diagnosis makes the most of your child's neuroplasticity, which describes the process of stimulating or forming new neural pathways. Simply put, a young child's brain may be more elastic and capable of making connections when learning than an adult's brain.
A diagnosis is a shorthand way of communicating information that allows you to work more effectively with educational and medical professionals. Perhaps most critically, a diagnosis opens the door to beneficial services that can make a world of difference in how your child learns to communicate, socialize, and achieve their potential.
5. Put the diagnosis aside and find common ground
Focusing on your child's specific behaviors and special strengths may enable you to reach a common understanding. Put the diagnosis aside and talk about both the gifts and the challenges. For example, let your family know your child may not avoid eye contact because they are unfriendly; they may avoid eye contact because they are self-regulating. Explain to your family that your child is not having meltdowns because they are spoiled; they are most likely overstimulated and need a break. Point out that your child may have a fantastic fund of knowledge in certain areas (although you occasionally remind the child that not everyone shares the same passion for these specific topics).
Autism Speaks offers a toolkit with terrific suggestions for grandparents or caregivers, like having grandparents participate in a visit with your child's doctor or therapist. Other excellent references include the Official Autism 101 Manual, by Karen Simmons, and A Letter to Newly Diagnosed Parents and Families, by Scott Allen, Psy.D.
Parents are not generally prepared for a diagnosis of autism; it makes sense that they haven't planned how to tell loved ones. Consider allowing the most important people in your life to participate in the unanticipated challenges and unexpected joys. You may be surprised to find out how family members pitch in when they understand how best to support you and your child. Your child's needs may change as your child develops, but family, however you define family, will always be there.
Traci Jordan, Psy.D., L.S.S.P. holds a dual license in clinical and school psychology and has assessment experience with a wide range of developmental, cognitive, psychological problems and challenges. She has a lifelong passion for child development and family systems, completing pre and postdoctoral training in child clinical and developmental pediatrics before opening a private practice focused on child assessment and treatment. She draws on her 35 years of experience in assessment and research methods to develop and teach a core graduate level class in psychodiagnostics through the Department of Educational Counseling of Texas A&M Corpus Christi. A mother of two, she is proud of serving as a foster parent for 10 years and as a canine rescue volunteer for Hope and Faith Foundation. Friends, yoga, family, and pets keep her centered.
This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, September 7, 2021. WestviewEDU is an education series presented by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. For a full list of WestviewEDU sessions for 2021/2022 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.
It seems like déjà vu that we are starting this school year with masks and health screenings again, but we’ve had some noteworthy scientific progress compared to this time last year. Hopefully these changes will make life a little more manageable and get us closer to being done with COVID!
There are so many things we were doing last year that we no longer need to do, since we know more about COVID-19. We don’t need to: wipe down our groceries with Clorox wipes, avoid takeout (no more missing out on Houston’s amazing restaurants!), or hide in our houses 24/7 (although sometimes it’s nice to catch up on Netflix!).
We just need to:
- Get vaccinated against COVID-19 when you’re eligible. When your children are eligible for the vaccine, get them vaccinated as well- currently only children 12 years and older can be vaccinated. Also, plan to get a booster shot when you’re eligible (currently, approximately 8 months after your 2nd dose of Pfizer or Moderna). If you have questions about the vaccines, check out our previous blog post on the topic.
- Wash your hands often. Soap and water is best, but hand sanitizer is a great option too.
- Keep monitoring your personal and your family’s health. Watch for symptoms of COVID-19, even if you’re vaccinated. The most common symptoms of the delta variant COVID-19 are runny nose, sore throat, headache, and fever, which are also allergy symptoms in Houston! Take a COVID-19 test if you are experiencing any signs of illness.
- Maintain your hobbies and your support system. Now, more than ever, we need to keep up our spirits and keep an eye on our mental health.
As a community, we’ve banded together time and time again to face numerous challenges for our children. We know that this is one more trial that the Westview Wildcats are ready to meet. We are strong, flexible, and caring, and we can do this! Hopefully, we can help all of Houston get COVID-19 under control too, so we can truly put this pandemic time behind us for good.
The transition between childhood and adolescence can be a confusing and difficult time for children. Things are beginning to change on a mental, physical, emotional, and social level. Autism adds another complicated layer of development to these already challenging times for children. As a parent, you may wonder how you can best support and help your teen navigate these years. It comes with a myriad of questions: Are these behaviors normal? Should it be happening this early? How long will this last? Is this autism or hormones? Should I be concerned about a particular behavior? What can I do about it?
There are a few things to take into consideration. First, parents should determine whether new behaviors are actually due to autism or simply part of typical adolescent behavior. Also, parents need to consider if these changes reflect their teen’s individual personality and preferences. To make things more complicated, it could be a combination of all the above.
Typical Adolescent Behavior
To better distinguish between which behaviors are due to typical adolescent behavior versus autism adolescent behavior, let’s look at what typical adolescent behavior looks like:
- Physical changes include changes in hormones that can lead to new body hair or smells and increases in height and weight.
- Mental changes include developing more abstract thinking skills, using more logic and reason to make decisions, forming their own beliefs, questioning authority, and a heightened focus on physical concerns.
- Emotional changes include shifting moods quickly, feeling more intensely, and increasing risk-taking and impulsive behavior.
- Social changes include experimentation with different levels of social and cultural identity, increase in peer influence, awareness of sexual identity, and learning how to manage relationships.
Most children pass through this period of adolescence with relatively little difficulty despite all these changes. On an even more positive note, youth tend to be quite resilient when problems arise; this includes those with autism. Teens on the autism spectrum often thrive, mature, and increase their competence during this period of growth.
Tips For Parenting Your Teen on the Spectrum
Front Load Information: Our teens on the spectrum learn best when we can front-load them with logical and factual information. We need to be able to prepare them and teach them these life skills ahead of time. The truth is you will not be able to prepare them for everything but showing them the how, why, and what to do can support them through this transition. A simple one to tackle first is why we need to use deodorant or feminine products.
Share Experiences: Teens appreciate first-hand experience, so if you had difficulty navigating through a situation like theirs, then share your experience with them.
Answer Questions: Perseveration on any subject matter is common for children on the autism spectrum. When experiences are novel and uncertain, perseveration can sometimes increase and often cause heightened anxiety. This is not healthy or comfortable for any teen! Answering their questions, no matter how many questions there may be, will be helpful to your child. Also, offering solutions and assisting them in a calm, helpful, and consistent manner will convey that you care and validate their feelings.
Seek Outside Help for Your Child and Yourself: As parents, there is a tendency to tackle it all for your kids. However, during these adolescent years, it may be helpful and even more impactful for your teen to talk about these changes with someone other than you. This could be with a trusted family friend, relative, peer, or professional that the teen feels comfortable answering their questions.
You must also remember that you can build and rely on your support system to help you gain clarity from the fog of dealing with your teen daily. Parenting is hard, and these years with your child can be exhausting! Your community can offer support by letting you vent and sharing personal experiences. You are not alone.
Supporting and learning from each other is key to you and your kid's successful management of the teen years. This is true no matter how old they are. Parenting can be tricky. And life, in general, is not without its share of challenges. When parents and children work together to face changes head-on, we know that these struggles can produce perseverance, and perseverance helps build resilience for both you and your child.
As your child gets older and the teen years approach, it can seem daunting for parents, but as indicated above, there are ways to successfully support and help your teen through this time. If you want to learn more about individual or family therapy, please reach out to The Stewart Center at The Westview School. We are available to support you and your child.
Mimi Le, M.A., LMFT, LPC is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Professional Counselor. She provides therapy and consultations for adults, parents, siblings, children, families, and groups. She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Art History from Baylor University and earned her Master of Arts Degree in Family Therapy from the University of Houston – Clear Lake. She specializes in autism spectrum disorder, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, interpersonal relationships, and multi-generational and cultural matters. She also provides parent-coaching among her other duties as a Student and Staff Support Specialist at The Westview School.