The Westview School Blog
Do you know people in your home or classroom who always lose their belongings, forget important items, get lost from the kitchen to the bedroom, run chronically late, or just generally seem like a "mess?" Weak executive functioning could be to blame!
Executive functioning is a general term that refers to our mind’s mental manager or the cognitive processes that regulate our thinking and behavior. While there are many models of executive functioning, most include the individual’s ability to generate ideas, initiate or begin a task, stick to and finish a task, flexibly problem-solve, shift from one idea or topic to another, inhibit our impulses, ignore distractions, regulate attention, regulate our behavioral and emotional responses, use feedback to guide future behavior, select relevant goals, organize materials, hold information in mind until needed, and more. I like to think of our executive functions as air-traffic control for our brain or as the conductor of the mind’s orchestra.
When all is well, cognitive processes flow smoothly, and behavior fits the situation as expected. When there are problems… well, just imagine the airport with poor air-traffic control! Executive functioning is needed for all aspects of life. Socially, we need executive functioning to help us regulate our behavior and emotions when we are upset. After all, throwing the board game when we are losing is frowned upon…, particularly in adolescence or adulthood! We spend a great portion of time controlling our impulses to speak out in school or a meeting, to refrain from spending too much money, or even overeating. Executive functions help us to arrive on time, prepared, and with a plan for how to behave. They are also critically important for academic success. Not only are executive functions needed for decoding written text, reading comprehension, solving math word problems, and long division, but they are also needed to be an organized, efficient student who remembers homework and can plan for projects and tests. These days, if you are not in the right place, with the right things, at the right time, it is difficult to be a good student, no matter how bright you are! In fact, being in the right place, with the right things, at the right time is the very basis of holding a job.
When there is executive disfunctioning, life may feel chaotic or unproductive. The child or adult may experience social, academic, or employment difficulties and/or problems in the home. The good news is that executive functions are thought to be able to be developed or strengthened. These skills begin developing in infancy as babies learn to wait to have their needs met. They really come ‘on board’ in the brain around age two as children learn they are active agents in their own world. Beyond that age, executive functions are thought to keep developing into young adulthood. Just as they can be strengthened, executive functions can be weakened or damaged. Neurological insults from accidents, injuries, or other sources can impact executive functioning temporarily or long-term.
Executive dysfunction is often part of the presentation of neurodevelopmental disorders such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Specific Learning Disabilities. Although executive functioning is thought to be the most impaired in the aforementioned conditions, it is also implicated in conditions such as anxiety, depression, and even medical conditions such as low blood sugar. Problems with executive functioning are often what bring families to seek help from psychologists, psychiatrists, or doctors.
Understanding the importance of executive functioning is the first step to facilitating its development. The ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ principle applies here. If a child has no experience planning for their day or organizing their materials, it is unlikely that he or she will simply arrive at this skill in high school.
From the time they are small, children should be encouraged to help with planning and organizing. A toddler may not be able to make a sandwich, but they can help pack a lunch. Likewise, a young child who cannot do their own laundry can sort laundry or help pick out clean clothes for tomorrow.
Children can also help with the planning and preparation for parties, events, and projects. Learning how to react when what we want is not available, what to do when we forget something important, and how to persist with the temptation of distractions are all valuable skills that adults need to afford children. Children can have fun while they help adults with household tasks and learn these skills. They can also work on these skills in their play.
Childhood games have been shown to improve the executive skills of preschool children. Games such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Mother May I all help children to practice attending, inhibiting impulses, problem-solving, regulating behavior, and regulating emotions. For older children, yard games such as Freeze Tag and Capture the Flag can be helpful. Board games are also great ways to develop flexibility, inhibition, problem-solving, and shifting. Some favorites for young children are Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. These games are great for teaching flexible thinking by changing the rules. Some fun examples are to play the board backward or try to be the last one to cross the finish line! For older children, strategy games such as chess, Chinese checkers, or Risk may be helpful. Children and adults also tend to enjoy German-style or Euro board games. These games tend to minimize conflict and luck and emphasize problem-solving strategies. Some popular examples are Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Small World, and Dominion. These games require planning, problem-solving, shifting strategies, and many other executive functions to master despite relatively easy gameplay and moderate playing times.
In addition to practicing executive functioning skills throughout life, accommodations and supports for weak executive functioning are often helpful. For example, making lists, using sticky-note reminders, using alarms, and having organizational systems in place can help support executive functioning skills. There are several books available with excellent strategies for support. Some of my favorites are: Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare; The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross Greene, PhD; and The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Home Design to Empower Everyday Superheroes by Jennifer Cook O'Toole.
Executive functioning skills take effort and experience to develop over time. Many services and providers exist for families requiring guidance to facilitate growth in their loved one’s executive functioning. The Stewart Center at The Westview School offers individual therapy to facilitate executive functioning in adolescents and adults, group therapy for fun skill-building in children, as well as parent coaching and case management to assist families in promoting these skills in their daily lives at home. For more information, contact 713-973-1842 or email@example.com.
Dr. Natalie Montfort is a licensed clinical psychologist with Montfort Psychology Associates. Dr. Montfort has over 20 years of experience working with children and adults with ASD and has training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (with children, adolescents, and adults), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Relationship Development Intervention, Social Thinking, behavior modification (including Applied Behavior Analysis), and education/educational assessment. Dr. Montfort graduated summa cum laude and as valedictorian of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. She earned a Master of Arts Degree and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Clinical Psychology from Fielding Graduate University. Dr. Montfort completed her doctoral internship with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and her post-doctoral fellowship at The Stewart Center at The Westview School. She obtained licensure as a Clinical Psychologist in 2016, and she and Dr. Ken Montfort launched Montfort Psychology Associates in 2020. Her areas of interest include assessment of children, adolescents, and adults; cognitive and behavioral differences in children with neurodevelopmental disorders; treatment of adoption-related issues; treatment of childhood trauma; and animal-assisted therapy. She also enjoys providing professional development, trainings, and lectures on these and other topics to a wide variety of audiences.
This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, September 1, 2022. 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 2022/2023 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.
The behavioral therapist who assessed Julian in October 2010 spent two hours alone with him, took into account his developmental delays and inappropriate behaviors: the pushing, spitting, lack of engagement, and severe language delay; the crashing, breaking, food sensitivities, and meltdowns. Once I joined them, the therapist and I talked as Julian played with a vibrating train. He held the train by a thin string for twenty minutes, lifted the train up high, near the left side of his face, and moved only his eyes, shifted them hard left so he could stare at the bright red blur in his periphery. Perhaps he loved the leftward pulling sensation behind his eyes, the string vibrating in his small hand. Maybe it was the change in perspective as he held the train so close he was able to blur the separation between him and the shiny inanimate object.
Near the end of our session, the therapist smoothed the paper on her desk with one hand, looked at me, and said, “I believe Julian is moderately autistic.”
Her word choice struck me immediately. She hadn’t said “mildly” or “severely.” He wasn’t a little or a lot autistic. He was, according to Webster’s College Dictionary, “within reasonable limits…of average or medium quality.” Was there a reasonable level of disability?
“You do?” I asked because I’d hoped for anything but that, and in my denial, had become certain Julian only suffered from apraxia of speech. Now I needed a minute to recover enough to mask my devastation.
“I know this can’t be easy for you,” she said, and I lost my resolve not to cry.
At that moment, the Julian I knew – three years old, flirty, quirky, affectionate, in love with movies, cows, and alphabet letters – was gone. In his place stood a little boy from another planet, a familiar stranger. I’d just handed my former son over to a medical statistic, another 1 in 42 boys.
Almost overnight, a whole new existence formed, a parallel world that looked like earth but wasn’t. It was full of specialists with names like Toshio, Toodie, and Tempa, like Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. It was a sudden ambush of therapies I’d never heard of, long drives, too many forms to fill out, and appointments every week.
I didn’t sleep much. I’d wake in a panic at 2 a.m. and tiptoe into his room to watch my newly foreign child sleep. Grief sometimes took an unusual turn. Though I didn’t notice right away, my husband and I had stopped making videos of Julian and his sister, Victoria. We were still learning what autism was, but we perceived it as a loss, as the erasure of a person we thought we knew well. In essence, this meant one of our children had died, and it felt wrong to record the empty space.
But Julian was very much present; it was his parents who were lost. Still, there was an amorphous loss. Julian wasn’t blind or missing a limb. There was simply no way to truly name or measure what was lost, to label precisely what we were learning to accept. No one could tell me where we’d be in twenty years, what to expect.
If I asked for his name, he told me his age. If I asked his age, he told me his name or launched into a slurred rendition of the alphabet song. At almost four years old, his longest self-composed sentences were two words; he knew about six of these short sentences. His enunciation was awful; therefore, I was one of only a few people who could understand him. He could ask for juice or a toy, but he couldn’t tell me when he was sick, sad, tired, or hurt. He couldn’t tell me he loved me. He couldn’t answer most questions. He didn’t understand words like What, When, Where, How, and especially, Why.
I read countless articles and books about autism, searching for any window into my child, for a cure if one existed. Where were we going with so many hours of therapy, and when would we get there? I asked doctors, teachers, and therapists ten million questions, and still, no one could explain what was lost and whether we’d find it again.
Autism was a social communication disorder with repetitive behaviors, but beyond this general description was a wait-and-see prognosis for every unique child. There was no way to predict what his future would look like. We would have to learn as we went along, accept the trial and error of various therapies, diets, and doctors. His brain was structured differently, not erased. So not only would we need to teach Julian differently, we had to relearn him.
Although he couldn’t use a spoon, hold a pencil, drink from a cup, sit still, or play with other children, I saw a spark, a hint of a brighter light that was, for now, obscured.
Would he ever read? Write? Sit still? Potty-train? Would he be able to work? Was independence the ultimate goal?
Julian had many challenges, but language was especially difficult. Even though his speech became clearer and he began to memorize entire movie scripts, he still struggled to compose his own sentences.
Then he began using movie lines to communicate with us effectively, but still, how could he achieve independence with “movie talk”?
In 2016, I heard about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who used Disney animated movies to express complex emotions like love and loss. In both the book and documentary film, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, his father, Ron Suskind, explained his support of Owen’s Disney obsession by describing why he communicated with his son using puppets and silly character voices, encouraged Owen’s drawing of favorite characters, taught coping skills by applying lessons learned from Disney films to everyday life. He summed up his reasoning with a single sentence, “Whatever works to get to Owen.”
Whatever works to connect…
After learning about Owen, I threw everything I had at Julian’s obsession with movies. I bought the DVDs as soon as they were released, and the small character figurines. I allowed extra time on his iPad, let him watch movies in the car. Soon not only did he tolerate holding a pencil, but he also showed an interest in drawing. So I gave him colorful pencils, crayons, reams and reams of paper. Soon it was evident that he loved drawing, and I noticed that no matter how crudely drawn his characters were, their facial expressions were clearly nuanced. By watching the same movies over and over, he’d taught himself to draw feelings, and all he couldn’t capture in words.
He drew family members and school friends and always included himself as a central character, a protagonist in every adventure. He clearly expressed feelings, motivations, and even abstract thought in pictures. He drew complicated family dynamics, like the day he was born, and inadvertently “replaced” the former “baby of the family,” how that must have made his older brother feel sad. In this instance, he drew the reactions of each family member to fit their individual personalities, which included his oldest sister rolling her eyes at all the birth order drama. This told me he understood complex issues far better than he could convey with words alone. He had empathy, imagination and paid close attention to how people felt and interacted.
Julian once drew a picture of himself as an adult sitting before a computer, working in animation. That was the future he imagined for himself. As The Westview School taught him to read and spell, Julian began drawing “thought bubbles” and writing dialogue. His hand muscles grew stronger, and he developed greater endurance. The kid whose hands were once too weak to hold a spoon or pencil, the kid who hated reading and writing, was now writing books. He plagiarized in the beginning as he copied the drawing style and stories of his favorite author, Mo Willems. Then he inserted different characters, changed up the stories, and made them his own.
He sometimes drew fifty or more pictures in a single day, stacks of pages all over our house. We encouraged him every step of the way, and as much as I hate clutter, I knew we were on to something. So I saved every picture, even the half-drawn pictures, and what might be considered “failed” efforts. My instincts told me we had to attach meaning and value to these drawings, so Julian saw that we respected him and his “work.” His skill and confidence continued to grow.
Now at age fourteen, he’s making stop-action films using Videoshop and Garage Band to create the accompanying music. He’s using more sophisticated animation techniques, making his own music, telling his own stories with both colorful imagery and words. And that initial spark I saw in his eyes? It was creativity and a wicked sense of humor. The kid knows how to entertain.
Throughout these many years of learning to tell his own stories with pictures and words, one thing has never changed: Julian wants us to notice. He wants to show us his creations. He wants to connect. I think that’s what we’re all trying to do in everything we do, connect.
Will he manage to turn these skills into a career? Maybe. But more importantly, he’s proud of himself. He feels a sense of accomplishment. He has confidence and uses art to connect with others. Without his identity as a creative artist, he wouldn’t have as much faith in himself to stand on his own.
A few weeks ago, Julian knocked on my office door, “Can we talk?” He didn’t need anything; he just wanted to sit on the floor in my office and chat. This was new, his wanting to talk about nothing in particular.
I went with it, and suddenly he was asking me what kinds of things I worried about, what life was like for me when I was his age, what kind of kid I was, and was I happy as a grownup? It was evening now, and surely his ADHD medicine had worn off, yet he was so calm, so focused on my responses. He kept asking, and I kept answering, following his lead, our conversation stretching over five, ten, fifteen minutes, uninterrupted. We stayed on track. His thoughts were organized, one after the other, moving along a trajectory that was his alone.
It wasn’t scripted. I didn’t know where this came from, my son, who’s now taller than me wanting to know his mother better, to venture away from his comfort zone of animation to have a real conversation, to connect in a novel way. I felt like I was tiptoeing into his room again at 2 a.m., only now it was to watch him wake up, all on his own. I didn’t want my excitement to get in the way. Because at that moment I was the subject of interest, he held up close, seeking a new perspective, blurring the separation between us.
Teresa Cortez has been a Westview parent since January of 2011. She’s a mother of four and resides in Richmond, Texas.
When Grayson Garcia first walked into The Westview School at the age of three, his parents would have described him as grumpy, agitated, easily upset, and angry all the time. He had minimal language, and outside of his parents and brothers, he did not connect well with others. A lengthy evaluation process and an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis led the Garcia family to The Westview School. After a tour of the campus, the Garcias had hope that Westview would be a fit for their son.
Joni Garcia, Grayson's mom, remembers the day she brought Grayson in for a visit in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) class. "Grayson took two steps into the lobby and stopped," Joni recalled. "He looked at me, and then down the long hallway, and then over to the reception desk where Ms. Candi sat. Grayson threw himself on the floor and began to scream and cry."
At Grayson's initial reaction to the visit, Joni felt her hope start to fade, but what happened next is just one reason why Westview is an answer to so many children and families.
"Ms. Candi stepped out from behind her desk, grabbed a wagon parked in the hallway, rolled it over to Grayson, and with ZERO emotion said, 'well, if you wanted to ride in the wagon Grayson, all you had to do is say so.' Grayson immediately stopped crying and just stared at her, and then without a word, hopped in her wagon and was rolled down the hallway."
That interaction began three years of a nurturing and supportive education at the Westview School that prepared Grayson to transition to a special education program in a public school and eventually into a mainstream general education class.
So, what is it about The Westview School that helped Grayson become a mainstream success story? When it comes to early intervention for ASD children, what are the key ingredients for a successful Early Childhood Education Program that families should look for?
1. A strong early childhood program will have teachers and staff with experience and training in connecting with children with ASD. Traditional daycare programs are loving, safe environments that ensure basic needs such as feeding and changing are met, but many times the teachers don't have the training or experience to know how to connect with children with ASD. Joni realized on her first day at The Westview School that it was less about Grayson connecting but more about someone else being able to connect with him and speak his language.
2. A low student to teacher ratio ensures that each child gets the individual attention and support they need. Limiting class sizes to a maximum of five students with a teacher and assistant ensure fewer distractions and more opportunities for student participation in lessons. Also, smaller groups allow teachers to differentiate instruction, engage with each student, and better facilitate student to student interaction.
3. Effective ECD teaching should be based on research-based methodologies and strategies. Young children with ASD need a program designed to develop self-regulation, attending skills, and joint attention. Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research (the STAR program) is a research-validated program that includes guided lesson plans, teaching materials, data systems, and a curriculum-based assessment in six curricular areas.
The STAR Program uses curriculum-based assessments to identify performance levels for each student, based on a scope and sequence of developmentally appropriate skills. Assessments are used to track and report student progress and identify instructional skills to be targeted for instruction. Children are engaged in high-interest, thematic units. As students learn how to self-regulate and attend, they are ready to work on pre-academic skills such as letter and number recognition, one-to-one correspondence, sorting, colors, shapes, and basic math vocabulary.
4. The development of communication skills is a core component of a strong ECD program. Emphasis is placed on expanding and contextualizing language within social interactions. Both expressive language abilities (labeling, describing, and comparing/contrasting) and receptive language abilities (identifying, matching, and sorting) are a focus of effective early childhood programs. Skilled teachers use a variety of structured activities to encourage and elicit spoken language. With a scaffolded approach to language acquisition, children learn to follow directions, complete tasks, and work in small groups within their environment.
5. Teacher facilitated social interaction is essential in ECD classrooms. In the most effective classrooms, teachers devise developmentally appropriate play situations to teach students how to play and interact with others. Peer relationships and appropriate social skills are acquired through guided play and interactive group games and activities. Students engage in various teacher-facilitated activities, such as pretend play, storytelling, role-playing, social routines (birthday parties, Halloween, etc.), and floor play to encourage group participation and interaction. Focus is directed toward exposing children to experiences that lead to a greater understanding of social expectations.
6. A focus on fostering self-help and independence should be a part of any strong ECD program. Self-help skills such as eating/drinking, dressing, and cleaning up play areas are intentionally incorporated into the daily schedule. Toilet training may be part of the daily routine. Children should be given the opportunity to make choices throughout the day and encouraged to become more independent. Using visual schedules helps students become more independent during transitions, restroom time, and other daily skills and activities.
Over two decades of autism research have shown that early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) combined with the prompt, evidence-based, and effective intervention will result in the best possible prognosis for children with ASD.
Research also indicates that in an appropriate educational setting, early intervention for at least two years before the start of primary school can result in significant improvements in language acquisition, motor development, academic achievement, social skills, daily living skills and also promotes independence in children.
Grayson is now in third grade. According to his parents, he is thriving in a general education classroom with 22 other typical kids. Grayson still has autism, but his diagnosis does not define him because of his success in the Westview School's early education.
Accepting students as early as 24 months, the Westview School proudly offers a high-quality early childhood program using research-based methodologies and strategies. If you would like to learn more about our early childhood program at The Westview School, visit our website or contact Carol Harrison, Ed.D.
If you think The Westview School could be a fit for your child, join us for our next Informational Session. The event includes discussions with our Admissions Director, Becky Mattis, about the student experience and program deliverables. Current parents will also be present to offer perspective and answer questions.
Dr. Harrison brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to The Westview School following an extensive career as an educator and administrator. She served as an elementary school principal and special education administrator for 25 years in the public school system and later taught as a professor at Stephen F. Austin University. She holds a Doctorate in education.
Why Art Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Art Therapy offers the opportunity to learn and practice many social and emotional awareness skills that are a struggle for children on the Autism Spectrum. Self-expression and maintaining and developing relationships are explored and enhanced through both the therapeutic relationship and art therapy. This is because the relationship established between a client and the therapist can promote healthy and safe attachments. The art-making component builds on that relationship and offers an alternative form of communication, sensory integration, self-expression, and promotes cognitive-emotional development.
8 Reasons to Try Art Therapy for Your Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder:
1. Imagination/Abstract Thinking
Art therapy can help your child display age-appropriate imagination and abstract thinking skills.
2. Sensory Regulation & Integration
Art therapy can improve your child's ability to regulate his or her body and integrate sensory experiences.
Children learn to use art to externalize and process thoughts and feelings, improving communication and connection between children and their caregivers.
4. Developmental Growth
Art therapy helps children hit important milestones like age-appropriate drawing ability, fine motor skills, overall artistic development, and can be used to improve other relevant deficit areas that can be addressed using art.
5. Visual-Spatial Skills
Art therapy improves the child's ability to negotiate and render/model in both two and three-dimensional spaces and the ability to rotate objects mentally.
6. Recreation/Leisure Skills
Art therapy helps children on the spectrum develop productive, enjoyable leisure activities and generalize them to the home and other natural environments.
7. Developing Self-identity/Empowerment
Using art-making can help children explore, learn, and discuss the different components of an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis that empowers them to build a positive self-identity.
8. Reduce Anxiety/Stress
Art therapy also promotes learning coping skills through the creative process, including mindfulness, deep breathing, and guided imagery to improve emotional self-regulation.
How to Tell if Art Therapy is a Good Fit for Your Child:
• Does your child struggle with self-expression, relationship building, emotional regulation, abstract thinking, sensory processing deficits, or communication?
• Is your child interested in creative processes?
• As a parent, are you willing to actively participate in your child's therapeutic treatment while respecting therapeutic boundaries?
If you answered yes to the questions above, your child might benefit from art therapy.
Individual Art Therapy sessions are tailored to your child's needs. The child will lead the therapist to what materials naturally pique their interest. From there, the art therapist will create a treatment plan that includes goals and objectives. You, as the parents or caregivers, will be included as active participants in the therapeutic process.
Group Art Therapy sessions are based on a common goal. All group members will be screened to ensure they are an appropriate fit, and members will be placed according to similar developmental and emotional needs. There is a significant social and communication component to every group that children on the spectrum can benefit from. Because many individuals diagnosed with ASD are visual thinkers, artwork can facilitate forming connections with peers because it offers a concrete way to see another's perspective.
Hillery Jones is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Art Therapist. Her passion is in using the creative process to help children, adolescents, and adults gain a deeper sense of self-awareness. Her approach is client-led, practical, holistic, and adaptable in everyday life. She integrates a kinesthetic learning component of connecting mind and body to her practice. She uses traditional talk therapy and art therapy to meet the unique needs of each individual. Her ultimate goal is to provide clients with the tools needed to be the best version of themselves.
Hillery received her B.A. in Art Education from Lamar University and her M.A. Art Therapy Counseling from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. She has worked in school, hospital, residential, and out-patient settings.
Have you heard the saying, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism?” It is called a spectrum for a reason, and under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder, you will find a vast differentiation of children and behaviors.
My son, Noah, is 12. As a parent, I am way past the point of explaining or apologizing for his differences in behaviors and communication. He is an awesome kid. As his mom, I know exactly how much time and effort and money our family has invested into growing Noah into the best version of himself. From therapy to special schooling, medications and doctor’s visits, we have ten-plus years invested. For all his weaknesses, his strengths are many, and I can honestly say that I know how hard we have worked to hone those strengths. It is still a work in progress and probably will forever be.
This started as an article about 10 things I want you to know about my child with ASD. But, really there’s only one thing I want you to know: WE NEED GRACE.
Grace has many definitions, but let’s go with this one: “The disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy or clemency.” There’s a lot of talk about Autism Awareness. We even have a month for it in April as a reminder. But, what do you do in the face of someone who is different, and how will you teach your children to react to those differences?
There was time somewhere between his diagnosis at 24 months and now that I was more sensitive and less accepting of what I perceived as a deficit in my child. Was I doing enough? Was I doing the right things? Is everyone looking at us?
One moment always comes to mind. Noah was about 6 years old. He has always been high energy with difficulties in body regulation. Translation: he’s super hyper out in public. It’s funny because he’s pretty logical, and he has a good moral compass of right and wrong. He knows how he should act in particular situations but somewhere between thinking and doing, things tend to go awry. We happened to be heading into his favorite store - Target. Before getting out of the car, I gave him a little pep talk. I call it front-loading, where I prepare him for what is about to happen next.
Me: “OK, buddy. Here’s the thing. We are about to go into Target, and I want you to have a super quiet body.”
Noah, with complete confidence in himself: “Got it, Mom.”
But, as much as I tried to front-load, and as much as Noah thought he had this, walking into Target, the excitement of a favorite place couldn’t keep his little body calm. He was immediately jumpy and chatty earning stares from the other shoppers. So, there I stood on the toy aisle, giving up the fight of keeping him quiet. I was letting him live his best Target life by bouncing up and down the aisles.
Another mom walked up to me. She said, gesturing toward Noah “is he… (awkward pause and whisper) autistic?”
She continued. “Have you tried therapy? Or diet? I have this friend…”
You could ask any autistic mom to fill in the blanks here. We’ve all been in this sort of a situation. And, man… it totally stings.
“Did you vaccinate?”
“Have you tried ABA?”
“Is he gluten free/casein free?”
“Have you seen Parenthood?”
She must have caught me at a weak moment because all I could think as I started to tear up was Noah was eight, and we had been in therapy and special schooling for six years. And, I was working so hard for him. He was working so hard. And, it just took one misplaced comment from a well-meaning fellow mom to bring up all the insecurities that in my heart said, “Are we doing enough? And is it all my fault?”
I always wonder how that particular situation could have gone differently, and why it has always stuck with me. Maybe just a “Good job, Mama!” would have sufficed. Maybe Noah isn’t something that needs fixing. As a parent, we are always trying to challenge and improve our children, neurotypical or not. That’s why it’s called “raising” kids. We are all just working on different things. And, I am so proud of my child, and he’s got so much to offer to our family and this world. He’s smart and kind. He loves his sister and pizza. He’s the fastest drawer I know, and his favorite color is red because it comes first… duh. He can pick out all the countries of the world based on size and shape, and he is an avid collector of graphic novels. And, one of the things, I am trying to teach him is showing love and acceptance to the people around him. Need something to work on with your kiddo too? It’s a good one. Take time to say, “Thank you.” Take an interest in the people around you even the ones who are different. Practice simple acts of kindness. Raising tiny humans is hard - autism or not.
And, I think the best we can do is show a little love and give a little grace and teach our children to do the same.