April is autism AWARENESS month. This blog article is focused on autism SOLUTIONS from a family therapist lens, in respect of recognizing those individuals and families affected by autism. This is not inferring that there is a solution to autism. Current research does not provide us with solutions of autism prevention. Nor is it to our current knowledge that autism if treated in a certain manner is resolved AKA disappears. Autism does not go away/evaporate. A child with autism when not helped or handled inappropriately vs. helped in the most productive therapeutic manner, has either the opportunity to be the best version of themselves or the worst version.
In this blog article this Family Therapist/Psychotherapist will address the following:
- In my 20 years as a Marriage and Family Therapist, the top 4 most common challenges/struggles parents of autistic children have reported they are coming to couples’ counseling for. Included are my solutions for each one.
- My collaborative treatment approach theory for Marriage and Family Therapists and Occupational Therapists.
- The importance of parental involvement.
According to the Center For Disease Control And Prevention about 1 in 88 U.S. children are reported as having Autism Spectrum Disorder. Thus, as a marriage and family therapist, it is not uncommon for a couple to come in to discuss their parenting challenges surrounding their autistic child.
Top 4 Most Common Challenges/Struggles Parents Of Autistic Children Face
Problem #1: Family life and parenting is not fun and not what the couple expected/envisioned their family life to be.
a) Parents report time together as a family whether the autistic child is an only, or if there are siblings, always feels strained with all attention on managing the autistic child’s behavior.
b) Parents feel they are missing out on activities they thought they would do as a family but cannot because of the autistic child.
Solution: Shift in expectations and creating a different kind of fun.
(E.g., Beach loving adults envisioned that as parents they would be laying on the beach as husband and wife while the kids play in the sand. They cannot do so because the autistic child is bothering other families on the beach. Thus, once again needing and requiring attention and management. This therapist says; that doesn’t mean the beach is out. Be creative! Bring potato sacks and jump around as a family).
Problem #2: Socialization
All parents want their children to be able to participate in interactive activities with other children. Socialization is such an important part of childhood. It breaks their heart that their child does not have the capability to participate in many of the activities that invites social interaction (e.g., sports).
Solution: Pick a social activity to do with your child and provide consistent positive feedback so they will feel emotionally capable. Bring them to an occupational therapist who specializes in children with autism to help them with their fine and gross motor skills to strengthen – so they can be physically capable.
(E.g. Baseball, bike riding, basketball).
Problem #3: Communication Challenges
Children with autism struggle with communication.
Solution: Be open to the various tools of communication. Use technology! Provide your autistic child with the option of typing what they want to say to you. Sit next to them and read out loud what they are typing to you on the computer. Show your response with your words, tone, and body language.
Problem #4: Marital Intimacy
Couples who have an autistic child typically report there is no longer a marriage. Their function is solely as parents. The 3 legs of marriage includes; emotional, physical, and sexual intimacy with an overall umbrella of communication. The 3 legs is next to none as all their energy and time is for the child as a parenting team. Couples who take the time to make the time to water the plant of marriage to have a healthy marriage are stronger as a parenting team.
Solution: Be mindful of and attend to the 3 legs of marriage. Note the following examples. Have a weekly to 2x per week block of time to connect with one another sexually (sexual). Each day be mindful of 1 thing you can do by action or say with words to show your spouse they are special to you (emotional e.g., put a sticky note on the bathroom mirror that says; I appreciate you, in the morning before you check your email tell your spouse one of your favorite qualities about them). Each day be mindful of physically connecting, even if but only for 1 minute (physical e.g., hug hello, kiss on the neck while the other is cooking dinner).
Do Parents Of Autistic Children Have Other Problems?
Of course there are more than just the aforementioned 4 problems that parents of autistic children are faced with. Problems including but not limited to: financial, finding the right medical doctor, interacting with teachers and other parents, and more . . . The 4 explained above are the most common problems parents of autistic children attend couples counseling with a marriage and family therapist, that they wish to focus their solution strategies on. Certainly the wide range of other struggles exist, many of which are discussed in session.
Collaborative Treatment Approach
I urge marriage and family therapists (MFT) to have a trusted occupational therapist (OT) who practices in their town – for collaborative treatment. (As a business owner of a mental health/wellness practice I will state that this approach works and is a significant piece of the difference that makes the difference in the treatment success for autistic children and in helping the couple get to a better place). When a couple comes in for marriage counseling reporting the fine and gross motor skill struggles their autistic child is having, to be able to refer them to a trusted occupational therapist is extremely helpful. Release of information paperwork is signed and the MFT and the OT can communicate with one another.
For an example, imagine the scenario where a child is struggling reaching for objects thus is constantly knocking over items. During family dinner the child reaches to get the pepper but does not have the capability to reach so his upper body finds its way onto the dinner table and in the process he knocks over his sister’s milk. The children go at it, then the father yells at the child who knocked over the milk (the autistic child), and the mother yells at the father for yelling at the child. If the OT and MFT are communicating/collaborating, the OT shares with the MFT that the autistic child is not purposefully causing trouble and rather having trouble reaching across. This is helpful for the MFT to know. The way the parents present their frustration explaining in the counseling session the event that occurred at home is that their autistic child intentionally is physically disruptive with his sibling at the dinner table once again causing their vision of family dinner to collapse and rather dinner is about managing their autistic child’s behavior. The MFT with insight into the OT’s analysis can then discuss this with the parents and come up with coping strategies for the parents. The MFT likely would discuss with the parents tips for recognizing what the actual problem is (e.g., behavioral or fine/gross motor) and how to interact more effectively when they see a given problem. The MFT can help the couple with words and actions they can use to show their being supportive of the autistic’s child attempt to reach, while also attending to their other child’s experience, needs, and life journey. All the while the OT works with the child on mobility.
Here in Sharon Massachusetts at Dr. Karen Ruskin & Associates, this marriage and family therapist collaborates with Occupational Therapist Function Therapy – Lisa Shooman. Lisa is the author of The Grasprite Method.
Studies say parental involvement is of significance in the treatment of autism. What does this theory mean to Dr. Karen Ruskin?
- Advocating – Parental involvement is being your child’s advocate in every area you can think of. Being mindful of what you can do to help them to be and become the best version of themselves they can be. Examples of advocacy includes; in the school system, with doctors, and any and all care for your child to assure he/she is getting the type of help needed. This is ongoing at each stage and phase of your child’s journey.
- Treatment – Finding the right kind of treatment combination for your child, whether it is occupational therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, support groups.
- Parental Interaction With Your Autistic Child – The everyday interaction parents have with all of their children and their spouse offering family time and one-on-one time is very important. Being busy with responsibilities with your autistic child should not take away from being an involved parent in a fun way too. Enjoy your autistic child- there are capabilities he has often more than you know.
- Adjusting And Re-adjusting – Adapting, coping, and being an informed parent, learning about what autism is. Being respectful and involved at the different phases and stages of your child’s life. For an example, parents of autistic teenagers struggle with knowing what is “normal” teen behavior vs. autism. Hormones do play a role in teens’ behaviors, as well as just simply being a teen. Teens drive their parents nuts by sometimes intentionally doing things to drive their parents nuts. It is helpful to have involved parents AKA patiently involved and informed parents so they can effectively handle this next stage and phase of their child’s life.
If you wish to learn more about autism, check out: Autism Speaks and HOLLYROD Foundation.