“What was it like when you found out your son might have Asperger’s?” That was the first of many questions I asked a local mom, who asked not to be identified, about her 4-year-old son.
The family had spent nearly the first three years of his life not knowing their son had Asperger's. They just assumed he was sensitive. But all their solutions to his unusual behaviors were short-lived, and they were always creating new ones.
The woman's son was always very upset by loud noises, required rigid adhesion to a schedule and he would have explosive, inconsolable meltdowns, but he never had any cognitive delays, which lead the former school teacher to believe he really was just hypersensitive.
After their second child was born, the husband and wife talked to their pediatrician. Their older son wanted nothing to do with the new baby and he also pulled away from social settings with other children.
“I remember the doctor was talking to me, but when the words 'autism spectrum' came out of her mouth, I felt the walls cave in and the floor drop out. I could see the doctor talking, but I couldn’t process anything she was saying," she said.
After coming to terms with the diagnosis, the pieces of the puzzle started coming together. She realized she wasn’t a terrible mother; her son was just wired differently. She understood why he never asked questions, but just parroted responses and why large groups would overwhelm him. She had figured out why, if they were even just a few minutes behind schedule, he couldn’t be flexible.
But while the pieces started making sense, the journey to make things better for their family was just beginning.
Last year, the family made three different attempts to place their son in preschool, all of which were met with resistance from their son. Teachers seemed unable to handle his needs with a room full of other children. They continued to search the right blend of services, one-on-one therapy sessions, and social interaction.
They discovered techniques like "social stories," basically a situational setup, to help prepare their son understand what to expect before they went out. They also used tons of positive reinforcement.
During a recent story time at the , the mom used a social story to give him some understanding of the outing. She then set the ground rules—he needed to sit on the rug and listen to the story with his hands in his lap. She reminded him of the expectations when they got there. Then, rather than just watch him, she went over and told him what a great job he was doing with his hands in his lap while listening.
A new attempt at preschool was transformative. Their son was even attending a regular preschool and doing remarkably well. "He has even asked for a birthday party!" she said. The parents attribute the current success they are experiencing with early intervention.
The family has scoured the Baltimore area to identify the best resources for their child. She identified these programs as especially helpful:
- Pathfinders for Autism: Located in Hunt Valley, this is one of the first places parents should contact if they suspect behavior on the autism spectrum. Whether you want to attend a workshop, need some articles or would like a referral to a doctor or dentist who will best service your child, the staff will get you pointed in the right direction.
- Child Find: Baltimore County Public Schools Special Education department offers educational services for children age 3 through 21.
- Trellis Services: Located in Hunt Valley, Trellis offers special services, a school, therapy, a clinic and more to children with autism or communication disorders.
- The Superflex Curriculum: This unique curriculum is taught to many children with autism and is now taught to all preschoolers at . The curriculum helps kids identify with characters to understand their disruptive behaviors.
- Shafer Center for Early Intervention: This center has family classes, resources and clinics dedicated to the early detection and treatment of autism.
- Learning & Therapy Corner: This is an excellent resource for speech therapy.
- Baltimore-Chesapeake Chapter of the Autism Society of America: The local chapter which has workshops, movies, outings and more.
I asked this mom to share any final thoughts to help others who might be parents of a recently diagnosed child. Her response was simple: “Don’t give up—you have to continue to advocate and push for answers and results.”
She added that “funding is available for many services, don’t think you have to jump through all kinds of hoops just fill out the forms ... you’ll be surprised what is covered.”
Considering all this family has discovered and confronted in recent years, their positivity and practical approach to life is an inspiration on how to handle difficult situations.