An autism diagnosis is not necessarily something that is on a parent’s radar when they welcome their newborn home for the first time. But with current statistics indicating that about 1 in 54 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, an autism diagnosis does become a reality for many families. Autism is found across all racial and socioeconomic groups and boys are four times more likely than girls to have an autism spectrum disorder.
“When a parent gets an autism diagnosis for their child, they often go through a grieving process,” says Cindy Mrotek, CEO and founder of a.c.e. Therapies, a therapy center for individuals with autism, disabilities and behavior issues. “They wonder what their child’s life will be like, and what their life will be like, too.”
Frequently, parents think their dreams for their child are over and that means they will never experience high school prom or play on the varsity football team, Mrotek says. “Parents may think that their child will never experience the joys in life that they expected, but really what they have to start recognizing is that they will still have these experiences, but they may be different,” she explains.
Think in terms of months, not years
The truth is that parenting any young child is an intense experience, and no matter their level of ability, parents are best served by adopting a more manageable, shorter-term perspective. “Our goal is to lessen the symptoms of autism and I like to share with parents that this is a semicolon, not a period,” Mrotek says. “When trying to decide what to do next, don’t think 18 years. Think six months. This is our goal.”
Research shows that early autism diagnosis and intervention are more likely to have the best long-term impact for a child. Some children with autism benefit from occupational and speech therapy as well as other early interventions. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which focuses on promoting positive behaviors, is clinically proven to help a child with autism develop the skills needed to function successfully in life.
While ABA therapy is not a cure for autism, it can significantly lessen the symptoms of autism, Mrotek says. “The earlier and quicker we can work with children, the more skills they and their family will have in their toolbox,” she says. “It’s really important to know that each child is an individual and each child should have a therapy plan that is designed specifically for them and for their family.”
‘You are doing all the right things’
For some parents, their child’s autism diagnosis is a relief because it provides evidence for actionable goals and objectives, rather than just a vague feeling that their child’s behavior is atypical.
“When parents get a diagnosis and reach out for support, I let them know they are doing all the right things,” Mrotek says. “If they picked up the phone to call me, they are doing what they should be doing and they are exactly where they need to be. They are finding help.”
One thing Mrotek says parents should do is to learn as much about their individual child as possible and avoid the temptation to Google autism.
“Your child might not have every characteristic of autism. It’s such a spectrum. What will help you is to find the right therapist to support your child and your family,” she says. Even connecting with parents of older children with autism can provide a valuable future perspective that can be supportive and reassuring.
Intense therapy, but not forever
Parents are often surprised to learn that their child may need to begin with as many as 30 hours of therapy a week, but ABA therapy is designed to provide intensive support so that, for instance, a 2-year-old child won’t need that same level of therapy when they are 5 or 6.
“ABA therapy has 40 years of science and research behind it and it’s proven to lessen the symptoms of autism,” Mrotek says. “It’s also important to know that ABA therapy has evolved significantly in the last five years. It’s not just about flash cards. We focus on what will give your child and family quality of life.”
In her years of experience working with children and families, Mrotek has heard parents say that their child’s autism diagnosis has made their life better.
“They have had to challenge their own levels of compassion and patience. They’ve learned to ask for help more and have been introduced to a whole new world of people they never thought they’d meet,” she says. “They realize they have become a stronger advocate for their child and for others who are going through the same thing.”
Acceptance is the key to moving forward for many families, Mrotek says.
“When you get your diagnosis, you don’t see that. You think it’s the worst thing ever, but it opens you up and until that point, you don’t know how big your world is going to get. If you accept the diagnosis and learn to network, you will find the resources you will need.”
Learn more about a.c.e. Therapies in Merrionette Park, Lockport, Palos Heights and Naperville at ace-therapies.com.