Does my child have an Autism spectrum condition?

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Karla Pretorius offers a range of tips and strategies for parents with children who have suspected, but as yet undiagnosed, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Being a new mum can be overwhelming. You are aware you might have late nights or early mornings and friends have mentioned that date nights during those first few months, perhaps years, will be a luxury. You feel you have prepared yourself as much as possible, together with the almost anxious excitement that comes with being responsible for another living being. Your living being. Only mothers know that no class, friend, or family member will be able to fully prepare you for the joys and sometimes challenges of motherhood. 

Would you change it for your previous life? I think we can all agree that there might be days where you envy the travels and experiences your single friends go on and share on social media. For the most part, though, being a mother is a feeling only shared with parents – of unconditional love, devotion, and fascination with your child’s every step or milestone reached. 

It is in our nature to compare our child’s development with their peers. We don’t mean to constantly check if our child is on par, but we do and I am here to say this is normal. We all do it, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. A great piece to read is that of W. Livingston Larned in “Father Forgets” where he mentions that measuring your child’s successes with your experience and performance is unfair as the years lived are considerably harder. We often forget that our children have many years to make mistakes and learn from these, that they too are often on a very different path and journey than our past. With technology constantly evolving and learning patterns changing due to these advances, we could assume, possibly quite accurately, that our milestones and our child’s milestones will not only differ in timing but also in actual concepts learned. 

But what if, with all these evolutionary changes, your child is still not developing typically for his or her age? As a mum, you just know something is different – it might be a delay in speech or even just the intent to communicate, by not gesturing what he or she wants. Maybe your child seems disengaged with you or perhaps there was a marked difference around the age of 2 years old. Where you feel you have “lost” a part of your child or at least his or her need to connect with you or your partner. 

A trained and specialized professional will be able to do a series of noninvasive tests with your child to determine if he or she qualifies for an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or a related condition. Although receiving any diagnosis, especially a diagnosis for your child can be scary, there are ways to help your little one from today. I want to share some tips and strategies that parents can implement to ease transitions, increase the motivation to communicate, and ensure sensory needs are regulated and maintained. 

Here are three important strategies to include to ensure a calm home and conducive environment for your child (and family). 

Sensory tents or corners. 
At AIMS Global we usually call these “calm down corners”. You can include anything sensory-related here that your child enjoys and can use safely. The idea here is to ensure that your child visits the calm down corner (or sensory tent) once a day (at least), but especially before a transition (going from one activity to another or one environment to another). It would be a great idea to also encourage your child to do a visit after a transition or change in their routine or schedule. See it as a quick visit to a masseuse for us or a long bubble bath, if that is something that calms you, as an adult. 

■ Does my child have autism?

Routines, schedules, transition cues. 
We are often in a rush and we forget to let our children know the schedule of the day. Your child might be under 4 years of age, and for them, every change is equivalent to a major disruption in our lives. They might manage these changes well at first, but it could lead to suppressed anxiety or even a possible delayed meltdown if we don’t offer them a way of coping. Visual schedules are crucial – where you indicate the main events for the day. Depending on your child’s age, you can use real photos with the words underneath written out, and later just a written schedule (similar to our phone diaries) could work. All children flourish on routines and require these to regulate, thus becoming more flexible in their way of managing upcoming, unplanned changes in their routine. This might seem counterintuitive, but to work on increasing flexibility, we need to provide structure, routine, and predictability in our child’s life. We can then slowly include naturally-occurring changes in their schedule, to teach them flexible thinking and ways of reacting to transitions. 

Low arousal tones and environments. 
An often-overlooked strategy is to focus on our reactions and the environment we present to our children. It is a perfectly natural reaction to start speaking faster and using a higher pitch when our child starts shouting. The trick is to increase our mindfulness techniques during these times and become conscious of our way of reacting. Take 3 deep breaths and slow down your speech, slower than your usual speed if possible. Try to speak in a calm, yet non-emotional manner. You might need to practice this way of responding a few times in the mirror before you perfect the art of speaking in a low arousal tone when your child’s tone might be high pitched and fast… A low arousal environment is similar – we all have special interests and so would your child have their favorite toys or movie characters perhaps. It would be a great idea to have a few of these in the room that they sleep in, but we need to keep these limited. If your child has more than three of their toys’ insight, their sensory system might become overwhelmed easier. Try and keep three visual distractions present and switch these when you notice your child is losing interest in one or more of these. This way, you are working on sustaining their attention, keeping their focus on the environment, while you are ensuring their sensory system is not over-or under-stimulated. 

How to increase communication easily? 
What if your child is demonstrating a clear speech and language delay? Again, the best advice I could give you is to schedule an appointment firstly with a pediatrician and secondly with a Speech and Language Pathologist in your area. Saying this, there might be a waiting list and there are strategies you can include at home, from today, to work on increasing your child’s communication. 

The top three strategies to increase your child’s motivation to communicate are: 

■ Connecting with your child.

Visual choice boards. 
At AIMS Global we suggest visual choice boards for all our clients. Observe what your child likes to play with, look at, engage in, and snack on. Create a list of these and categorize it according to where these items usually are in your home. For example, if your child likes snacks such as crackers, blueberries, and muesli bars you can take real pictures of these items, print them out, and add it to an A4 paper. Laminate this and place it on a reachable surface in your kitchen. You can then accompany your child to the visual choice board every time you feel your child wants to request a snack. Help him or her point to the visual and clearly state the item’s name, for example, “blueberries” before you hand your child a few of these. Repeat this exercise every time, be consistent and work towards your child echoing the request expressively. In our experience combining a visual choice board with real photos of the items and the expressive label increases expressive speech modeling. 

Pairing sounds, words, and phrases. 
If your child is echoing some sounds, encourage your child to imitate longer sounds or words when you engage your child in a motivating activity. For example, if your child enjoys bouncing on a trampoline, you can pair the sound “uh” with “puh” and pair “up” “up” “up” while you are bouncing with your child. If your child is already saying some words, you can pair longer sentences, such as “bounce up” with them. Your Speech and Language therapist will also be able to provide you with the sounds that you should focus on, once you have been to a scheduled appointment with your child. The important thing to remember is that most people learn best through modeling others and if you want your child to speak more, you need to model this. Not long sentences, but short, fun, engaging words while you are engaging them in a motivating activity. 

Sing-along-songs and turn-taking. 
During the years of first working as a verbal behavior therapist and then evolving as a holistic AIMS therapist, I have realized the importance of providing processing time for our children. If you sing a favorite song with them, give them a second or two extra to “fill in the blank”. For example, if you are singing “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”, you can pause the song until they fill in the last word or two. Keep these activities short and highly motivating by encouraging your child to provide some form of speech output. Remember that all the activities that we include to work on speech production should always be short as this might be an extremely difficult task for your child. 
Although this article cannot provide you with all the important answers about your child, the strategies explained might make a positive difference in your child’s and family’s life from today. In our “Become The Expert” parenting course we cover all of these strategies and many more. We believe that parents are the true experts of their child and we feel that when we empower ourselves with effective strategies that our children can and will learn naturally.

Karla Pretorius

Karla Pretorius Research Psychologist Co-founder: AIMS Global

Website: aimsglobal.info

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