By Nicole Rogerson, Rockmelon CEO
When you are all of a sudden thrown in ‘autism land’ it can come as quite a shock. Nothing can prepare you for the day you sit in a paediatricians office and they first use the word autism. It is the stake through your heart, the words that once said, are now your new truth. No going back. He has autism.
For me, that was 1999 and the journey since then has been epic.
However, I won’t bore you with the ‘insert amazing autism story’ of my son Jack’s Early Intervention and school years (queue 80s movie montage soundtrack where 10 years of hard slog goes past in 10 seconds). I’m sure it’s all being said. Early childhood intervention is a succession of highs and lows, achievements and heartaches, which segue into the frustrations, and challenges of transition into the education system. I could write a whole book on how it all played out. But I don’t think that’s what new parents need to know. They don’t need to know Jack’s story, they need to design their story.
So here is what I know, what shortcuts I would recommend, things to avoid, pitfalls to jump – here are my top tips for parents starting early intervention:
1. Imitation is EVERYTHING
We spent years teaching Jack how to imitate others and believe me, it pays off. I know a lot of new families look at the imitation programs and think ‘what the hell are you people doing’? This is ridiculous, what do you mean ‘do this!’ But all the hours we have spent doing the ‘do this’ has paid off and means Jack can go to [insert any activity here] and ‘do this’ without us or therapists, with his peers, just like any other person. Without imitation, children cant ‘learn how to learn’.
2. Behaviour is EVERYTHING else.
It’s the bomb. It’s the investment in your future. It’s the decision to ‘nip this in the bud’ or let it go on unnecessarily for years. Please don’t let autism be an excuse for not teaching your child appropriate behaviour. Of course, we want to live in a community more accepting of disability and difference, but right now society has some catching up to do.
In the meantime, we need to teach our kids as many skills as possible to ensure their successful inclusion into the community. The world is not kind to those who can’t get along. By all means be a little quirky, walk a different way, but uncontrollable, erratic and challenging behaviour doesn’t need to be in you or your child’s life. Just see the future you want for your family, make a plan to get there and start the work. Trust me, autism gets bigger! My son is an adult now. Behaviour challenges in little ones are just that…little. Don’t let them continue until your child is bigger than you! Take control, be the grown up, take control and repeat after me “we don’t get bullied by people under 4ft!”
3. Don’t be shy, make friends with other parents
On the 28th of each month, I have dinner with 8 women. All of us met 18 years ago when our children started their early intervention programs. We have been through everything together. Challenges with the children, building careers, dealing with teenagers, the death of our parents. We have shared experience and camaraderie. I don’t have to explain myself to those women, they are my peeps! Find those kinds of supportive parents who are also raising children on the spectrum. Find your tribe.
You don’t know the amazing people you are about to meet.
4. Dig In
You have an amazing opportunity to help your child learn skills that are going to have a huge and positive impact on their life. Start where the child is at. Look at all of the positives, and strengths your child has because the alternative will get you nowhere.
Make a list of all of the things your child can do now – we call it their baseline – then start building on it. Start teaching, reinforce (a lot), and cheer them on. Early Intervention should be a ‘Yes we can’ kind of therapy – which I LOVE!
Watch the list of things they can do get bigger. See the skills increase, and then let’s track the rate of acquisition. My god that is exciting. Whittling away problems and teaching new skills, one lesson at a time. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard work, but I don’t know a problem that gets better by simply ignoring it. Get stuck in, do the work, reap the rewards.
I wish I could have seen a glimpse of what was ahead when he was first diagnosed. So here is my tip to you – the effort is worth it. Dig deep and pull out everything you’ve got. Effort, doing the work, following through, being consistent – that’s how you get on top of this. That is how you help your child with a developmental delay reach their potential.
Nicole is the CEO of Rockmelon. She has two sons, the eldest of whom has autism.