Ah, the bittersweet post-holiday season: You’ve made it through the festivities, said farewell to family, and maybe even packed up the decorations. Perhaps today you’ll be going back to work, sending your child to school, and picking up your usual responsibilities.

Since everyone is still gearing up for the return to “regular” life, these first few days of the new year are a great time to get organized and set priorities. And if you’re envisioning this exercise as a tiresome slog, think again.

Chances are, you’ll be surprised at how much energy you’ll gain through this undertaking. Dropping the weight of procrastination off your shoulders allows you to feel lighter and freer.

As such, our FirstPath Autism team compiled this list of key items to help your child start the new year on the right foot. With our autism checklist in hand, you won’t have to wonder whether you’re equipped for success.

checkbox-1.pngAcknowledge and appreciate the progress that your child has made over the past year.  

We know, we know … it’s tempting to focus on what you want to happen in your child’s development. You want more milestones reached, stat!

But instead of driving forward, take a moment to recognize the gains that your child has already made.

For example, perhaps Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has given your child the ability to pull on his sneakers independently.

True, he’s not yet able tie his laces correctly, but before he began working with his ABA clinician, he might not have been even interested in putting on his shoes by himself.

Now, he’s making unprompted attempts to tie those laces into bows. That’s a step toward self-reliance, and that’s worth honoring.

Also remember that making visible headway (and taking pause to recognize our gains) ultimately fuels more progress.

As productivity expert, author, and blogger Laura Vanderkam writes in her book I Know How She Does It:

“Much psychological research finds that the key to workplace happiness is a sense of progress. Day by day, you are getting somewhere …. When we work enough to see our careers flourish, we find work energizing.”

By the same token, when you and your child engage in ABA therapy while recognizing and celebrating advancements, you’ll both gain more energy to invest in future learning.

checkbox.pngIdentify your child’s most significant skill gaps and work to bridge them.

In partnership with your child’s ABA clinician, look at your child’s life skill learning gaps, and make a plan to address them in the new year.

That said, remember to be strategic about this step of the autism checklist, because many skill sets build on one another.

You don’t want to discourage your child by pushing him to master a complicated task without providing training in the fundamentals.

As FirstPath founder Romina Kiryakous says in our introductory video, “The Treatment”:

“Oftentimes, people are not teaching the prerequisites to a skill, so they are hopping around or they’re just going to different domains, and then the child has splintered skills.”

By contrast, when you teach skills in the proper order, your child gains momentum more quickly. The confidence and self-esteem boost that comes from mastering one skill then make learning related skills easier.

Once you’ve zeroed in on the necessary skill sets, you’ll want to prioritize time to practice them. That brings us to our next point …

checkbox.pngExamine your at-home ABA routines and develop a sustainable schedule.

Sometimes, the hardest part of providing in-home ABA reinforcement is simply figuring out when to get it done! That’s why we encourage you to review your family’s schedule and set a consistent time just for ABA therapy practice.

Every family is different, so you may need to experiment and find out what daily time slot works for you. In general, you won’t want to attempt new learning at a time when your child is reliably hungry or tired, such as just before mealtime or bedtime.

checkbox.pngEstablish a consistent morning routine.

Having a regular routine helps to prevent one of the biggest impediments to learning: sleep deprivation. When you facilitate consistent sleep, you give your child a much better chance at socializing successfully.

As we wrote in our blog post A morning routine will help your child improve their social skills:

“A consistent morning routine reinforces a regular sleep schedule, which is key to success in school and socialization. There’s a strong connection between restful sleep and positive social interactions. Lack of sleep makes interpersonal communication a struggle.”

checkbox.pngPractice social skills, especially personal greetings. 

If you want your child to build a strong social skills foundation, what’s one key skill to add to your autism checklist this year? The personal greeting.

Prompt your child to greet his or her peers, teachers, and ABA clinicians and establish a habit of saying “Hello.” Voicing a greeting encourages independence and paves the way for favorable social experiences.

In our blog post, The most important social skill to practice with your child with autism, we wrote:

“Greeting another person with a ‘Hello!’ and a handshake may seem so simple as to be forgettable, but it’s not. In reality, it’s a powerful part of both first impressions and ongoing relationships. It sets the tone for interactions, and it’s an important cultural ritual too.”

checkbox.pngPractice emotional regulation skills.

When you review how to identify and express emotions with your child, you offer meaningful support for every area of life, from social skills development to academic learning.

For more on this topic, check out our post How to equip your child with emotional regulation skills.

checkbox.pngGet support yourself. 

On the most basic level, take care of your physical body. You wouldn’t skip out on scheduling medical appointments for your child, so don’t neglect yourself in that way either. Plus, you won’t have the energy to teach your child if you feel sick and run-down.

When you block off time to call to the pediatrician, dial your own specialists, too. Make necessary medical appointments as a gift to yourself and to your family this year.

You may not be riding over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house in a horse-drawn sleigh this season, but chances are, you’ll be visiting family at some point. And you’re probably wondering how your child with autism is going to handle it all.

Even when relatives offer positive contributions such as hugs, presents, and attention, the holiday experience can get a little overwhelming for a child on the spectrum.

Here’s the good news: you can take steps to prepare for positive family interactions right now, starting with this list of free printable social stories.

As a reminder, social stories are brief, illustrated accounts that help children with autism to understand and interpret common social situations. They represent an easy, low-cost ways to provide positive behavioral support for your child.

Plus, they can improve your family’s quality of life in the holiday season and beyond. For example, a social story on hand-washing can help reinforce healthy behavior and prevent the spread of germs all year round.

As such, our FirstPath Autism team compiled of free printable social stories for you. Common themes include greetings, dining etiquette, traveling, interacting with family, and celebrating traditions. It’s our hope that these tools will empower you to enjoy the season with those you love!

Traveling:

The Monarch Center for Autism has an extensive Visual Supports page with a Holiday Travel Section, which includes a Family Vacation Visual Schedule (PDF) and an Airplane Ride Activity Story among others.

 

Getting Dressed:

Project Autism offers a nicely-illustrated Getting Dressed for Wintersocial story, perfect for children who resist donning long sleeves and jackets when the temperature drops!

Sped-Ventures is a blog by certified special education teacher Kara Heslinga. She created two free, gender-specific social stories to help children to choose winter clothing. There is one story for boys and one for girls. (Note that the stories are meant for upper elementary and middle-school-aged children.)

As Heslinga notes:

“These stories are for those students … who need a more scripted/list-style instruction to be able to select appropriate clothing. These students will often complain about being too cold, even if they have chosen their own clothing …. I made the text in these stories simple and repetitive: …. ‘If I wear ____________ in the winter, I will stay warm and comfortable.’”

The Monarch Center for Autism‘s Winter Fun section includes an “I Want to Play, But it is Cold Outside” Activity Story, a Non-Identical Winter Items Matching Board, and a Getting Dressed in Winter Checklist too.

Attending Parties & Getting Presents:

Positively Autism is a treasure trove of free social stories tailor-made for various holidays. There’s the customizable My Family’s Thanksgivingsocial story for November, and the “Visiting Family at Christmas” story for December.

The latter “targets the skills of: visiting family (or having them come to visit), saying ‘Merry Christmas,’ things visitors may do, such as hugging the child, and things families might do together, such as have dinner.” It’s available in PDF and Microsoft PowerPoint for easy editing.

They also offer a specific “Getting Presents” story, as well as a “Going To Visit Santa” story in case going to the mall and taking a photo with Santa is an annual tradition in your family.

 

General Holiday Resources:

Check out Postively Autism’s Social Skills Social Stories library, which includes downloadables such as “Saying Hello to People” and “Eye Contact When Greeting.” These are helpful anytime, but particularly for holiday-season social gatherings.

Ability Path offers a free Holiday Survival Guide for Parents with Special Needs Children. The PDF guide includes an outline of how to make Hanukkah traditions accessible, a Going to Visit Santa social story, holiday decoration tips, sample holiday visit letters informing relatives of your child’s needs, and more.

One Place For Autism has a wide-ranging document and video library; check out their Holiday Social Stories category for relevant listings.

Autism Speaks has an extensive Autism and the Holidays resource list, which features travel tips, toy recommendations, and a downloadable Thanksgiving Social Story.

“I wish I could find more support for us as autism parents. I know that we need it, but … I just don’t have the time to seek it out.”   

If you’ve ever made a statement like this, you’re not alone. Many parents of children on the spectrum feel the same way. Over and over, you hear that it’s important to prioritize your own aid. And in theory, you like the idea of going to an autism support group or receiving more help.

Yet somehow, it’s just not happening. The demands of family life – not to mention your child’s needs – take precedence. And at the end of the day, you’re tempted to give up on the idea altogether.

But are you really as busy as you think you are?

As time management expert Laura Vanderkam writes in her Fast Company piece, We Aren’t Busier. So Why Do We Think We Are?, most men and women aren’t working significantly more hours than they did in the 1960’s.

However, our felt experience of time has changed dramatically. Vanderkam notes:

“… The sheer volume of modern distractions may make life feel busier than it is. Constantly trying to do two things at once means you can feel pulled in multiple directions. You can be working a regular 40-hour-per-week job, and check work email five times at night while eating dinner or watching TV. At just two minutes at a pop, that adds a mere 10 minutes of work, but can pollute whole hours.”

The multitasking experience she describes is familiar to modern parents. And when special needs come into play, the list of to-dos climbs, along with the experience of being pulled in multiple directions.

Journalist Brigid Schulte refers to this increasingly common experience as “contaminated time” in her bestselling book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It’s an especially prevalent issue for parents who juggle the demands of traditional jobs along with home and family responsibilities.

Contaminated time arises from multitasking, trying to take care of several areas of life at once. It’s the feeling that you get when you’re trying to send a time-sensitive email, supervise your child’s homework, and talk to your friend on the phone at the same time.

Given the myriad responsibilities that come with being a special needs parent, it’s understandable that you’d feel pressed for time! So in this post, we’ll focus on ways for you as parents to find autism support when you feel like you can’t fit one more thing into your day.

1. Change your perspective and reframe your own needs.

First, look at finding support not as another item to add to your list, but as a wise investment. What if finding aid for yourself was a responsibility as fundamental as caring for your child, one that you couldn’t afford to skip over?

Our blog post A guide to autism support for parents states, “The investment you make in your own support during this time will pay dividends for years to come.”

We know how it goes: it can be so much easier to seek additional help for your child than for yourself. But what if you considered your own support as a key element of your child’s success?

In his bestselling book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Wharton professor Adam Grant observes that people with giver tendencies (that is, good parents!) often fall into the trap of putting their own needs last. However, with one key mental shift, givers can reclaim power and lobby effectively for what they need.

What’s that shift? A simple pivot from self-advocate to other-advocate.

When parents like you view seeking their own encouragement as part and parcel of their child’s care, they are empowered to find it. In Give and Take, Grant quotes one family man who discovered this truth in his salary negotiations as saying:

“The solution was thinking about myself as an agent, an advocate for my family. As a giver, I feel guilty about pushing too much, but the minute I start thinking, ‘I’m hurting my family, who’s depending on me for this,’ I don’t feel guilty about pushing for that side.”

So when you’re on the hunt for your own support, begin by reframing the process as a service for your entire family.

2. Consider your personality type, stage of life, and what matters most to you.

Just as every child with autism is unique, every autism parent has their own individualized needs. So as you look into finding your own help, honor your personality, energy level, and preferences.

For example, if you’re extroverted, invest in attending an in-person or phone-based autism support group where you can process your experiences and speak with others. You need the interpersonal contact and are energized by it.

If you’re an introvert, you might well enjoy and benefit from a traditional support group, but perhaps on a less frequent basis. And if you’re spent from interacting with your child or co-workers all day, you might find that you can conserve your energy better within the context of an online group.

Then again, many introverts who work from home need the structure and socialization that a regular group provides. So experiment with different options and figure out what works for you within the context of your particular lifestyle.

Likewise, know that you’ll probably need different forms of assistance as you move through your autism journey.

In one phase, you might need a lot of help with navigating doctors, insurance providers, and school systems. In another period, you might want more encouragement in dealing with socialization skills and behavior management.

You’ll probably find a lot of common ground with other autism parents, but you may also have times when you feel like the only one dealing with a particular issue. That’s okay; both feelings are totally normal.

Either way, your challenge is to accept yourself and your child exactly where you are today, and then find out what will help you both to move forward.

3. Recognize that you can get help in getting help!

When it comes to finding the right services for your child, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or spend hours researching every single available option. Instead, ask qualified personnel to point you in the right direction.

As we wrote in our blog post An easy autism plan for busy parents:

“As you identify the skills you need to practice with your child, invest in resources and support. Know that you are not the first parent to walk this path, and that you can rely on the knowledge and experience of those who have gone before you.”

When you go directly to knowledgeable sources, you shorten the process of securing help. This week alone, you could save yourself hours of time (and personal struggle!) by:

  • Asking a direct question at a meeting
  • Attending one targeted training from a qualified professional
  • Placing one phone call to a case manager
  • Inviting fellow parents to offer suggestions
  • Joining an online or in-person support group and asking members for help

Our video library provides hours of professional ABA therapy lessons, which can supplement an existing program or serve as a starting point for you and your child.

Have you ever stepped into a discussion in progress and felt embarrassed to ask basic questions such as, “What are we talking about here?” or “What does that word mean?” … ?

You battle with your pride, trying to convince yourself to speak up, but it’s hard. When it feels as though everyone else knows what they’re talking about, it’s difficult to be the one with unanswered questions.

The good news is that we’ve all been there, and we don’t want you to feel that way when it comes to helping your child with autism.

That’s why the FirstPath Autism team created this post to answer some of the most common questions we receive, and to clarify some common misconceptions, too.

What is autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication and socialization. It impacts each person differently, and it’s a complex condition that researchers and scientists are still working to understand.

Signs of autism tend to arise before a child reaches age three, though recent studies indicate that evidence of autism may present itself as early as age one.

According to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, autism is characterized by difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, deficits in social interaction, and repetitive behavior patterns. (Autism Speaks offers a full reprint of the diagnostic criteria.)

I’ve heard people say that autism is a “spectrum disorder,” what exactly does that mean?

A popular saying in the autism community is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” There is great diversity of ability and personality within the autism community.

So, while the central diagnostic characteristics appear in everyone with the disorder, they vary tremendously in terms of intensity – hence the “spectrum” terminology.

One person with autism is nonverbal, while another is highly verbal and articulate. One individual has a high degree of sensory sensitivity, and another seems unaware of the world around him. The list goes on.

A nuanced understanding of autism means accepting that everyone on the spectrum has different challenges and gifts. And the best autism resources and programs support each unique individual in living up to their own potential.

How many people have autism in the United States and around the world?

The current US autism rate is 1 in 45, according to the latest November 2015 CDC report. That means that 2.25% of all children in the US have an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Worldwide, the CDC’s 2014 autism estimate is 1% of the overall population of 7.1 billion.

The incidence of autism has risen dramatically in the US over the last two decades, increasing from approximately 1 in 10,000 in the early 1990’s to the 1 in 45 rate today.

While greater awareness and changing diagnostic criteria have played a role in these larger numbers, there is little question that autism itself is on the rise. As such, there’s an ever-growing need for high-quality autism resources to support individuals, families, and providers.

What causes autism?

That’s one question that has puzzled researchers and scientists (not to mention families!) for decades. There is no single cause of autism. However, several contributing factors have been identified.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Genetic variations
  • A combination of genetic and environmental factors
  • Advanced parental age
  • Maternal illness during pregnancy and certain birth complications

Autism affects about five times as many boys as girls, and there is a genetic component to the condition. However, the genetic expression of autism varies significantly from person to person.

I hear terms such as Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) mentioned as part of autism, but I don’t understand how all of the different labels fit together.

It’s understandable to be confused about this! Basically put, the reason for the puzzlement is that diagnostic criteria and labels have changed over the years.

The DSM-IV (the previous version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) included separate entries for Asperger’s Syndrome, Autistic Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism, and PDD-NOS is an overarching term for several disorders that involve social-communication delays.

The DSM-V (the most recent version, published in 2013) eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome, Autistic Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS as separate diagnoses, integrating them all within the expanded definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Many individuals prefer to employ the preexisting and familiar labels, so you’ll still hear them mentioned frequently.

I know that sensory issues are a part of autism spectrum disorder. What is sensory processing disorder (SPD), and how does it connect with ASD?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that impacts how the brain communicates with the body. Individuals with SPD have trouble converting sensory signals into so-called typical responses.

SPD manifests differently in each person, so one person with the disorder may be hypersensitive to touch, sound, sight, smell, or taste, while another is hyposensitive. One flinches at the slightest brush of a hand, while another cuts his knee and doesn’t seem to feel any pain.

As we wrote in our post How autism and sensory processing disorder are linked, “ASD and SPD are not the same, but the overlap between them is significant. Both are brain-based differences, neurological conditions that impact a child’s development.”

SPD_Venn.png

And the incidence of SPD is significantly higher within the autism community compared to the general population.

Are there any proven treatments for autism?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) tops the list of safe, proven interventions. It has a strong track record for promoting development in individuals on the spectrum.

It is approved as an autism treatment by the Association for Science in Autism Research, the United States Surgeon General, and the National Institutes of Health.

What is ABA, exactly?

As we wrote in our post Autism Resource: What is ABA Therapy? “ABA is the research-based process of helping individuals to change and better specific behaviors.”

It’s a series of lessons and exercises specifically designed to help children with autism learn social skills, emotional regulation, and daily life management.

Through consistent practice, children with autism can master these key skills and increase their independence at the same time.

ABA is what we offer as an autism resource here at FirstPath. Our video lessons empower parents to provide in-home behavior support for children, and they serve as an accessible supplement for in-person ABA sessions as well.

Did this post help you to understand autism better? Then be sure to pay it forward and share it with your friends!

Picture this: You and your family have made it to your favorite annual block party. There’s a clown and games for the kids, and plenty of food too. Everyone’s having a great time … that is, until your child with autism gets completely overwhelmed by the festivities.

She seemed fine with the noise, crowds, and general merry-making for the first half-hour, but then she started pacing and hair-pulling. You tried to redirect her attention, but it didn’t work. She tipped into a full-scale meltdown in front of everyone.

You’ve been looking forward to this event for weeks, and now you’re dealing with a screaming child. What’s your next move?

 

Meltdown Prevention 101

First, let’s rewind the tape a bit. Our initial recommendation is that you do what you can to prevent a meltdown prior to its inception. Remember that behavior is learned, and that what you model during calm moments will influence what happens during stressful ones.

If you take time to teach your child appropriate self-management strategies, he or she will have a much better chance of maintaining their emotional control in difficult situations.

For example, you can:  

  • Remind your child of the appropriate behavior and associated reward
  • Employ social stories and role-playing exercises to educate about appropriate behavior
  • Prompt the identification and verbal expression of feeling states
  • Review deep breathing techniques
  • Use adaptive equipment to provide calming pressure or lessen the experience of sensory overload

All of these practices help with meltdown prevention, and they facilitate greater personal independence too.

That said, sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. Meltdowns do happen, and it’s important to know how to handle them effectively when the time comes.

 

Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Next, make sure you understand the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, as they require different responses from you as a parent.

To put it simply, a tantrum represents a demand, be it for attention, a reward, or a reprieve from a task. Don’t give into tantrums; instead, remain calm and stand your metaphorical ground until they pass.

Of course, if safety is an issue, do what it takes to keep your child secure, without giving in to the demand. Many tantrums simply involve a lot of noise and fuss, with little actual danger.

By contrast, a meltdown represents a loss of personal control without agenda. Meltdowns are often triggered by an experience of high stress or sensory overload. (You can read this FirstPath Autism post for a more detailed description of the difference between tantrum and meltdown behavior.)

Since a child may engage in self-injurious behavior mid-meltdown, he or she might need your help to stay safe. As such, your priority is to keep yourself and your child as protected as possible until the meltdown ends.

That said, if your child frequently melts down and hurts himself and others, don’t let that go unaddressed. It’s important to receive support and maintain a consistent behavioral management program too.

As we shared in our blog post, 10 signs you need ABA therapy support:

“ABA teaches that all behavior is a form of communication …. Your child may exhibit tantrum behavior seemingly without reason or strike out at others without apparent provocation …. Until you understand the need that’s fueling the behavior, you’ll have a hard time decreasing it.”

 

Practical Strategies

But what exactly do you do in the midst of the meltdown? How do you handle the frustration, stress, and fear that arise when your child loses control at a party?

Child psychologist Lauren Elder, Autism Speaks assistant director for dissemination science, speaks to this question in Parents of Child with Autism Seeking Help Handling Public Meltdowns.

Elder suggests the following essential steps:

1. Stay calm

This might seem obvious to you now, but in the chaotic moments surrounding a meltdown, it won’t seem so clear-cut. When your child is struggling, it’s easy to get swept away by frustration and panic, but the calmer you can remain in the crisis, the more effective you’ll be at helping your child.

As we noted in a previous post, What to do when your child has a meltdown in public:

Take a moment to breathe and regain a sense of calm within yourself …. Your reaction is so important. You have the power to escalate or de-escalate the situation with your words, body language, and overall approach.

2. Stop and help your child

Again, this might seem self-evident, but how many times have you seen parents trying to manage their child’s behavior while simultaneously working, eating, or conversing with other people?

Some such parental juggling is inevitable, and even the best parents need to divide their attention at times. However, make sure that you don’t do this during a meltdown. If your child is truly out of control, you need to be fully present and attentive to what’s happening around you. Otherwise, their physical and emotional well-being is put at risk.

However, giving your full attention doesn’t mean lecturing, bargaining, or disciplining. If your child is having a true meltdown, she is in a panicked, fight-or-flight state. As such, she won’t be able to engage in new learning.

In addition, be sure not to give in to any request or demand that directly preceded the meltdown. Doing so reinforces the idea that meltdowns yield positive results, and that’s not what you want to teach!

Rather than shouting, correcting, or rewarding negative behavior, simply prioritize safety. You can work on teaching once your child has regained equilibrium.

You can also reduce stimulation levels. This may mean a quick move to a quieter, more private space. If that’s not a possibility, you can stay put and lower lights, block excess noise, and disperse a crowd if one has gathered. Which brings us to our final point …

3. Tell bystanders what you need them to do 

One of the most difficult elements of a public meltdown is … the public. Even if you’re at a party where the guests know and love your child, it’s still stressful to have him melt down.

That said, you can take this potential frustration and turn it around. If you’re concerned about communicating with bystanders, try talking to friends and family members ahead of time about what to expect should your child lose control.

You might consider carrying cards to hand to strangers if it helps to explain the situation. But if you’re surrounded by close friends and family, it may be easier to simply plan ahead and ask for what you need (be it space or support) in advance.

Finally, after a meltdown ends, make sure to take time to recuperate before re-entering the party. You both need to take pause and rest before getting back on your feet.

Want more guidance on this topic? Then you won’t want to miss our free guide, 10 Tips for Managing a Meltdown, with specific guidance from Amalie D. Holly, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst on the FirstPath team!

Let’s just tell it like it is: caring for your child during a public meltdown is tough. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding experience. So how do you cope?

Of course, prevention is preferable whenever possible. If you can head off a potential meltdown by using adaptive equipment or relocating to a quieter space, great! That’s the best-case scenario. But it doesn’t always happen.

The truth is, meltdowns happen to even the best of kids with even the best of parents. So don’t beat yourself up or think that you’ve failed. Ultimately, you can’t control another person’s responses.

However, you can prepare for the possibility of meltdowns and equip yourself to respond appropriately when they do happen.

Tantrums versus meltdowns

Before we dive into practical management tips, let’s clarify the difference between tantrum behavior and meltdown behavior.

A tantrum is about the child getting his or her own way. It’s an attempt to convince you to give in to their wishes. It’s an attention-seeking behavior.

For example, say you’re out shopping at Target and your child is calm and carefree right up until the very moment that you decline her request for candy. If your “No” effectively transforms your happy child into a screaming child, then you’re likely dealing with a tantrum.

(You’d know for sure if she calmed down the moment you conceded and said yes to the candy, but you don’t want to do that!)

By contrast, a meltdown is about a loss of control. It may be triggered by sensory overload, stress, or a series of smaller trigger moments of frustration throughout the day. During the episode, child is turned inward, trying to cope with intense feelings of overwhelm. It’s self-focused, not other-focused.

Say you’re at Target once again, but this time, your child is agitated and pacing from the moment you walk into the store. You needed to disrupt the usual after-school routine to pick up a few emergency items, and your child tensed his shoulders and bit his lips when you explained the change. He said nothing, but you could feel his frustration.

Plus, when you walked through the store’s doors he put his hands over his ears and fixed his gaze on the floor. Both behaviors are telltale signs that the store’s noise and fluorescent lights were too much for him to handle comfortably. And then to top it all off, you see a man in a Halloween clown costume rapidly approaching your aisle … and your child is deathly afraid of clowns.

If your child starts screaming and thrashing after all that, then you can be fairly certain that you have a meltdown on your hands. That hypothetical scenario includes a change in schedule, an experience of sensory overload, and a fear-based trigger too.

So, while the child’s external behavior (screaming and thrashing) is similar in the two hypothetical Target scenarios, the internal motivations are not.

Responding to a tantrum

As a parent, you can learn to discern the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. In fact, you probably already have a good sense for when your child is manipulating you as opposed to feeling overwhelmed.

Respond to tantrum behavior with compassion, acknowledging your child’s emotions even as you hold to your limits. For example, if your child has a tantrum after you say no to candy, you might say, “I understand that you’re upset because we’re not buying candy today. I like candy too! But we’re not buying it.”

You reflect your child’s feelings and demonstrate calm empathy, but you also hold firm to your decision.

Responding to a meltdown

Respond to meltdown behavior in an even simpler fashion: keep yourself and your child as calm and as safe as possible.

As Eileen Riley-Hall, an autism parent, teacher, and author, says in the Care.com article, How to Handle the 4 Most Challenging Autism Behaviors:

“The basic thing [to do during a meltdown] is to hold them and calm them and wait until they can calm down themselves …. just keep them safe and soothe them in whatever way you know works until they can recover.”

(That said, you know your child’s sensory profile best. If physical touch is too difficult for your child to handle during a meltdown, only reach out if it’s necessary for safety purposes.)

Notice what’s not in Riley-Hall’s description, namely:

  • Taking dramatic action or physically forcing your child to relocate
  • Trying to reason with your child and convince them not to be upset
  • Yelling at your child and speaking harshly
  • Punishing your child for his/her behavior

Trying to correct your child during a meltdown isn’t effective, so focus on de-escalation strategies instead.

Work with emotional regulation skills you’ve practiced in calm moments, such as deep breathing exercises. If your child has a Positive Behavior Support Plan (PBSP) created by a helping professional, comply with the specific guidelines listed there as well.

Take a moment for yourself

One other key tip for meltdown management: take a moment to breathe and regain a sense of calm within yourself.

If your child isn’t in any immediate physical danger, take a beat. Notice your emotional response. Observe the part of you that feels fearful, angry, or panicked. Offer compassion to yourself in the moment.

Why do we encourage this kind of mindfulness? Well, the reasoning is twofold:

First, we advocate taking pause because you are a parent doing your very best to deal with a difficult situation, and you deserve some grace. After all, no one wants to deal with a dramatic meltdown in the middle of a Target. But sometimes, that’s reality. And in order to cope calmly, you need to offer yourself some kindness.

Next, we recommend a momentary gap between your child’s outburst and your response simply because your reaction is so important. You have the power to escalate or de-escalate the situation with your words, body language, and overall approach.

Also, keep in mind what a meltdown feels like for someone with autism. As Emma Dalmayne, an autism parent and self-advocate, writes in her article on The Mighty:

“When you have a meltdown, it’s as if the world is ending. Everything is too much and you feel like an overwhelming darkness has engulfed your very being. Irrepressible anger that may seem completely irrational to an outsider can be inwardly devastating [you] internally.”

Practical considerations

Since many children with autism engage in aggressive or self-injurious behavior in the midst of meltdowns, your primary focus is to ensure your child’s physical safety.

If this is an ongoing issue in your family, prepare and protect yourself and your child. Consider taking a behavior management training course and learning safe holds. (One well-known behavior management training for parents and direct-care professionals is The Mandt System®, which offers both in-person and online training.)

If your child tends to run away mid-meltdown, you can create personal identification cards to help ensure a safe return home. You might also invest in a medical alert bracelet if needed.

In addition, you can carry pre-made autism behavior cards like these to hand to concerned bystanders. After all, when your child melts down in public, the last thing you want to worry about is what to say when concerned strangers approach. The cards save you the trouble of trying to articulate what’s going on in a highly-charged moment.

Finally, we want to remind you: this is hard work! If you can remain calm and do your best to keep your child safe during a meltdown, you’ve already done a great job. Your child is fortunate to have you for a parent.

Download:
10 Tips for Managing a Meltdown

Let’s face it: the holiday season is full of contradictions. It brings out both the best and the worst in people. It’s a time for creating childhood magic and enjoying carefree fun … and it’s a time when parental pressure ratchets way up.

It seems like everyone has an opinion about how you ought to celebrate. And all too often, their ideas of the ‘perfect’ holiday don’t take into account the reality of life with autism and sensory processing disorder.

If that’s been your experience, we understand. (In fact, we recently published a post entitled, The worst autism advice for parents we’ve ever heard!)

As a parent, it’s your role to sort through the suggestions, keeping the best and letting go of the worst. Here are a few FirstPath Autism tips to help you facilitate a happy Halloween for your child with autism (take what helps, and leave the rest). 

1. Prepare for changes in home and school routines.

The holidays mean that your family’s usual routine shifts, and that causes disruption for everyone, including your child. Much as children may look forward to the celebration, they may not understand that it involves trade-offs too.

For example, having a Halloween parade at school may mean that their favorite art class is canceled for the day. Be sure to discuss these changes with your child ahead of time. They may not infer that the parade means that art class won’t happen as usual.

So don’t let the schedule shifts take you and your child by surprise. Instead, use calendars, social stories, or visual scheduling tools to help your child prepare for the day.

Your child’s school may send home a synopsis of holiday events, but if they don’t, call and clarify the schedule for the day so that you can prepare.

2. Assess sugar impact and decide what’s reasonable.

You know your child’s sensitivity to sugar, so ask yourself: how well does he or she handle it? What are they really like after two cookies? Find a balance between prudence and fun.

Unless food allergies or confirmed intolerances are involved, consider allowing your child space to eat some special-occasion treats. And if food allergies and sensitivities are an issue, be sure to make or buy one of your child’s favorite snack foods to add to the festivities.

Spiced pumpkin seeds, popcorn, cinnamon-baked apples, and trail mix are perennial fall favorites for kids who need to avoid processed sugar.

3. Be mindful of sensory issues. 

Halloween means plenty of flashing lights, brightly-colored costumes, and loud cries of, “Trick or treat!” This festive celebration is challenging for individuals with autism and sensory processing disorder.

If your child wants to wear a costume, be sure to have them try it on in advance and check for potential skin irritants. If you’re going to be outdoors, review the weather forecast a few days in advance. Prep your child for the possibility that they may need to wear a coat with their superhero costume.

On Halloween, houses are filled with the sounds of children exclaiming, “But Superman doesn’t wear a coat!” “But the Little Mermaid didn’t havesleeves!” It’s a fight waiting to happen.

You’re trying to make sure that your children don’t freeze on a chilly night, and they’re trying to make sure that they look like an authentic Disney character. So stop the disagreement before it starts.

If your area gets cold on Halloween, see if you can work warmth into the costume in advance; it’s much easier than trying to get your kids to layer up at the last minute.

Find a warm cape for Superman’s back or a pretty, flowing drape for the Little Mermaid’s shoulders. If the layer is a part of the costume from the get-go, your child may be less likely to resist it.

4. If the traditions don’t fit, make your own!

Most of us start thinking in terms of tradition when the holidays approach. Given this, it’s easy to get caught up in how things are ‘supposed to’ be. Halloween means carving pumpkins, dressing up, and going trick or treating, right?

But what if your child refuses to wear a costume, is terrified of jack-o’-lanterns, and wants to go to bed early? What if sensory processing disorder deters you from participating in typical Halloween festivities?

Then you get to choose whether to force a certain version of so-called normalcy, or make some new traditions of your own.

Remember that, as a parent, you get to do what works for you and your family. So do that, and let the rest go. Let go of comparison and ‘shoulds’ and ‘What will the extended family think?’ and just embrace the reality of your own household.

If your child is an early riser, perhaps you can start a Halloween breakfast tradition, making pumpkin pancakes and running around wearing bedsheets and pretending to be ghosts.

If your child doesn’t want to go trick or treating, maybe you can go on a hayride or take in a sensory-friendly movie together instead. Let your imagination run wild. And most of all, have fun!

Wishing you and your family a very Happy Halloween from FirstPath!

Did you know that autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in America? It’s true. According to The Autism Society of America’s Facts and Statistics page, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the prevalence of ASDs in U.S. children at 1 in 68 as of 2010. This represents a 119.4 percent increase from 2000’s record-high rate of 1 in 150.

Unsurprisingly, awareness, advocacy efforts, and available resources are all increasing along with diagnoses. In some ways, this makes life easier for families with children on the spectrum. With the advent of the Internet age, parents like you can research treatment options and connect with like-minded communities at the touch of a button.

Yet sorting through the overwhelming amount of information online is a formidable task in and of itself. That’s why our team compiled this list of quality autism resources. We’ve separated out the sites that have the most to offer overall, as well as in the specific area of ABA. Enjoy!

General Autism Resources, US-Specific

The CDC has an autism section on their website which is a great link to pass along to family members (and anyone else in your life!) who could use a foundational overview of current facts and research. The CDC also offers free printable materials to help raise awareness and promote early diagnosis.

Autism Speaks is famous for its extensive selection of free online Tool Kits and downloadable guides to just about every aspect of life on the spectrum. There’s a Tool Kit for everything from navigating the post-diagnosis period to supporting your child at the dentist!

In particular, you’ll want to download the Parent’s Guide to Applied Behavior Analysis, a brief but helpful overview of ABA principles and benefits.

Also, be sure to check out the site’s state-by-state Resource Guide, where you’ll find detailed listings of regional service providers.

The Autism Society of America’s resource guide is called Autism Source, and it’s a searchable database for autism services in your area. Yet the organization’s most salient resource is their extensive network of local chapters. So find an affiliate in your area and get connected to other parents.

As we wrote in our blog post, A guide to autism support for parents,

“… Families in your area have valuable experience with government programs, school systems, non-profits, and more. Local parents have a wealth of information about how to advocate for your child in your specific town or city. It’s much more efficient to ask questions of fellow parents than to try and figure everything out alone.”

Autism NOW is the Arc of the United States’ ASD-specific online resource center. It includes informational articles, webinars, and guides to family relationships, emergency preparedness, education, benefits, and more. (You can browse by topic to narrow your focus area.)

Families for Early Autism Treatment (FEAT) is a California-based nonprofit that supports autism families and promotes early intervention. There are FEAT chapters throughout the US, and the Connecticut FEAT chapter website includes an extensive overview of ABA, including links to professional journals and relevant articles.

Autism After 16 is an online magazine with a focus on adult autism issues and analysis. The site includes plenty of personal columns from self-advocates, parents, and siblings, as well as journalistic articles on how to navigate adult autism employment, housing, and finances. Though the site is inactive as of this writing, its archives offer a wealth of information.

General Autism Resources, International

Ambitious About Autism is a UK-based, parent-founded non-profit created “to make the ordinary possible” for individuals with autism. The organization provides services in the UK, and their site’s Understanding Autism section offers videos on sensory issues and autism myths and facts.

The Autism File is a magazine centered around life on the spectrum. Created by UK autism mom, Polly Tommey. The publication offers supportive articles as well as the latest scientific news, treatment protocols, and research updates. You can find the print magazine at your local Barnes & Noble, or read through articles online for free.

The Mighty is an inspirational website devoted to share powerful stories of people living with disabilities. The Mighty’s founders are autism parents, and they created the site as an uplifting community after their daughter’s diagnosis.

Behavior Support / ABA-Specific Resources

The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies Autism page features an extensive selection of articles, videos, and studies, all collected with the aim of offering “a scientific view of the causes of Autism and the Applied Behavior Analysis approach to its treatment”. If you’re interested in doing your own research on ABA, this page is a must-see.

The Association for Positive Behavior Support (APBS) Families pagecontains an introduction to PBS, myriad examples of positive behavioral support plans, and lists of support strategies too.

The Association for Science in Autism Treatment was founded to fight against inaccurate, false autism information, and its focus on evidence-based treatment helps parents discern which services are worth pursuing for their children.

The site’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) page outlines the proven efficacy of ABA therapy for individuals with autism, so it’s a great reference point for people who haven’t heard of ABA or don’t understand its importance.

Also, the Becoming a Savvy Consumer page is a good place to start if you’re unsure of how to sort through various autism therapies and media claims.

The National Autism Association is a nonprofit with a focus on safety issues. Their advocacy efforts help prevent accidents and abuse of vulnerable individuals. They offer wandering prevention materials, swimming instructions, safety tool kits, and more.

We asked this simple question on our Facebook Page, and thought we just had to share some of your amazing responses!

Here are a few of our favorites:

“My son is so fascinated with building and making things. I love his creations.” 

– Misty W.

Many individuals with autism have strong spatial relations skills, mechanical abilities, and technological prowess too. Often, autism parents note that they rely on their sons and daughters on the spectrum to fix the family computer, phone, or remote control when it goes on the fritz. In fact, tech-based companies (such as Canada’s Meticulon) employ adults with ASDs as software testers and data experts. In this field, an above-average ability to pay attention to detail and repeat tasks is a competitive advantage!


“My daughter is so loving and gentle to the people she trusts, and she is so sweet when she sees a baby.” 

– Heather B.

While stereotypes cast people on the spectrum as aloof, families know that their loved ones with ASD often express their emotions in touching, spontaneous ways. And the self-protective behaviors exhibited by individuals with ASDs may evince more empathy, not less. As Maia Szalavitz writes in her Medium.com piece, “The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism”“When someone else’s pain becomes too unbearable to witness, even typical people withdraw and try to soothe themselves first rather than helping—exactly like autistic people. It’s just that autistic people become distressed more easily, and so their reactions appear atypical.”


“My daughter amazes me with her contentment with being eccentric & unique. She embraces it. I was too scared of being different when I was growing up. I tried to fit in & be the same as other girls. She doesn’t care, she just is who she is. I truly wish I were more like her!” 

– Amanda P.

Siblings of individuals on the spectrum often gain a tremendous appreciation for diversity by watching their brothers and sisters. Their siblings give them courage to walk off the beaten path of ‘normal’ and pursue what really matters. As sibling Faith Jegede says in her poignant TED talk, What I’ve Learned from my Autistic Brothers: “Normality overlooks the beauty that differences give us, and the fact that [my brothers and I] are different doesn’t mean that one of us is wrong. It just means that there’s a different kind of right.

Here’s what some our team had to say: 

“The most beautiful trait in children with autism is their readiness to learn.  These kids are always ready for our command. Also, each child is so smart. Once we understand how to communicate with them, they end up teaching us.  They teach us love, patience and compassion”

– Romina Kiryakous


“I never cease to be excited when I see the jumps in acquisition. As program takes hold, many of our kiddos accelerate their learning on this skill or that, at a faster rate than children who do not carry the diagnosis, sometimes jumping 2-3 developmental months in just one month’s time. It’s great to have to keep up with a child who is in this learning pattern! And when a child makes eye contact with me and uses appropriate communication for the first time, it always brings tears to my eyes.”

-Amalie D. Holly


“Sometimes I wish that my younger brother Willie and I could have extended conversations instead of short ones, but I’ve come to see that there’s a beauty in our wordless time, too.

We’re both introverted, and I love that we can just walk or sit side by side without needing to fill up silences. That’s not something you can do with everyone! Willie is good at giving people space to just be who they are.

When I first heard the Rilke quote, ‘Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other,’ I thought of Willie.”

-Caroline G. McGraw


“I’d say that the most beautiful thing I see in people with autism is their genuine nature. They don’t really hide themselves or their interests and are very genuine in that respect. You won’t meet many autistic people who are back-stabbers, two-faced liars, or malignant gossipers. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and that’s a trait that I really wish was present in the rest of us.”

-John Holly

 

Unique Autism Traits

Autism manifests differently in each person, bringing with it a specific set of gifts and challenges. And we’re only just beginning to understand the neurological basis for these unique traits.

As we noted in our post, What we can learn about autism and emotional regulation from Temple Grandin:

“Individuals with autism have measurably divergent brain size and neurological responses … From enlarged temporal lobes to section-specific hyperactivity, those on the spectrum have minds that work just a little bit differently. These brain-based differences help to explain why people on the spectrum have unique abilities.”

And those unique abilities are what we’re celebrating here today.

If you’ve ever tried to talk to a toddler from behind a closed door, you know how disconcerting it can be.

Why is it such a strange experience? Because regardless of the barrier between you, young children tend to act as though you’re in the room with them. 

They’ll hold up their favorite book for you to ‘see’, or point to something they want you to notice. Why can’t they understand your perspective?

In today’s post, we’ll address this question, and how it connects to teaching social skills to children on the spectrum.

Question: 

I have heard that many children with autism have difficulty with social skills, and that this difficulty impacts how they get along with peers and siblings. Why is that? What can be done to provide support?

Answer From Amalie D. Holly, Board Certified Behavior Analyst:

Children with autism often experience a “Theory of Mind” deficit. Basically, this means that they are unable to read social cues effectively or look at life from another person’s point of view. Another term for this social disconnect is “mind blindness”. 

In typically-developing children, there is rapid growth in theory of mind skills between ages 3 and 4. (that’s about the age at which it gets easier to speak to them on the phone!) 

However, children on the spectrum experience developmental delays that affect their ability to see from another’s perspective.

As you might imagine, it is very difficult to act appropriately in social situations if you cannot understand what another person is thinking or feeling! 

For example, say you’re a child on the spectrum at a new school, and your classmate starts crying when her parents drop her off. Since you don’t have good Theory of Mind skills, you are unable to understand why she’s so upset. 

Then you laugh loudly, because it seems funny and strange to you that she’s crying. Your classmate then becomes angry with you. Since you didn’t know what to say or how to act appropriately, you inadvertently hurt your new classmate’s feelings.  

Having a Theory of Mind deficit can isolate you from others, making it difficult to create and maintain friendships. 

When children can’t read social cues, they can’t learn social skills solely by watching others. Instead, such skills must be taught explicitly and practiced thoroughly. 

FirstPath Autism addresses these skill gaps by providing social lessons and strategies. Our program covers everything from learning simple identification of basic emotions to understanding how to act in complex social situations.  

Theory of Mind skills can be taught, and FirstPath Autism provides the tools that children need to learn. Practicing these skills can help chilren to get along better with others and empower them to navigate social situations effectively.


If you’re a FirstPath Autism member and you’re interested in teaching your child with autism social skills, try these two helpful lessons with your child:

Video: Emotions Labeling

This lesson teaches students how to identify and recognize emotions in self, others, and pictures.

Video: Situation-based emotions

The focus of this lesson is to teach students how to identify and recognize how someone typically feels in common situations.