3 Things I've Done to Protect My Son's Emotional Health During ABA Therapy

My son, Julian, was diagnosed with autism nine months ago. The diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise… my sweet Julian is completely nonverbal.

I have to admit, hearing his diagnosis for the first time stung a little. But I took it in stride, knowing it didn’t change how awesome he is. It only added to the services I could get him.

Toward the end of the appointment, I asked the doctor, “Where do we go from here?” He gave me a list of ABA therapy providers. Julian would need to start as soon as possible.

I immediately felt a sense of panic. I didn’t show it, but my “mom shield” went into full effect. You know that feeling… the urge to protect your child from anything harmful.

I’ve heard stories about ABA therapy… children being forced to do things they find uncomfortable or scary, with the goal of desensitizing them. I’ve watched videos of children strapped into chairs so they couldn’t wander… and their therapists ignoring their cries.

Of course, I want Julian to make developmental gains and reach his full potential. And I’d love to hear him speak. But I know those things won’t happen if he doesn’t feel safe.

My family has worked very hard to make sure he feels supported and loved in a world that is often scary to him. I won’t sacrifice his emotional health in order to reach those goals.

Fast forward — Julian has been receiving ABA therapy for eight months now. ABA is nothing like I imagined. In fact, it’s better than every other therapy he’s had before.

I not only interact with his therapist, I work with a whole team of professionals who are interested in Julian’s well-being. They even helped me get ABA services for Julian’s twin brother, who isn’t yet diagnosed.

The therapy isn’t cold or forced. It’s playful and developmentally appropriate for their age and ability levels. We work on skills and tasks specific to our family, such as taking baths and going on outings.

While Julian works on sounds and sorting, his brother, Dominic, works on letters and vocabulary. And both of them work on life skills, impulse control and safety while out in public.

I’m even able to plan trips I wouldn’t normally be able to handle by myself. We’ve been to the store, the beach and even the aquarium. My boys have had life experiences that I couldn’t have provided on my own.

The process of finding the right ABA provider wasn’t easy. It took a great deal of energy on my part. But I knew Julian’s emotional health was worth it.

Here are some actions I took, and continue to take, in order to advocate for the best ABA therapy:

1. I did my research.

Before choosing a provider, I asked around. I contacted the Autism Society of America (ASA). They know the ins-and-outs of autism services in my area. (You can find your local chapter here.) I also asked other parents on my local Autism Facebook group. Their first-hand experiences helped me narrow my list.

Before I made my decision, I interviewed the provider to get a good sense of the company’s policies and methods. Do they welcome my questions and concerns? Are they easy to talk to? How hard would it be for me to voice a complaint?

2. I got organized.

I am in charge of my child’s therapy. I made a list of goals and concerns — for my twins and for our family.

In addition to individual communication and cognitive goals, I wanted to work on safety in public spaces. My family spends a lot of time at the beach in the summer. So I added that to the list.

It was also important that the sessions were developmentally appropriate, and protective of their emotional health. Their therapy should be play-based with lots of movement and singing — not rigid and ultra-structured. Those concerns were added to the list as well.

3. I communicate often.

Not every session is perfect. Neither is every therapist. When something doesn’t feel right, I let them know. There may be a method to to their ways I don’t understand. Or I may be able to offer the therapist some tips to help the sessions run more smoothly.

Dominic and Julian’s therapy is done at home with me. But I also keep in contact with the therapists and their supervisors at least once a week to address their progress, as well as any concerns I may have.

It’s not easy trusting someone else with the emotional health of my children. It’s even harder when they can’t express themselves in a way I can yet understand.

But the majority of therapists feel the same way we do: they want our children to succeed. They want to help support our children’s, as well as our family’s goals.

I’ve been extremely lucky to find amazing therapists. What are your experiences? What advice can you give to a parent who’s new to autism?

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