Amy Nielsen

@bigabilities | contributor
I am the mother of four children, the youngest has Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. I run the Big Abilities blog and podcast. I also volunteer as Parent Advocate and Early Intervention Specialist at Collaborative Corner for Exceptional Children.
Amy Nielsen

When It Comes to Neurodiversity, Awareness Isn't Enough

Neurodiversity has been around since the existence of humankind. According to Natalia Lyckowski, Global Neurodiversity@IBM Business Resource Group Co-Chair at IBM, “Even in the earliest communities, the NDers (those who are neurodivergent) in many cases may have been the Holy People – or the Medicine Workers of the community. People who had the capacity to remember which exact leaf could cure or kill, that could hear predators or prey coming before others, those that had big ideas. Somewhere along our human timeline, many such individuals became outcasts…and that’s a bit where we are still stuck today.” Currently, it is estimated that approximately 30-40 percent of the population is neurodivergent, meaning their brains are not neurotypical. Neurodivergent conditions include autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, Tourette’s, and more, and can often co-exist with mental health disorders. Coined in the 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, neurodiversity encompasses the belief that these neurological differences in the brain aren’t deficits but rather are normal and natural deviations in the human genome. As a mother of an autistic son, I appreciate the term neurodivergent. It helps to remove the stigma that often surrounds individuals who are not neurotypical. If you don’t have a neurodivergent family member, they are in your communities, neighborhoods, places of employment, and schools. A clear understanding of their challenges and strengths can help us as a society meet these individuals where they are while capitalizing on the contributions they can make in the world we all share. According to an article in Harvard Business Review titled Neurodiversity is a Competetive Advantage, “Many people with these disorders [neurodivergent conditions] have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.” The article also says that even though these employees might require some accommodations such as noise-canceling headphones, a quiet-private workspace, or others, the return is worth it. Embracing the Neurodiversity Movement means individuals with neurodivergent conditions no longer must mask their differences to be seen by society as a whole. It means moving from passive awareness to actively accepting neurodivergent individuals and advancing the cause for full inclusivity. “The culture change we need to accept neurodivergent people is just like getting a garden ready. Most seeds and plants can’t grow in sand alone. We need fertile ground. If you change the environment and get rid of the rocks and sticks, new seeds can take root and the plants already trying to grow there can blossom.” – Natalia (La Duca) Lyckowski – Global Neurodiversity@IBM Business Resource Group Co-Chair at IBM

Amy Nielsen

Trying to Find a School for My Autistic Son

When moving to a new location, one of the first things a family with children does is check out the local school system. A school can often be a selling point (or a deterrent) to a family moving to a specific location. Unfortunately, this is understandable because public education often doesn’t look the same from one school district (or even school campus within a district) to the next. For parents of children with disabilities, searching for a school can be even more challenging. In addition to finding a home in a great neighborhood with a great local school, families must also uncover whether or not that campus has the services their child needs. It may be likely that those services won’t be at the local neighborhood school. My family lives in Central Florida, and our dream has always been to move to the West Coast. Now that my husband works from home, we realized we could make that dream a reality. We connected with a local realtor, visited the area, and found the perfect neighborhood! It’s close to family, the professional sports we love, and to the water. This fantastic community checked off all the boxes – or so we thought. Once back home, we contacted a local realtor to help us get our home on the market. The excitement began to build as we envisioned and talked about our new coastal lifestyle. That is until I started calling the local schools to see what programs they offered for autistic children. My son is 6. Due to COVID, I homeschooled him this past year and kept him at his behavior therapy center. It was a great decision that allowed him to continue learning new skills before going to an autism charter school in the fall. We were fortunate that he got a spot at this highly regarded campus, and after meeting the staff, we feel confident he’ll thrive there. When we initially started looking on the West Coast, the plan was to purchase a second home and move when our son aged out of the school in fifth grade. But after visiting the town and crunching the numbers of owning two homes, we decided let’s move now! I assumed finding a great school for him in the new community would be no problem. I was very wrong. The first thing I did was to search the area for schools like the one my son is set to attend this fall. The closest is a 40-minute drive from the community we’d like to call home. That would mean four 40 minute car rides per day, 2 hours and 40 minutes in the car per day. So that option quickly was taken off the table. Next, I decided to call the local public school within the community. Because of the high level of supports my son requires, inclusion in a general education classroom isn’t an option. The local school doesn’t offer the support he needs. All three elementary schools in the area only provide inclusion. Children with needs like my son are sent out of the community. So, rather than being able to go to school with the children in his neighborhood, he would be sent to a school in a completely different city. I don’t know why the public school special education system works this way. I just hope one day it changes. The law states that all children will have access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education, but it doesn’t state what that looks like or where they can receive it. For now, we will stay put and keep looking. Hopefully, one day we can live where we want to live, and our son can receive the education he deserves within his own community. “Public schools were not designed with disabled children in mind. The system isn’t broken. It was built this way.” – Aaron Wright, author of “Thirteen Doors“

Amy Nielsen

How a Sibling With Autism Can Change Kids for the Better

Parents of multiple children, with one having a disability, often feel overly burdened with guilt. Am I giving my other children enough of my attention? Will they grow up feeling resentment toward their disabled sibling? Will they eventually need therapy to work through childhood memories of feeling neglected or overlooked? If you are this parent, I get it. I’ve asked myself these same questions. My youngest daughter is 22. She has three siblings: an older sister and two younger brothers. The youngest is 6 years old and has ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and an intellectual disability. Since he was around 18 months old, he has required a significant amount of my time. His sister has always been good with him. But like many young adults, her life mainly revolves around work, school, friends and social media. She’ll play with him when they are in the same room. Or look after him occasionally for my husband and me to go out to dinner. But other than that, he’s the little brother she’s often trying to get away from to do the things she wants to do. And understandably so, I was also once 22! This past weekend, I was set to attend and present, along with someone else from the non-profit I volunteer with in Orlando, Florida at the 23rd annual Family Cafe. The Family Cafe is the largest cross-disability conference in the country. Last year, due to COVID, the conference was held virtually. But this year, with some restrictions in place, they again opened their doors for an in-person event. As the event got closer, I decided to ask my daughter to attend with me. I thought she could help our team out. Still, more than that, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for her to interact with other families of children with disabilities as well as other individuals with disabilities. I wanted her to see that our family is not that out of the ordinary and to experience the true joy of serving others on a larger scale. The exhibit hall was full of booths of either a disability provider or micro-businesses run by persons with disabilities. Then there were break-out sessions of presentations on topics such as How to Plan for Your Child’s Future, Questions and Answers on Early Intervention, How to Have a Crystal Clear IEP, and ours, Diagnosis: What Next? My daughter attended our presentation to assist in passing out session notes. Afterward, a family of a little boy, newly diagnosed with autism, came up to us at our booth to talk more about our presentation, the services we offer, and for some words of encouragement. I was speaking with them when my daughter interrupted and said to them, “I just want to tell you that I have a little brother with autism, and he is the funniest and happiest kid. And, as my mom said, you are going to change as a parent. But you are going to change for the better. I have witnessed my mom evolve as a mother since my brother’s initial diagnosis. And not that she wasn’t a good parent before, but she’s a better one now. To all her kids.” The mother and I both started crying! That testimony from a sibling must have meant the world to her. And it certainly did to me. I’d never heard my daughter say anything like that. The interaction with that family was a turning point that drove her to fully engage in the rest of the conference in ways I never expected. When parents would come up to our booth, she’d initiate conversations. I heard her speak with compassion and empathy and share information I had no idea she even knew. She said, “Mom, I hear you on the phone with parents all the time. I read most of your blogs. I’ve seen my brother working with his therapists for years. I know this stuff!” She also spent a lot of time walking around the exhibit hall engaging with the disabled youth and adults. She spent time with the young girls looking at the pretty bracelets they made, and she bought several. She engaged in a lengthy conversation with a young man who wanted to know detailed information about all our televisions. Then he pointed to her and said, “Do you want to know something cool?” Of course, she said yes. And he replied, “I can read minds! Let me read yours!” He was in a wheelchair, so she walked around and knelt while he voraciously rubbed her head to read her mind. She was smiling ear to ear as he told her, “You are thinking about work!” On our drive home, she talked non-stop about how much she enjoyed the Family Café and primarily interacting with the children and young adults with disabilities. She said how she loved seeing how they live their passions unapologetically! She felt their innocence, vulnerability, and most importantly, noticed that all they want is what we all do, to be accepted as we are and genuine and authentic connections with other people. My daughter’s instant transformation was an honor to witness. I observed a level of compassion and empathy towards others in her that I’d never seen before. She may have told the family we were speaking with that being the parent of a child with a disability changes you as a parent for the better. But this weekend, I saw that it can also change their siblings for the better!

Amy Nielsen

Becoming an Advocate for Your Autistic Child

An advocate can be defined as a person who pleads on behalf of another’s cause. Plead can be defined as making an emotional appeal. Lastly, a cause can be defined as a principle for which a person or group is dedicated to fighting for. So, an advocate is a person who makes emotional appeals on behalf of someone else based on a principle to which that person is dedicated to fighting for. Sounds like a role that should require years of training, right? Sounds like a role one would only accept after realizing the considerable responsibilities it entails, right? Wrong. If you are the parent of a child with autism, you didn’t get a choice. You received no training. You became an advocate from diagnosis day one. This is what it’s like for many of us: You had to learn to flip an emotional switch into fight mode with no advance warning: to fight insurance companies for services, to fight your child’s school system for accommodations, to fight your community for equal access, and the list just goes on. The exhaustion you experience has been compared to the fatigue of a combat soldier. It’s real. You spend extra hours every day caregiving and advocating for your child. At first, navigating this role was intimidating. When you walked into your child’s early IEP meetings, you were alone facing a roomful of people supposed to be on your team, but often it didn’t feel that way. When your insurance company cut your child’s therapy hours without warning, you spent hours on the phone trying to fight for those hours back, but you didn’t know how. Over time you evolved. You become more assertive, even aggressive when necessary. You began to carry the weight of advocacy like a combat soldier in his heavy fatigues and artillery. Carrying that weight helped you build the emotional muscle necessary to be an advocate for your child. You grew the strength to overcome intimidation and uncertainty, paving the way toward conviction and confidence. While advocacy wasn’t a role you sought, it is a role you have embraced. You stop at nothing to advocate for your child today, tomorrow, and until hopefully, one day they can advocate for themselves. And for that, dear friend, I tell you this: wear that advocacy as a badge of honor. You’ve worked hard for it, your child has benefitted from it, and you figured this out all on your own. You should be proud!

Amy Nielsen

How Routine Changes Affect Children With Autism

I recently read a quote, “It’s never the same day twice, but don’t dare change the routine!” If you are the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder, I am sure you can relate! My son is 6 years old and has ADHD and ASD. Routines for daily activities are essential around our home, and when something disrupts one of his daily routines, the fallout can be significant. While we do work to help him adapt to disruptions, we do very selectively, not typically in routines he relies on daily such as morning and especially evening routines. Recently his hairstylist, who fortunately does at-home visits, was here for his monthly haircut. By the time she was done, itchy hair covered his entire body due to all his wiggling. He asked for a shower and I obliged. I was pleased because now he wouldn’t need a shower before bed. I should have known better! Later that evening, my husband had to meet some work colleagues, so the evening routine was all on me. My son and I had dinner and played some games together. Again, I was thrilled, remembering my evening wouldn’t involve having to coerce him into the shower. So we played right up to his bedtime. I set the timer (our tried and true transition tool) and said, “OK, in two minutes, time for pajamas and story!” He instantly countered with, “No, first shower!” I should have adapted, but a shower at this time of the evening would put his bedtime easily off by 45 minutes (it’s a long process.) So I stood with my original demand and said, “No, you already had a shower. Time for bed.” He was so upset by this change in his routine, and it was 100% my fault. I should have scheduled time for his evening shower that he relies on to wind down before sleep. I should have kept his routine consistent rather than making things easier for me because in hindsight, my oversight made it worse for us both. Eventually, I convinced him to skip the shower, we read a story, and he climbed into bed. As I was walking out the door, I turned on his moon nightlight. He said, “No moon nightlight, Mommy. Daddy turns it on.” I completely understood. I turned the moon nightlight off, shut his door, smiled, and thought to myself, “It’s never the same day twice. But don’t dare change the routine!”

Amy Nielsen

Scripting Helps My Son on the Autism Spectrum Communicate Better

It’s 7:30 a.m. I am slowly drifting out of a dream. “Have you seen a boat? A boat, I saw a boat it passed by here not too long ago. Quick, follow me!” The chatter goes on for a while. I open my eyes and chuckle. From the monitor, I hear my son reciting lines from “Finding Nemo.” I smile as I listen a few minutes before crawling out of bed to get him up and ready for the day. My son is 4 years old. He has ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Two years ago he was mostly nonverbal. Sign language was his major form of communication and his play was rigid and non-inclusive. Fast forward to now and I have a completely different child. Years of speech therapy, occupational therapy, ABA therapy and quite honestly a lot of animated movies and shows has helped him build a vast bank of memorized speech that he loves to recite on a loop! While back and forth conversational speech is still a lagging skill for him, verbally he has grown by leaps and bounds. The major bulk of his speech is scripting, which is memorizing and reciting chunks of movies and TV shows. But scripting for my son is more than just memorizing what characters say, he memorizes every movement and facial expression, too. Now his play isn’t isolated, he’ll pull my husband and I into his world. First he is Nemo and Mom is Dory and Dad is Bruce the Shark. He puts us in the spot he wants us to stand, tells us what to say (because even though we’ve always seen the movie 1,000 times we certainly don’t have it memorized) then he switches all the roles. It’s as if he is auditioning us for which character we fit best. A lot of doctors, therapists and parents attempt to break this scripting cycle in hopes of helping children with autism learn to play more creatively, more socially, and to help their verbal skills become more communicative. And while I do hope he improves in those areas, I think those should be addressed outside of his scripting and here are some reasons why: Scripting has helped build his memory. Scripting has helped increase his vocabulary. Scripting has helped him learn to play cooperatively. Scripting has helped him learn to produce speech articulately. Scripting has helped him learn sentence structure and semantics. Scripting gives him chunks of verbal routines to pull from when he doesn’t know what to say. Scripting is something he enjoys! So while I am hopeful one day most of his speech comes from his own ability to creatively string words together, for now I am happy to listen to him script away!

Amy Nielsen

5 Early Interventions You Can Implement for Your Child Now

Do you have a child with a suspected or diagnosed developmental delay or disability and are waiting for therapies or other interventions to begin? If so, there are things you can implement at home immediately to start helping your child. 1. Teach Your Child Sign Language If your child is struggling to communicate, that can be frustrating for you both. Teaching your child simple signs for everyday requests, such as “more” and “help” can minimize that frustration. Rachel Coleman’s Baby Signing Time is an excellent tool for teaching the whole family basic sign language in a lively and engaging format. 2. Provide Your Child Access to Augmented and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC) and Tools AAC devices and tools are other great resources for preverbal or minimally verbal children. An affordable and easy to use AAC module is available on the Otsimo Special Education App in the App Store. Another simple option is to create AAC visuals using symbols from a program such as Boardmaker. These are just two options of the many available to use with your child, to again help minimize the frustration of communication struggles. 3. Introduce Sensory Play Children with disabilities often have sensory needs that can cause a lack of focus, behavior problems, emotional dysregulation, and more if not addressed. They may seek specific sensory input and avoid others. For example, a child may enjoy spinning but avoid swinging. Or they may love to squish Play-Dough but avoid touching gooey slime. Determine which sensory input your child seeks out and provide multiple opportunities throughout the day to experience it. 4. Predictable Routines It may already be difficult for children with disabilities to understand the complexities of the world around them. When their daily routines are unpredictable, it can add to that challenge. Predictable routines are vital in developing a healthy home environment for everyone! Consider creating visual schedules for your child’s morning routine, school or daycare routine, evening routine, etc. Check out Boardmaker for suggestions. 5. Use Your Child’s Strengths and Interests as Reinforcement As much as you want to help your child overcome their challenges, remember it is within their strengths and interests where they will achieve the best results. Any opportunity to encourage them to build their talents and use what they love to do as reinforcement when they attempt or accomplish a goal will quickly tap into their potential!

Amy Nielsen

A Letter to My Child on the Autism Spectrum

Before you were born, I had a pretty good idea of the path you’d follow. At least early on. All the baby books written by Drs. X, Y, and Z, as well as what I intuitively knew about child development, led me to believe that you’d smile before you laughed, coo before you spoke, sit before you stood, and crawl before you’d walk. Most of that was spot on. But then there was that moment—that moment when I saw something that confused me. Something that didn’t align with what other moms were bragging on social media about their same-age kids doing. I saw you begin to struggle to maintain eye contact and joint attention. You lost words you had previously mastered, slowly severing your ability to communicate. You stopped running to me when I called your name. You were gradually slipping into a solitary existence. I initially brushed it off. My child is young. All kids reach developmental milestones at their own pace. It’s nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, an intuitive stab kept me painfully aware. I sought answers that weren’t readily available. I reached for professional support that said I was jumping to unfounded conclusions. Family members negated my concerns. My entire support system told me to ignore my gut instinct. I was wrong. Let it go. I was over-thinking things. At first, I listened. If everyone is giving me the same message, then they must be right. But as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, meltdowns replaced your laughs, aggressions replaced your hugs, and a layer of dust covered your baby book. The daily joys of watching my cuddly toddler explore and learn about the world evaporated. Finally, I said, “Enough is enough!” You deserved more. Eventually, you were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. That helped us help you! We were able to give you the tools you needed to communicate. We learned that the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of life often overwhelmed you. We adjusted your environment so you would thrive. We uncovered every resource possible to bring you the peace and joy every child deserves. I am sorry I didn’t listen to my initial instinct because that cost you time. Time I could have been advocating for you. Time I could have been educating others about your unique needs. Time we could have been helping you understand the often confusing world in which you live. Even though we can’t get that time back, we will continue to do all those things moving forward. We will advocate for you until you are one day able to advocate for yourself. To my child on the autism spectrum, the most important thing I want to tell you is that autism spectrum disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. Like the color of your hair or the shape of your tiny nose, it’s one of the things that make you, well, you! And you are loved just the way you are! “If I could snap my fingers and not be autistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am.” – Temple Grandin

Amy Nielsen

5 Early Interventions You Can Implement for Your Child Now

Do you have a child with a suspected or diagnosed developmental delay or disability and are waiting for therapies or other interventions to begin? If so, there are things you can implement at home immediately to start helping your child. 1. Teach Your Child Sign Language If your child is struggling to communicate, that can be frustrating for you both. Teaching your child simple signs for everyday requests, such as “more” and “help” can minimize that frustration. Rachel Coleman’s Baby Signing Time is an excellent tool for teaching the whole family basic sign language in a lively and engaging format. 2. Provide Your Child Access to Augmented and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC) and Tools AAC devices and tools are other great resources for preverbal or minimally verbal children. An affordable and easy to use AAC module is available on the Otsimo Special Education App in the App Store. Another simple option is to create AAC visuals using symbols from a program such as Boardmaker. These are just two options of the many available to use with your child, to again help minimize the frustration of communication struggles. 3. Introduce Sensory Play Children with disabilities often have sensory needs that can cause a lack of focus, behavior problems, emotional dysregulation, and more if not addressed. They may seek specific sensory input and avoid others. For example, a child may enjoy spinning but avoid swinging. Or they may love to squish Play-Dough but avoid touching gooey slime. Determine which sensory input your child seeks out and provide multiple opportunities throughout the day to experience it. 4. Predictable Routines It may already be difficult for children with disabilities to understand the complexities of the world around them. When their daily routines are unpredictable, it can add to that challenge. Predictable routines are vital in developing a healthy home environment for everyone! Consider creating visual schedules for your child’s morning routine, school or daycare routine, evening routine, etc. Check out Boardmaker for suggestions. 5. Use Your Child’s Strengths and Interests as Reinforcement As much as you want to help your child overcome their challenges, remember it is within their strengths and interests where they will achieve the best results. Any opportunity to encourage them to build their talents and use what they love to do as reinforcement when they attempt or accomplish a goal will quickly tap into their potential!

Amy Nielsen

8 Steps to Take If Your Child Shows Signs of a Developmental Delay

If you suspect your child may have a developmental delay or disability, the time to act is now. Each day that goes by is valuable time you can’t get back. Each day that goes by is a day of intervention or therapy your child isn’t receiving. Each day that goes by, the gap between your child and their optimal level of success widens. It’s a race against time, but it’s a race you don’t have to lose. Our Family’s Experience My youngest son is 5 years old and has a trio of diagnoses. He was typically developing until around 18 months when I noticed a regression in speech. It wasn’t huge. It was literally one word. One morning as his dad was leaving for work, he said, “Bye, Dad.” It was his first time speaking a two-word sentence, and I was so excited. The next day something very different happened. As his dad was leaving for work, he said, “Bye…. Duh.” It was as if that second word was stuck. He was scheduled for a well check with his pediatrician just a few days after, so I told her about it. She wasn’t alarmed, but I insisted that I wanted a speech evaluation. I knew speech in toddlers should progress, not regress. Over the next year, he was diagnosed first with childhood apraxia of speech. A few months later, severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and by year’s end, a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder would tie everything together. Developmental Concerns My first concern with my son was a regression in a previously learned skill, speech. But other things to look for are a delay in meeting developmental milestones. So maybe your child isn’t speaking at all or very little. Another is behaviors that don’t seem typical for a child that age; such as not making eye contact, responding to their name, or repetitive behaviors such as lining up toys or flapping arms. If you see any of these in your child: a regression in a previously learned skill a delay in reaching a developmental milestone an atypical behavior It is time to move, and time to move quickly. The following steps can help serve as a framework in how to proceed to connect your child to the services they may need. Step 1: Monitor Their Milestones To know if your child is meeting their developmental milestones within a normal range, you must know what that range is. There are many online resources available to help. Ages and Stages Questionnaire The Ages and Stages Questionnaire is a screening tool used for children between the ages of 1 month and 5 ½ years and screens your child in five areas: communication skills gross motor skills fine motor skills problem-solving skills personal-social skills Birth to Five Watch Me Thrive Birth to Five Watch Me Thrive is a federal resource to encourage healthy child development, universal developmental and behavioral screening for children, and support for their families and caregivers. CDC Developmental Milestone Checklist The CDC has a developmental milestones checklist and even an app for your phone where you can follow your child’s development called the Milestone Tracker. Step 2: Evaluate Now If you have a developmental concern about your child, what do you do? Immediately contact your child’s pediatrician. Insist on a referral for an evaluation with a specialist in your area of concern. Ask the pediatrician for a referral to a developmental pediatrician. Developmental pediatricians are experts in children’s developmental milestones and can screen children for developmental disabilities such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. It is important to rule these diagnoses in or out so proper therapy and interventions can begin as soon as possible. If your child is under the age of 3, contact your state’s Early Intervention program. If the Early Intervention team believes your child needs any services (such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy or behavior therapy), they will provide them to your child free of charge. If your child is over the age of 3, contact your county’s public school system. Ask for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) evaluation. Children ages 3-5 can receive services in an ESE PreK classroom, and if they are school-age, the school must provide them with any services they need. Inviting an Educational Advocate to attend IEP meetings is a great idea. The advocate will work with the IEP team to ensure the IEP meets your child’s needs. Collaborative Corner for Exceptional Children, a non-profit organization that provides advocacy and other free services to families of children with disabilities, is a great place to begin your search. These evaluations can take time to schedule and then even more time for services to begin, so it is important to act quickly. Step 3: Don’t Wait During the Waiting Period The time between waiting for evaluations and services to begin is a valuable opportunity. This is time you can use to start learning how to help your child. Search for online bloggers, podcasters and support groups who share content in the areas your child may be struggling. Many industry professionals, such as those at Collaborative Corner, offer some services and support online at no charge. The time I spent educating myself before my son started receiving services gave me a good grasp of what to expect, what best practices looked like in those disciplines, and how to offer support in our home. Step 4: Find the Best Resources for the Diagnosis My son’s first speech therapist was great. Then one day, she was gone. The center assigned him to another speech therapist whose method was strapping my then-2-year-old in a high chair and dangling flashcards in front of him. As a result of the research I had done prior, I knew this was not the best practice, and it was time to look for a new speech therapist that used a play-based approach. It will take time and effort to find the best resources and providers, but your child’s success depends on it. Call your insurance company and ask which providers they cover. Call those providers. Make appointments to interview them. Also, non-profit organizations, such as Collaborative Corner, are a great resource to help connect you with the best providers in your area. Step 5: Replace “Never” With “Consider” I’ll never medicate my child. I’ll never place my child in behavior therapy. I often hear parents make comments like these. But, being an advocate for your child means the word “never” doesn’t exist. In its place, use the word “consider.” You must consider every option available for your child to achieve their optimal level of success. My son takes medication for his ADHD symptoms and is in a fulltime 1:1 ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) center for his ASD. Do I wish he didn’t need medication and could be successful in a mainstream school setting? Of course. But the decisions I make are based on his needs in this moment and on the recommendations of the team of professionals we trust, not my wishes. Replacing the word “never” with the word “consider” as you make decisions for your child will set them up for the best outcome possible. Step 6: Identify Strengths and Nurture Them What if all day, every day, you were forced to work on your struggles? The days would be long and discouraging. Autism self-advocate Temple Grandin says for children with developmental disabilities, nurturing their strengths is as important as helping them overcome their challenges. Children with developmental disabilities run a high risk of developing depression and low self-esteem. Nurturing their strengths and interests can help to build pride and a positive self-image. My son is still young, but we already see areas of strength, and we offer consistent praise and opportunities to develop them. Recognize your child’s strengths and passions, and encourage them, encourage them big! Step 7: Educate Your Family Your family can be a great resource. Educate them on your child’s challenges and strengths, so they have realistic expectations for your child. Invite them to doctor and therapy appointments, so they hear firsthand from the professionals how to offer their support. Some parents of children with developmental disabilities attempt to cover up or hide a child’s diagnosis from family due to fear of judgment or denial. I agree some family members may be harder to reach, but keep trying. Your child’s truth is something you never want them to feel ashamed of. Furthermore, once you get your family on board, they’ll hopefully begin to rally around your child as an advocate just like you. Step 8: Never Quit Learning You are your child’s best resource. Their success depends on how hard you advocate for them. You must make it a personal mission to be the first line of defense for your child. You can’t rely on a doctor, therapist, counselor, program, supplement or medication to be the fix. It starts and ends with you — the parent. You need to become an expert in your child’s diagnosis and continually keep yourself updated on the newest in research and support. It is that important.