Category: Parenting

Simple Tips, Tools and Resources to Help Young Students Develop Basic Handwriting Skills

I recently collaborated with Help Me Grow Utah, a great Utah resource, to write a guest post, “3 Simple Ways to Prepare Your Kindergartener for Handwriting Success”

As a follow up to the Help Me Grow Utah post, I wanted to share some very simple tools, products and resources to help your young student develop basic foundational skills for good handwriting!

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links as a convenient way to find products and tools recommended.

 

ENCOURAGE THE USE OF SMALL TOOLS

The use of small tools will require the small muscles of the hand to develop important fine motor skills for handwriting. You already have perfect items in your house right now: toothpicks, beads, string, pipe cleaners, tweezers, tongs, sticks, chalk, Legos, small game pieces, clothespins, paint brushes, etc. Get these out for play time to help develop fundamental fine motor skills!

Smaller is better! Stay away from thick or chunky writing tools for your young students. Buy the regular-sized pencils, crayons and thin markers. (Remember this when buying school supplies also.) In fact, save some money! Broken crayons and short pencils are ideal to encourage a proper pencil grasp.

Add a stylus to screens to encourage better fine motor skill development than just using fingers. 

Below are examples and links to some of the small tools I use to help young students develop handwriting skills!

Crayola Chalk

Chameleon Tails Pipe Cleaners

Chameleon Tails Pipe Cleaners/Chenille Stems 12 Inch x 6mm 100-Piece, Assorted Colors

Games with Small Pieces (Hi Ho Cherry-O)

Boogie Board eWriter

Boogie Board Jot 8.5 LCD eWriter, Blue (J32220001)

Stylus Pen

 

 

ENCOURAGE AN IDEAL PENCIL GRASP


Encourage a tripod pencil grasp. Thumb, pointer and middle finger should pinch the pencil while ring and pinkie fingers are tucked into the palm.

“Let the pencil breathe!” Allow thumb, pointer and middle fingers to form an circle while the finger tips hold the pencil. If fingers or thumb are wrapped against the pencil, it is difficult for fingers to move effortlessly without getting tired.

 

 

ENCOURAGE FORMING LETTERS FROM THE TOP

Reinforce starting each capital and lowercase letter at the top with the exception of lowercase d and e (which start in the middle). Handwriting becomes more automatic when letters have a consistent starting point. Eventually, we want students to be thinking about the thoughts they are writing, not on how to write the letters.

 

I love using handwritingpractice.net to create free worksheets with correct starting points. (I recommend using the print letters with the starting point dots. I don’t recommend using the arrows from this website.)

 

Handwriting Without Tears letter formation charts are what I use to help children remember how to form their letters. (The letter formation from this program encourages more fluid letter strokes over the letter formation arrows in the previous website mentioned.)

 

You can also use Handwriting Without Tears workbooks specifically for your child’s grade level. It’s always convenient to have a workbook for them to follow. I love these products.

Happy handwriting!

 

You can read my full article with tips for handwriting here on Help Me Grow Utah’s blog: 3 Simple Ways to Prepare Your Kindergartener for Handwriting Success

Help Me Grow Utah is a great Utah-based resource to help answer any parenting and child development questions a parent or provider has by providing information and community referrals. You can contact them at no cost by dialing 211 and asking for Help Me Grow.

 

*I am part of the Amazon Associates Program. If you choose to buy any of these products from Amazon, I’d love for you to purchase them through the links on my website to help support the work I do with Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

Toys and Activities to Keep Kids Active and Meet Their Sensory Needs in a Small Home

Have you ever seen an occupational therapy sensory integration room? (You’ll be jealous of my OT job if you have.) It is a fabulous, big gym with swings, balls, trampolines, mats, bolsters, crash pads and looks like a child’s dream room. If you have a child with sensory processing or sensory integration difficulties and have received therapy in one of these rooms, you’ve wished you could take this room home to help regulate your child’s sensory system each day! And if any child with or without sensory difficulties has been in a sensory room, they’ve begged their parents for a room like one of these in their own home (my own children included)!

Some families are fortunate enough to be able to replicate a big sensory room in their own home, but many simply do not have the space. Parks and outdoor play are the best sensory input in good weather, but snow, rain or even extreme heat may keep you and your child with high sensory needs inside for days at a time. Families can create environments in their own small homes to support their child’s sensory processing needs! Be inspired by this family of 5 who lives in a small home (2 1/2 small bedrooms) and has used their small amount of space wisely.

For about the past 2 years on and off, this family and I have worked together to create the appropriate environment with the right equipment and key activities to help their children regulate their sensory systems at home. They wish more than anything that they had a designated sensory room, but for now while space is very limited, they’ve incorporated important pieces throughout their home. They’ve slowly added equipment throughout the last 2 years so the expense wasn’t so big to start. I’ve asked them to share what the most important equipment and activities they use to help their children regulate their sensory systems and stay active. Even if you don’t have a child with a sensory diagnosis, be sure to look at these ideas, because any child can benefit from being active and having fun in their own home! (And any parent’s sanity can benefit from non-screen activities and equipment like this when their children are cooped up inside!)

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links. This family actually bought much of their equipment from Amazon. I’m hoping this post is informative, but also that these links will help families save time and energy if interested in using some of these ideas in their own home.

 

GORILLA GYM

One of the hardest pieces of equipment to replicate at home from a full sensory gym is a swing. Yet, a swing is also one of the most powerful pieces of equipment to help regulate a child’s sensory system and ask any of the kids, it’s also the most fun! The Gorilla Gym is a fantastic way to get a swing into your home without a big price tag, large space or expert installation. The Gorilla Gym has a pull-up bar that can be installed onto a door frame without drilling and comes with attachments that can hang from the bar. The Gorilla Gym Kids Deluxe Package includes a pull-up bar, swing, trapeze bar, rings, rope ladder and rope that attach to the pull-up bar and can be used in an open doorway. The Gorilla Gym Kids Package includes the pull-up bar with a swing, rings and rope ladder. Or there’s the Gorilla Gym’s Children’s Package with the pull-up bar and swing only. I LOVE the Gorilla Gym, so do the kids who live in AND the kids who visit this small home!

 

ROCK CLIMBING WALL

Climbers need a place to climb! Rock walls are perfect for a small home because you already have all the space you need! Dad built this wall fairly easily. He used some extra backer board leftover from a tile remodeling project. Although, he says most people typically use plywood on the walls. He used these Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear’s kids’ rock climbing wall holds with hardware. (Be sure to order child-sized holds for small hands.) The mounting hardware is easily screwed into the wall through the center of each hold. Really, rock climbing walls can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. And there’s no reason you can’t add onto it later and let it continue to grow or shrink as needed.

 

 

MINI TRAMPOLINE  

Big or small trampolines will be great investments for your child’s sensory needs. I love the handle bars on the mini trampolines for stability and more sensory input into the child’s arms as they lean into it while jumping. A trampoline helps give great input in one contained spot in your house. This family bought this Little Tikes mini trampoline from Amazon. I’ve also had good experiences with the Fold n Go mini trampoline. For bigger kids, the Pure Fun mini rebounder trampoline is a good option.

 

 

POP-UP TENT AND TUNNELS

Small, enclosed spaces can create a sense of safety for an overwhelmed child needing to calm down. Pop-up tents and tunnels are great for this purpose. Tunnels are great to crawl, hide and play inside because moving inside a small space gives more proprioceptive (muscle and joint) input and creates a higher demand on the body to move than a wide, open space. If space is a concern, buy tents and tunnels that can be folded up and stored in small spaces, like this package of 2 pop-up tents and 2 pop-up tunnels or this set of one tent and one tunnel.

 

 

KIDOOZIE SUPER SKIPPER

Mom happened to find this toy in a small toy store on the clearance shelf in Wyoming. This was a great find and she says they use it every day at their house. The toy is placed on the ground and when turned on, the sticks spin and the kids jump over it again and again and again. We haven’t seen this exact toy again, but found this similar KidSource Musical Hop Skipper on Amazon.

 

 

AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL PRODUCTS’ GONGE CAROUSEL 

Spinning is intense vestibular (movement) input and is great for children who have a hard time keeping their bodies still. Spinning will meet movement needs quicker than back and forth movement. This family used an old office chair to spin until little baby brother’s arrival and they had to replace their desk and office chair for a crib. Now they use this fun Gonge Carousel! The Gonge Carousel spins easily without a constant push. Its uneven mounting causes spinning with the body weight of even small children. It’s also low enough to the ground that a child can stop quickly by putting their foot down. If you have a small home and a child who loves spinning, you need this!

 

 

POOL NOODLE SWORDS

A couple of years ago, I happened to see these pool noodle swords at a farmers’ market in North Logan, Utah made from PVC pipe, pool noodles and duct tape. They were a great price, so I also bought some larger batons (think ninja warrior equipment) for my own older kids at the same time (and they STILL love them). These pool noodle swords have proven to be perfect for this family to help regulate their sensory systems. The pool noodle is soft enough to not cause injury. The design with pool noodles on both sides seems to keep them from falling apart after almost 2 years of play. Visit Kid’s Armory Facebook page for contact info if you’d like to try these fun pool noodle swords and batons also. (In case Utah is too far away, I found this package of 4 pool noodle swords on Amazon. I’ve not used them, but wanted to give a link to find something similar.)

 

WEIGHTED PILLOWS AND BLANKETS

Weighted pillows and blankets are great way to help children to settle and calm for a midday nap or after a long day of play. My favorite local Utah company, Comfort Weighted Blankets, is where I usually recommend buying weighted blankets. (Not only do I like to support local companies, but I’ve found that buying from local companies can decrease the shipping cost on weighted items.) You can also find other companies or you can make your own. This family loves Minky Couture blankets, also a local Utah company. These aren’t as heavy as weighted blankets, but use a super soft material that is quite heavy. Because this family has so many, they usually pile several minkies on top of their kids for deep pressure, especially when it’s time to calm and settle.

This little guy has a very favorite old throw pillow and loves to chew on the corner of it. Mom decided to make it into a weighted pillow to help him calm at night with deep pressure. She sewed pockets of rice into old fabric, unstitched the side seam of the pillow, put the rice pockets inside and then stitched it back up. It was easy for even a mom who claims she doesn’t sew. He uses it every night and asks for it when he needs to calm down as he sets it on his lap and chews on the corner. You can always add weight into pillows, blankets or stuffed animals on your own with rice, rocks, or plastic pellet stuffing, etc.

 

EASY OR NO-EQUIPMENT-NEEDED ACTIVITIES

DANCE PARTIES : Only music needed to get your dance moves on!

BALLOON TOSS: Blow up a balloon and try to keep it in the air! (Easy activity for kids to do while parents are occupied.)

CLIMB, JUMP, CRASH: Jump from the couch, stairs or beds into blankets, pillows, cushions, bean bags or stuffed animals. You can always buy a crash pad or make a crash pad, but a pile of blankets, pillows and stuffed animals on the floor to crash works well also. Your children will incorporate more intensity on their own if they need it with somersaults, flips, etc. (Bunk beds are the preferred jumping spot in this house.)

WRESTLING: A great way to keep kids and adults active! (P.S. Dads and uncles are wrestling all-stars!)

TWISTER: A classic game that can be fun for all ages!

Please share if you have great equipment and activities you use to meet your children’s sensory needs and keep them active in your home!

 

*Be sure to follow all product safety recommendations. Always supervise your children to help them stay safe with all equipment and activities.

*I am part of the Amazon Associates Program. If you choose to buy any of these products from Amazon, I’d love for you to purchase them through the links on my website to help support the work I do with Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

The Best Ways Any Caregiver Can Support a Picky Eater

Mom is stressed, Dad’s frustrated, Grandma is worried… and a few more recognize that this little one should be eating more or have a wider variety in his diet. So, what can the village who loves this child do to help?

Every child is different and when I treat children with feeding difficulties, each child’s treatment plan looks different also. But, there are a few things that can be put in place with anyone, in any home and for almost every child that can support more individualized strategies used later.

I hear concerns about children with limited diets from parents, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, daycare providers… The strategies recommended here are simple enough they can be implemented by anyone feeding the child. If all caregivers are working together to support the child, the positive outcomes will be seen quicker and with better staying power!

Make mealtimes enjoyable, fun and stress-free!

This point is absolutely the number one strategy! No other strategies will be effective without a pleasant mealtime environment and trusting relationships established between the child and her caregivers.  

Each one of us creates strong emotional memories when we eat. Think of your favorite foods and what that reminds you of… My husband absolutely loves sugared cereal… Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks… Growing up, his dad had a long commute to work, so left early in the morning and came home late at night. As a boy, my husband wanted to see his dad during the day, so he would set his alarm early in the dark morning hours and eat breakfast (sugared cereal) with his dad before he left for his long drive. He’d then go back to bed to sleep a bit longer. My husband has fond memories of those early morning talks with his dad and has associated the food that he was eating with that fondness.

Now think of foods you can’t stand to eat or won’t even touch… My husband hates bananas and doesn’t even like them on the counter in our house. When he was young, he had a babysitter who was determined that he would finish all the food on his plate. He has memories of being force-fed bananas, with it squishing between his teeth as he was fighting it. He’s a grown man and still has definite strong aversions to even the thought of touching bananas.

So what emotions are swirling around your food being served at your house with your children? What’s the stress level with the adults and children? Children pick up on our adult stress level so quickly and profoundly, so it’s important that caregivers come to the table able to enjoy the meal also.

Eat together and enjoy social interactions around nourishing foods. Have fun! Create a mealtime environment that makes your child smile and feel at ease as you’re eating together. This means you may have to relax traditional table etiquette and that’s perfectly fine. Because in the long-term, we would rather have our child be able to independently eat a healthy, balanced, nourishing diet. Table etiquette rules can be implemented more fully at a slower pace after they’ve learned to acquire a taste for a well-balanced diet.

Creating a pleasant environment also means you are avoiding power struggles and stressful pressure on the child during the meal. Absolutely never, ever force feed a child! Don’t make them sit pouting at the table alone until they eat every last bite of food. Don’t require they stop eating a favorite food served with dinner because you feel they have already had too much. Part of enjoying a meal means the child feels a sense of control over their body, hunger cues and what enters their mouth. (If you’d like to learn more about this philosophy of feeding children, called The Division of Responsibility, The Ellyn Satter Institute is a great resource.)

Remember that the swirling smells and tastes of food and emotions at the table will mix together to form strong emotional memories during mealtimes. Caregivers have control over the mixture that will create a lifetime of emotional memories and food preferences.

Offer both preferred and non-preferred foods at meals and snacks. 

First off, I want to emphasize the word offer. The definition of offer is to present or proffer (something) for (someone) to accept or reject as so desired. Yes, in offering food you are presenting it to your child with the option to either accept or reject. That’s ok.

Tell your child that placing the food on the table or on their plate is not a requirement for them to eat it. In fact, don’t even ask your child to eat it, just tell them that this is what you’ve prepared and are offering them for their meal. If asking or requiring them to eat it creates too much stress, we’ve destroyed step number one of creating an enjoyable environment necessary for any other strategies to work.

A caregiver’s responsibility is to choose what foods to buy, prepare and present to nourish your child. Your child’s responsibility is to decide what and how much of that food to eat.

Make a list of safe foods your child will almost always eat. When planning your meals and snacks, be sure that at least one of those foods is always served with the family meal (not separate from the family meal). So, your family meal on the table may include goldfish crackers with spaghetti and salad for dinner or chicken nuggets with scrambled eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast.

Now, make a list of foods your child won’t eat consistently, but you’d like them to incorporate into their diets. Be sure to include at least one of these foods at meals and snacks. I recommend offering foods everyone else is eating at the meal or snack. It’s convenient to offer a small spoonful and if it’s not eaten, it’s a such small amount that it’s not a worry when it’s thrown away.

Remember that caregivers decide what is offered, not the child. The child give some input, but the caregiver has the responsibility to make the ultimate decision. Caregivers will want to choose foods for a balanced meal with starches, proteins, fruits and vegetables. Include at least one food the child feels safe with and will almost always eat. Also include a non-preferred food that you’d like them to eat, even if you’re sure it will be rejected.

Yes, food may go in the garbage because we will allow the child to eat the food or not. That’s ok. Because food has been thrown away is NOT a reason to be a short order cook or hurry and make a second meal. The important recipe here is exposing the food to the child in an enjoyable mealtime environment. Caregivers and children will have another chance in a few hours to perform their jobs again at the next meal or snack and again after that… You can always load up on safe foods and only include one non-preferred food if the child didn’t eat much at the last meal.

Encourage interaction (not necessarily eating) with non-preferred foods. 

So far, we’ve created a pleasant mealtime environment without stress and have offered and introduced non-preferred foods into that safe environment.

For some children, just presenting a non-preferred food at mealtime, such as setting it on the table or serving it on their plate may be where you start with this step. They may not tolerate more than this. If that’s the case, don’t push any farther until they are comfortable with this minimal interaction of seeing it close by. Realize with the food even this close, they will be seeing what it looks like and smelling it, and really are interacting with some of the food’s sensory properties

From this point, you can slowly start to encourage and challenge the child to interact with the sensory properties of the food, while maintaining a safe and enjoyable environment. Look, smell, touch, listen to and finally taste the food. Ideally, interaction with the food should gradually get a little closer to the face and mouth until it is finally eaten.

Remember again that this step is where the child’s responsibility comes in to decide what and how much food they will eat. Every caregiver should absolutely respect the decision of the child. You can continue to encourage while maintaining a trusting relationship.

Support other caregivers without judgemental attitudes, especially the primary caregiver (usually Mom).

Feeding a child with feeding concerns is SOOOOO stressful! It’s hard to hide a caregiver’s stress from the child during mealtimes.

In my feeding therapy and my own mama experience, moms especially seem to carry a heavier load of guilt and worry if their child isn’t eating how they feel like they should. They also seem to hear and receive feedback and opinions from others sensitively, especially when they are already stressed.

Be supportive of the child and all caregivers. Share small successes. “She really liked helping me pass out carrots to the other children.” Or, “He seemed to enjoy making a smiley face out of his apple slices and even tasted it to his lips!”

Avoid pointing blame towards other caregivers. “If you were more strict, he’d eat more.” Or, “Well, he eats that at my house.”

Don’t sabotage mealtimes with treats, like unexpectedly showing up with a box full of donuts to eat just before dinner is being served. Ask the caregiver preparing the meal when an appropriate time would be to give treats and present it towards the end of the meal.

One caregiver can destroy a safe mealtime environment in every setting by force feeding. Never, ever force feed a child!

Seek out professional support sooner than later if these suggestions don’t help. 

Talk with your pediatrician or seek out an experienced pediatric occupational or speech therapist who specializes in feeding therapy. They can help screen for and identify underlying conditions or delays that may be hindering progress with your child’s eating and give more individualized treatment ideas. Don’t wait to seek out more support. Children who receive treatment earlier have better outcomes and often times need less professional support because they’ve avoided further complications. If you’re trying to decide if your child needs more help, this earlier post I’ve written, “When Does Picky Eating Become a Problem?”, may be helpful.

I’d love to be able to help in your northern Utah home with any feeding concerns. Happy eating!

6 Dos & Don’ts After Recognizing Your Child is Struggling & Receives a Special Needs Diagnosis

Your child’s been struggling and you’ve seen the signs, hoping that maybe your fears are wrong. You’re doing everything you can to help him and searching out resources. Maybe you are just recognizing the concerning signs or maybe you have just received an official diagnosis or maybe you’re in the middle of a long search, trying to find answers about why your child is struggling. Your emotions are intense and raw and tears are always close to the surface. The reality of your demands in caring for your child and the emotions that come along with that are overwhelming. Where do you start?

After over 15 years of working with children and adults with a wide variety of disabilities as an occupational therapist and with input from some wise and amazing parents of children with different special needs, I’d like to share 6 dos and don’ts to keep in mind while on your journey of parenting a child with special needs. The child you love is counting on you. You can do this!

1. Do educate yourself from reliable sources.
    Don’t believe that anyone has a crystal ball to predict what your child will do or become.

“Education [has] led to less frustration for me. I learned my daughter was having a hard time, not giving me a hard time. Talking to other parents helped me feel less alone and that I wasn’t crazy,” said one mother of a daughter with Sensory Processing Disorder. She also recommends finding support groups in physical locations or online. 

Another mom of a son with Autism says, “Understanding why [he] has certain difficult behaviors has made all the difference in the world as I try to cope with them. [He] does a kabillion things that drive me BONKERS…, but when I started learning about the reasons why [he] might be acting in these ways and the science behind it, suddenly it was more fascinating to me than it was annoying.”

Education helps you understand how to help and support and accommodate for your child. You will learn what can be expected and what can’t in different areas. You learn how to interact, how to create the best environments, what services, therapies, treatments, products and equipment may help. Parents who are always seeking out education will find the newest research and innovations on their child’s condition.

Seek out reliable sources and recognize not all resources are trustworthy. Ask doctors, therapists, teachers, and other special needs parents who are familiar with your child’s concerns about good resources. Internet searches will help you find many, but be ready to sift through them to find good and dependable sources and be emotionally prepared to deal with the worst-case scenarios you will find. One mom was given a diagnosis while her micropremie baby (born weighing less than 1 pound, 12 ounces or before 26 weeks gestation) was in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). “The doctor had given me lots of information, which I only remembered part of what he was saying [because my] emotions started kicking in. So I googled it… BAD idea… which made my anxiety even worse. Google is great, but it’s always [the] worst-case scenarios.”

Parents always want to know what to expect in the future. Doctors, professionals, experts and other resources want to give realistic expectations. But, no one has a crystal ball for what to expect for your child. Use your child’s prognosis as a guide, not a determination of a final outcome. Sometimes a child has better outcomes than expected and sometimes there are more complications than expected. Take it day by day and do your best with what you’ve learned.

2. Do create, maintain, strengthen and use your support system of family and friends.
    Don’t feel guilty for taking time to care for yourself and other members of your family.

A mother, whose child has received multiple diagnoses over several years, has had to repeatedly rely on her personal support system. After his most recent Autism diagnosis, she said, “I had every emotion you could think [of]. That’s when I really had to rely on family and of course, [my partner] the most! Having that support so you’re not in it alone makes a world of difference!!!”

Parents of children with special needs must learn to accept and ask for help from family and friends. Keep your personal relationships strong. Take care of yourself. Take care of your families. Remember that a loving and healthy home, family and caregivers are most important for your child. Never feel guilty for prioritizing that over offering every opportunity, service or experience available for your child with special needs. Find the right balance for your family.

“I can’t try every new therapy and every new medication I read about. I can’t be twenty-two places at the same time. I can’t neglect myself and those I love to care for my son. [He] is not the only member of this family, and I have to remind myself often that we cannot let everything revolve around him all the time,” says the mom of a child with Autism.

3. Do find and create a team of professionals, specialists and experts in the area of your child’s concern.
    Don’t exclude yourself from the team of experts.

Search out a team that you feel comfortable with and will listen to you. It’s OK to find a different doctor, therapist, school, etc. that you feel works well with you and your child. But remember, perfection is very hard to find, so settle for a good fit. You most likely will need professionals in the medical community, at school, and in the community. Advocate for your child by making allies, not enemies. Find ways to work together with your team, not fighting against them.

Write down your questions and concerns. Bring them to appointments and meetings. Ask questions and seek out information and resources from your team. Write down notes or ask for handouts and copies because you’ll need to remember and refer to that information again. Follow through on important recommendations from your team.

Remember that YOU are THE expert on your child. Don’t forget the importance of your input! No one knows your child like you do. During her first meeting with her son’s school, one mom realized, “Maybe I did know a thing or two that these experts didn’t. After all, they didn’t know that [he] needs help blocking out environmental stimulation before he can focus on a task, or that he will never, ever respond to a loud voice. They didn’t know that music is always the best way to calm him or that he will move heaven and earth for Nacho Cheese Doritos.”

Realize that you will be unofficially appointed as team manager and communications specialist between all team members. Take this job seriously. Learn to gather, organize and share important information from the doctors, to the therapists, to your child’s teachers and anyone else.

4. Do create a realistic perspective of your child’s abilities.
    Don’t let your child’s struggles or diagnosis become their identity.

Children with special needs will be different from their peers. After educating yourself and consulting with your team of experts, begin to create realistic expectations for your child. Her condition may always create significant differences from others for the rest of her life. An insightful mother realized that she needed to be mindful of the way she talked to her daughter about her struggles. “I knew that how I framed [her difficulties] would be how she would frame it. She wasn’t bad or broken, her brain just had a different operating system, like computers. How I spoke to her about it would become her inner voice.”

Your child’s condition or diagnosis will absolutely define who they become, but don’t let that be the only defining aspect of their identity. I’ve met nonverbal children who are wheelchair-bound that can brighten the entire mood in a roomful of people with one smile. I’ve met children who haven’t learned to make friends with their classmates, but can explain in detail about differences in a large range of dinosaur species. A little friend in my neighborhood struggles to sit still and listen to teachers, but she has no reservations in calling any person her friend and holding their hand as they walk together.

One mom tells, “[My daughter] still occasionally says, ‘I hate all my issues!’ but I often remind her that although she has a few struggles, she’s so much more than that. She’ll eventually learn coping skills to deal with her [condition], but she’s already mastered things that are really important in life like kindness, hard work, enthusiasm for learning, and compassion.”

5. Do expect your child to achieve.
    Don’t forget to celebrate even the smallest of achievements!

“Learning does not come as easily for [my son], and my tendency is to swoop in and make things easier for him, but the only way [he] is ever going to master a skill is if I don’t keep doing it for him. I firmly believe that EVERY child is capable of learning and growth, but we’ve got to stop making excuses for them. Have realistic expectations, but make sure you have expectations,” says one mom. Yes! Progress is possible with hard work. Give your child the opportunity to work hard with the right expectations and support. Your team can help you and your child prioritize and set realistic goals to strive for.

Celebrate even the smallest of achievements! “We celebrate taking one tiny bite of meat or the fact that he’ll not lose his mind over something on his hands… We celebrate all the small things that are an everyday normal to some.” Involve those who know your child well in those celebrations. Not everyone will recognize what big achievements these small steps really are, so share them with your support systems and your child’s team.

6. Do live in the moment.
    Don’t forget to laugh!

A wise mother of a daughter with Cerebral Palsy says, “Live in the moment—good or bad—and [don’t] let the future dominate your thoughts. Obviously, make necessary plans, etc., but don’t let worry about future hurdles or joy about imagined future success take up much of your time. It has taken me several years, but I have learned that by living in each moment of each day, I can enjoy the surprising pleasures of this crazy adventure without borrowing trouble from my future self.”

Another mom who often shares funny stories of her son with Autism says, “Humor has saved my life. Laughter changes everything when you find yourself in a high-stress environment, and it has been my saving grace. Cultivate the ability to find humor in the unexpected, and your life will be so much easier!” (I’ve shared many thoughts from this mom, who recently wrote a similar article about receiving her son’s diagnosis of Autism on my blog here.)

Yes, this journey of parenting a special needs child will be exhausting, overwhelming and full of sadness and tears. But, make plenty of room for joy and laughter and fulfillment with your child! Again, I remind you… The child you love is counting on you! You can do this!

Autism: Now What? Six Things I Wish I had Known When My Son was First Diagnosed with Autism

By Katie Wahlquist

“Probability of Autism Spectrum Disorder: extremely likely. Level: very severe.” Those were the words that jumped off the paper when I was handed the testing results of my then-two-year-old son Adam’s visit with the pediatric psychologist. Was I surprised? Not even a little bit. Adam was born almost three months early, so we were always operating on a different time schedule when it came to developmental milestones, but when his second birthday came and went without so much as an attempt at speech, not to mention his lack of eye contact, unusual behaviors that could not be written off as “the terrible twos,” and his extreme obsessive tendencies, it was pretty clear that we were dealing with something more than a developmental delay. So was I surprised? Of course not. But was I ready for that diagnosis? Of course not!

I didn’t realize it then, but that was my first in what was soon to be many lessons on parenting a special needs child: my life was now all about contrasts. Like Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times,” that reality was now my everyday life! It’s frustration and joy and fatigue and elation and heartache and love and annoyance and humility and despair and hope and guilt…all at the same time and all before 10:00 in the morning!

Adam’s twelve years old now, and this journey just keeps throwing new curve balls my way. Adam still hasn’t spoken a single word, he’s still not potty-trained, and his behaviors are overwhelming to deal with on a good day, but I have learned a few basic principles over the past ten years that have helped me to stay positive and move forward with joy. Please note that in no way do I consider myself to be a superior parent to any other parent. I cringe when people say things to me like, “Oh, you must be such a special person to have been blessed with such a special child.” I know that these comments are almost always given with love, but I don’t think there’s some special place in heaven reserved only for special needs parents. These truths apply to ALL parents, whether you have a special needs child in your life or not. Also, I want to stress that I am not a professional therapist or medical practitioner; I’m just a mom with a pretty amazing kid.
Which brings me to my first point…

1. You are the expert. Period. Now, don’t get me wrong: raising and caring for Adam is a team effort. We love the teachers, doctors, and therapists we work with. They have become part of our family, and I believe very strongly that becoming allies instead of enemies with the people who are treating and caring for your child is CRUCIAL to your child’s success. Adam’s teachers and therapists love him, and I know that their goals and my goals for Adam are the same, but at the end of the day, no one knows your child like you do. No one. And don’t doubt it. I remember walking into my first IEP meeting (to create a specialized education plan for his school), being surrounded by people who (I thought) knew everything there was to know about Autism (spoiler alert: no one does). I listened to their ideas and suggestions in awe, watched as they started writing down goals and the methods they would use to achieve them. I remember thinking that I really didn’t need to be there, it was just a formality. And then, one of those wonderful teachers looked right at me and said, “What do you think would work, Mom?” They wanted my opinion? Wow! All of a sudden, I realized that I had the power (and responsibility) to shape what Adam’s education was going to look like, and maybe I did know a thing or two that these experts didn’t. After all, they didn’t know that Adam needs help blocking out environmental stimulation before he can focus on a task, or that he will never, ever respond to a loud voice. They didn’t know that music is always the best way to calm him or that he will move heaven and earth for Nacho Cheese Doritos.

(By the way, this same principle applies to other areas of your child’s care as well. I could tell you a really sad story about how Adam broke his jaw last year because he was obsessively grinding his teeth together and we didn’t know about it for two weeks because I didn’t trust my gut feeling that something was wrong with his mouth, more than I trusted the multiple doctors who could not find anything wrong with Adam during those two weeks. I could tell you that story, but I won’t. *cough cough*)

So listen to your team of experts; love them, show your appreciation to them, be open to their suggestions, come up with a plan together. But understand that YOU get to have the final say when it comes to your child.

2. Educate yourself like crazy! Now that we’ve established that parents are the experts, go out of your way to become one. Understanding why Adam has certain difficult behaviors has made all the difference in the world as I try to cope with them. Adam does a kabillion things that drive me BONKERS (like smelling every person we meet, crawling into the tiniest spaces and refusing to come out, licking the walls of every single room in our house, freaking out when he sees people wearing socks, etc.), but when I started learning about the reasons why Adam might be acting in these ways and the science behind it, suddenly it was more fascinating to me than it was annoying. I’m also better able to make informed decisions when I understand what’s happening, especially if I combine my knowledge with my gut-feelings (see point number one). Do I screw up those decisions? Oh yeah, all the time. It’s going to happen, and happen a lot, but when I’m putting in the work and trying my best, I have much less guilt when it does.

A NOTE ABOUT EDUCATING YOURSELF: This may come as a shock to you, but not everything you read or hear is true. Misinformation is rampant in the special needs world, so make sure that you are looking to trusted resources and professionals and not letting yourself get caught up in promises, claims, or therapies that will accomplish nothing but feed you a lot of false hope. Do your homework and know what is legit and what is not.

3. Chill out. Guess what, super mom? You’re not “Supermom” (See what I did there?). Let’s just get over that right now. Being a parent is hard work, and when you throw in the stress of caring for a child with a disability, it’s downright overwhelming. You absolutely cannot do it all, and that’s OK. In my perfect world, I would sit in my spotless house on the freshly vacuumed carpet with Adam and spend 4 hours every day working on communication skills on his iPad. We would build an impressive core vocabulary, all while dinner (gluten-free, of course) cooked on the stove. In reality, I spend those four hours picking up the trail of Cheerios Adam leaves all over the house, while trying to figure out what I can get him to eat before giving up and handing him a bag of Cheetos. And that’s OK. I can’t try every new therapy and every new medication I read about. I can’t be twenty-two places at the same time. I can’t neglect myself and those I love to care for my son. Adam is not the only member of this family, and I have to remind myself often that we cannot let everything revolve around him all the time. That might mean that I’m not going to enroll him in the amazing charter school in the next county, because I have a daughter who needs her mom to be available to take her to piano lessons or discuss the drama of high school relationships, and I can’t do that if I’m in the car for two hours with Adam every day. That might mean that I need to accept the offers of help from family and friends and not feel bad when I tell the PTA President that I can’t be in charge of the Book Fair. Focus on the big picture, do what you can, ask for help, and let go of the guilt!

4. Flip your perspective. I think I’m a naturally selfish person, because most of the time, I tend to view Adam’s Autism in terms of how it affects me (how I have to adjust my schedule, how he dictates what I am able to do, how I have to adapt just about everything in my life for him) but I’ve really tried to consciously consider how it affects him. How terribly frustrating it must be to not have the ability to express your thoughts, to have little control over your day-to-day activities, and to be completely overwhelmed by and unable to process the sights, sounds, and emotions in your life. It breaks my heart for him! BUT, despite all of that, I can think of no one who is more full of life, love, and joy than Adam! Adam’s not stressed out by the projects on his to-do list, he’s focusing on how the wind feels when it blows through his hair. He doesn’t care if he has the latest iPhone, he’s just as happy with a couple of helium filled balloons. The world is new and different every day for me when I try to see it through Adam’s eyes; it’s brighter, more complex, and nothing is ever mundane or ordinary, and that perspective is one to be envied and celebrated! There are times when it feels like I’m viewing the world while standing on my head: everything is upside down, it’s dizzying and confusing, and I feel like I might throw up, but oh, how beautiful the world can be when I see things in a different way!

5. Expect your child to achieve. I get it. You have this fragile little person and you just want to take care of him and do everything for him because you love him so much, right? Wrong! I found myself in this trap early in Adam’s diagnosis (and still find myself in sometimes now), but luckily for me, I came across a remarkable special needs mom who taught me that even though you feel like you should do more for your special needs child, you actually need to do less. Learning does not come as easily for Adam, and my tendency is to swoop in and make things easier for him, but the only way Adam is ever going to master a skill is if I don’t keep doing it for him. Crazy, right? Do I want Adam to learn to buckle his own seat belt? Get himself dressed? Write his name? Then I better back off and let him do it. I can’t even count the times that Adam has surprised me by whipping out some skill that I was sure he couldn’t do without my help. With Adam, there has always been a gap between what he could do, and what he would do (I laugh every time I hear an adaptive physical education teacher tell me that Adam can’t throw a ball; he sure doesn’t have any trouble throwing other items like shoes, shampoo bottles, or bagels), but when someone comes in and actually expects Adam to achieve, he almost always rises to the occasion. I firmly believe that EVERY child is capable of learning and growth, but we’ve got to stop making excuses for them. Have realistic expectations, but make sure you have expectations.

6. Laugh. All of the time. I saved this one for last because I think it’s the most important. Humor has saved my life. Autism is hard, but Autism is funny! When my next door neighbor calls to tell me that she just found Adam lying in her bed, I have to laugh (and also apologize and install a high-tech security system). When I watch Adam eat a piece of licorice like it is an ear of corn, or pick up the piles of random household objects that he very artistically arranges on my kitchen floor, what else can I do? I laugh! When the principal calls me to say that Adam is lying in the sun and won’t come in from recess, I wish her luck and I laugh! When Adam’s teachers send me pictures of him wearing hairnets over his face, or I notice that Adam has unscrewed all of the lightbulbs from the living room lamps and laid them neatly by the fireplace, I laugh! When I discover bags of Cheerios stashed in our heating vents, or watch him calmly remove ice cubes from the freezer and put them inside my pillowcase, I laugh! When he wears snow boots to school every single day of the year, puts on a life jacket and lies down on the front lawn, removes all of the canned food labels in the pantry, what do you think I do? I could go on, but I think you see my point. Laughter changes everything when you find yourself in a high-stress environment, and it has been my saving grace. Cultivate the ability to find humor in the unexpected, and your life will be so much easier!

Autism: Now What?There are so many other lessons I’ve learned from this boy, and I’m sure I will continue to learn from him for the rest of my life. I will never sugarcoat it and tell you that it’s easy; I am overwhelmed every single day. I often think to myself, “I want off of this crazy roller coaster!” If I could take Autism away from Adam, I would do it in a second! But would I ever want to change who I’ve become because of Adam? No way! How else could I have learned what it means to love unconditionally so effectively? How else could I have taught that to my daughter? How else could I have seen my husband’s quiet strength so clearly? How else could I have learned to rely so heavily on my faith? How could I not be grateful for the tremendous growth and love that have come into my life because of Adam? So please, never feel sorry for me because of the demands of taking care of Adam; I think when it comes right down to it, I’m going to be just fine.

But I swear, if I have to clean up any more chocolate lick marks on my wall…

 

Katie Wahlquist is a wife, a mom and a lover of homemade cinnamon rolls. She lives with her husband and two children in Utah.