Helping a child with autism build peer relationships and friendships has always been the one area I struggle with. I have researched so much on which do you gain the quickest development for your child with autism in the early intervention years? It’s like the saying, “putting the cart before the horse.” Do you do more hours around their peers at school? Or more one on one intensity therapy? And what I have learned is it depends on the child.
Typical children learn from imitation of what peers, teachers and parents do. So you quickly think that you need to expose them more to school and their peers early on. What we learned quickly while attending IOP (Intensity Outpatient Program) is Cody needed the one on one ABA therapy 36-40 hours per week first. He has developed leaps and bounds with more one on one therapies and we now have added in 12 hours of Communications Class.
We do our best to engage him more socially through play dates, parties and going to the park. I often question myself, is he losing the peer connection and learning to engage, and interact with children his own age? Then you remember, all the gains and progress he has learned in ABA has given him the tools to be able to engage with his peers and start creating these friendships.
We were blessed to have found a school that offers a Communications Class and provides excellent teachers. They look at the entire picture. Of course the goals that we have set forth for Cody but also the engagement with their peers. Understanding the complex natures of individuals with autism is difficult even for the most trained professionals. So, imagine how hard it is for a child? Children with autism (depending on severity) have difficulty communicating with others; therefore, they may have very few friends and shy away from the simplest conversation or interaction. Cody typically will play among children but as soon as someone interacts with him, he shrugs his shoulders inward and looks at them with a scared face. Then he follows with a long hummmming sound and then he will turn away not knowing how to handle the situation up until last week that is. For the first time EVER, our son engaged with a friend at his school. I cannot express the tears of joy and I will deny the truth if you ask me how many times I have watched this video. You see, the small victories we celebrate may be different than typical milestones but in my eyes they are huge. And on the flip side, there are so many milestones that Cody has far surpasses his peers but nothing beats seeing him play chase with his friend at school for the first time. This will stay near and dear to me forever.
This journey is so different for so many. The amount of stress it adds to parents knowing they are their child’s best advocate and all therapy decisions weigh on them. Learning, researching, doctors and networking has helped Brad and I make a lot of tough decisions of what we feel is best for his therapy blend. Every parent I have met has a custom fit therapy blend for their child and honestly none are exactly alike.
Our blend looks like this:
- 12 hours of Communications Class with his peers per week
- 2 speech therapy sessions per week
- 1 equine therapy session per week
- 36-40 hours of ABA per week
It is so important for all parents (autism or not) to continue to educate and help others better understand autism. Let them know the child with autism may avoid contact with classmates, and in turn, classmates may not make an effort to build a relationship or friendship because they do not understand his/her “stand-offish” behaviors. Even some teachers in regular classrooms may not be familiar with or may not understand the needs of the child with autism. Mainstreaming these children into regular education requires teachers to educate themselves about the autism spectrum—as well as the needs for that particular child in his/her classroom—in addition to helping the child’s classmates understand the disorder. Teaching classmates about this condition helps them relate to someone who does not quite know how to relate to them.
I say it all the time and will continue until I am blue in the face. I had NO idea and ashamed to not have had a better understanding of special needs in general before Cody was born. I would turn the other way to not make eye contact because growing up that is what we were told to do with special needs children in school. We did not have a Circle of Friends Programs or volunteer opportunities like New Hope Equine Therapy or Awareness walks available. I now embrace and try to get to know a person with special needs anytime I can. Your helping them build peer relationships and I have personally have learned more about myself and how to truly love and have compassion for others by doing so.
The other day, I was in the parking lot at the baseball fields and I watched a kid and his Mom heading back to their car. He had his bat in one hand with the biggest smile you had ever seen and you could feel his happiness. I asked Cameron about it and he shared with me that on Fridays they invite the special education classes at Marcus to play ball with the players. He also mentioned he had told coach about his brother several weeks back and he mentioned Cody before a pre-practice talk in the dugout recently. He was sharing with team the influence and impact each of them have on these kids. He explained that most parents do not have time to participate in extracurricular activities because of their insane therapy schedules. It also makes me happy that Cam has people outside of family that he can talk about Cody with.
THIS is what it’s all about. Inclusion and Acceptance.
In closing, I wanted to share a quick recap of an amazing party a friend hosted Friday night. They gave us a safe environment to work on these social skills and peer connections. Enjoy!