As a speech-language pathologist, you’ll encounter many opportunities to work with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some families you work with as a speech-language pathologist may be new to their child’s autism spectrum diagnosis, and some may have already had a chance to process it.
Either way, these tools can help you navigate the diversity of experiences, abilities and personalities among individuals and families dealing with a diagnosis of autism:
1. Trust your gut! And encourage parents to trust theirs as well. When asked to look back on their early days of parenting their child on the spectrum, most parents remember an event or a behavior they felt was not quite neurotypical development. As professionals, we likely maintain our own set of red flags—some clinically defined and some not so clinically defined. Trust your instincts and engage families in open conversations about what you notice. Encourage families to share their thoughts. Value what parents choose to share—they are the expert on their child’s behaviors.
2. Talk to the family. Going through the diagnostic process is challenging for families. Parents learn to cope with a new reality of what autism means for their family. For some families, a diagnosis simply means adding structure to routines, while other families may feel anxious about how to handle this situation. Each family adapts in its own way. Our job includes educating and supporting the entire family. Start by asking questions such as:
- What are your goals for your child?
- What worries you?
- What do you see as your child’s strengths?
- What challenges you during the day—getting dressed, following directions, mealtime?
- How can I help you incorporate speech-language strategies into your daily routine?
- What works with these strategies? What doesn’t work?
3. Set honest, fair expectations. When parents reveal their deepest fears, it’s almost reflexive to provide comfort. “Johnny will be talking in no time, just wait and see!” And wait. And wait. Try to avoid building false hope. Before you talk with families, plan and practice how you’ll explain their child’s present abilities and what achievable goals you’re setting. Celebrate every small victory. Reflect on the progress: “Do you remember when we worked on waving? Now, Johnny greets me every time he comes to a session. I continue to be amazed by how hard he works!”
4. Coach them through the process. As a former college athlete, I experienced my fair share of coaches. Some good—some not. What do good coaches and clinicians have in common? The ability to motivate others to work hard—especially toward more challenging goals. Raising a child with autism is hugely rewarding, but intense. Focus on building a relationship with your clients and their families. Praise everyone’s efforts. Monitor what works. If one approach doesn’t yield results after time, demonstrate flexibility by making adjustments. Kids work hard for those who believe in them—and so will their families.
5. Help families prepare their children for life – not just for attaining 90-percent accuracy on a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goal. Worksheets alone won’t prepare our clients to interact in the real world. Talk with families about creating a set of expectations for where their child is heading in life. The earlier these conversations start, the better—definitely loooong before a high school transition meeting. Once you set broad goals, break them down into achievable steps. Support clients across settings to facilitate generalization of their skills.
Working with people on the autism spectrum offers myriad rewards. These clients and families provide a fresh perspective on the world and remind us how human connection and communication require complex building blocks.
Mallory Griffith, MA, CCC-SLP, works in private practice, focused primarily on supporting social communication skills in people with autism. She also founded The Pendley Project, a nonprofit supporting social skill development through everyday activities, like cooking classes. Griffith recently co-wrote a book with Rachel Bédard: “Raising a Child on the Autism Spectrum: Insights From Parents to Parents.” Contact her at www.mallorygriffithslp.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachel Bédard is a licensed psychologist working in Fort Collins, Colorado. Bédard uses humor and individual strengths to promote growth in her clients living on the autism spectrum. www.DrRachelBedard.com