Parenting Therapy

4 Autism Therapy Techniques for Parents

Through the journey of parenthood, there is a general expectation for your child to be a reflection of your dreams and aspirations. As parents, you might envision moments that involve your child making friends at school, participating in play dates, teaching your child how to ride a bike, reading bedtime stories together, and a toddler yelling ‘no’ because you gave him a green sippy cup instead of a red one.

You might picture your child running towards you while screaming, ‘Mommy!’ after he hurt himself. However, these instances seldom turn into reality when your child is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Instead of simple “yes” or “no” responses, you may encounter communication challenges and sensory sensitivities. Rather than spontaneous hugs and cries of “Mommy”, you may witness your child’s unique ways of expressing themselves.

Therapy Technique for Autism

Typical problems that parents face include the child’s irregular sleep patterns, hyperactive or disruptive behaviour, lack of communication skills, restricted eating habits, and inability to achieve independent elimination habits. Concerns about keeping the child safe further increase stress. Significant tasks for the family during this stage involve accepting the diagnosis, obtaining community services, and integrating complex treatment interventions.

Families can rely on reframing and directing their energy toward positive actions such as coping techniques. Directing energy toward treatment or participating in research to enhance understanding of the disorder. After the diagnostic evaluation, clinicians can help the families by providing education about the disorder.

Read More: Parenting with Neurodiversity: Nurturing Diverse Minds 

Often parents have to develop a unique program for their child based on a combination of public and private resources encompassing behavioural interventions, such as applied behavioural analysis (ABA) or Floor Time therapy, speech and occupational therapy, and social skills training. 

1. Play Therapy: 

Play therapy is a commonly used therapy by occupational therapists to involve children and develop emotional well-being, functional development, and typical growth. Play therapy for children with autism is all about letting them play in a way that they enjoy. 

The kinds of plays include: 

  1. Creative visualization, 
  2. Storytelling
  3. Role-playing like dress-up and kitchen-play, 
  4. Blocks and construction toys, 
  5. Dance and creative movement, 
  6. Musical play. 

Sensory plays include: 

  1. Swinging, 
  2. Sliding, 
  3. Mud play, 
  4. Water and Sand play, 
  5. Finger Painting or footprint painting.

In play therapy, the parent and the child build a strong bond by playing together. Since it’s hard for children with autism to express themselves verbally, play therapy gives them a different way to express their emotions and thoughts. They can use toys or activities to show how they feel. Plus, since they struggle with social skills, play therapy helps them practice interacting and having fun with their parents. 

Floortime Techniques are a type of play therapy where the parent gets down on the floor with the child to play and interact with the child at their level. The caregiver joins in the child’s activities and follows the child’s lead. The caregiver then engages the child in complex interactions.

An example of incorporating Floortime principles into daily life could involve a child’s interest in animals. If a child shows a fascination with dogs, the parent might start by imitating the child’s actions with a toy dog. As the interaction progresses, the parent could introduce other animal toys or pictures, encouraging the child to engage in imaginative play scenarios involving different animals. As the child’s interest grows, the parent could further expand the activity by reading books about animals together, watching educational videos, or even visiting a local petting zoo to explore real-life interactions with animals.

Why Play Therapy? 

Children with autism find it hard to understand social cues, like facial expressions or body language. This makes it tough for them to share experiences with others, understand the feelings and thoughts of others, respond to others and/or take turns. Their play is often repetitive, like lining up toys or using the same toys all the time. When parents try to change their play, they might get upset and have tantrums. 

Kids with autism also struggle to learn new play skills by observation or communication. Overall, autism can make it tough for children to interact and play with others like most kids do. They need extra support to understand social cues and learn new play skills.

According to Dr. Reema Bansal, Assistant Professor (Psychology), “Children find it difficult to articulate and/or verbalize complicated feelings. Play therapy helps them precisely in that sphere – by helping them understand, express and vent their emotions. Since Autism spectrum disorder hampers social engagement and communication, play therapy will undeniably assist those affected by facilitating the description and management of not just their emotions, but, even thoughts. It also elevates the self-esteem, self-awareness and confidence of those to whom it is administered. When combined with art therapy, it is all the more beneficial for purposes like forging connections and self-exploration.”

Read More: Understanding Play Therapy Through the Lens of “Taare Zameen par”

Through play therapy, children learn what’s okay and what’s not while having the freedom to choose what they want to play with and how they want to play. Unwanted behaviours such as aggression, self-harming tendencies, property destruction and tantrums are replaced with non-injurious expressive behaviour using toys and/or activities. 

2. Applied Behavioral Analysis: 

When implementing ABA therapy you take one behaviour or one skill you wish to see changed or learned in the child, and that is your focus for your therapy. It usually involves breaking down the desired behaviour into simple steps for the child to understand and execute with ease. The basic concept of it is to choose a skill or behaviour that you want your child to learn, for example, brushing teeth. 

Read more: TEACCH: Embracing Neurodiversity, Cultivating Independence

You break down the action of brushing the teeth into simpler steps such as finding your toothbrush, picking the toothbrush and squeezing toothpaste onto it. Initially, you would have to prompt the child by holding their hand and guiding their actions, however eventually once the child has understood it, you can ask them to do it themselves. When they successfully find the toothbrush for example, which is the first step, you praise or reward them to encourage such behaviours.

If the child is unable to complete the first step it is always a good idea to repeat the training so you are sure that your child is clearly understanding the words you use to the action you are requesting. Once the child completes the first step, you can teach the second step which in this example is to pick up the toothbrush.

A step-by-step example for ease of understanding:

Step 1: Show your child the toothbrush and toothpaste: Guide their hand to pick up the toothbrush and squeeze toothpaste onto it. Once they understand, ask them to do it themselves. Praise and reward them for successfully executing the action.

Step 2: Brush your teeth: Show your child how to brush their teeth in circular motions. Guide their hand to help them brush each tooth. Encourage them to try it on their own, offering support as needed. Praise and reward them.

Step 3: Spit out the toothpaste and rinse: Demonstrate how to spit out the toothpaste and rinse their mouth with water. Assist them as needed to ensure they understand and can do it independently. Provide praise and a reward for completing the task correctly.

Visual aids such as charts or videos also work to make the child understand the step-by-step procedure of brushing their teeth. With practice and positive reinforcement, your child can learn to brush their teeth independently.

3. Speech Therapy: 

Children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) frequently experience difficulties with communication, including challenges in understanding and interpreting language. Speech therapy aims to enhance various aspects of communication which includes learning to functionally use words that he/she learns, express him/herself with spoken language or gestures, and learn when and how to communicate in a socially acceptable or appropriate way. 

  • Visuals such as flashcards/pictures to explain simple action verbs like standing, sitting, sleeping, eating etc. can be followed by picture matching, imitations and situation associations and rewards. Picture matching helps the child to understand the purpose as well as the similarities and differences in the attributes of objects. 
  • Through modelling, children learn to imitate and begin using sounds and words. When providing a model, make sure to bring the object close to your mouth. This ensures that the child is making an association between the item and the name of the item.
  • Your child’s oral and written language can be built with the help of wordless books. They stimulate imagination and creativity as the pictures flow. The child has control over the story which boosts his self-esteem
  • It is important to give short, clear and simple commands like sit down, get up, come here, let’s go etc. Demonstrate to the child by first saying the command and then actually following it yourself. Encourage the child to imitate and follow the command along with you.
  • To develop the speech of the child, you will have to first encourage the child to vocalize maximally. By demonstrating the movement of the tongue and the lip placement for producing various sounds, the child will learn the correct manner of producing a particular syllable. 
  • Practice making funny faces and sounds with your child since facial muscle activities are important for children with weakened oral motor skills. 

According to Assistant Professor, Dr. Shraddha Tripathi, before any technique like CBT or speech therapy, parents must understand the requirements of therapy. The difference between therapy and proper treatment is crucial. Everything, including CBT and speech therapy, comes after psychoeducation because nowadays, parents are not aware of it. The therapy portion is up to the therapist, but the parents will decide if they’re ready to pursue any therapy or visit the clinician. It is a significant experience for them to realize that their child is suffering from autism. The first important step, according to Dr Tripathi, is psychoeducation from the clinician. Taking proper treatment follows.

4. Social Skills Training:

Social skills training teaches individuals with autism how to maintain a conversation, express emotions, ask for help, make requests, maintain eye contact, and understand others’ thoughts and feelings among other things.

  • Engage in play-acting scenarios where you demonstrate activities, allowing the child to imitate you. For example, encourage turn-taking by saying phrases like “Your turn” or “My turn” while demonstrating the actions physically. When it’s your turn, you can pick up a card and make a playful gesture indicating it’s your move. Similarly, when it’s their turn, guide them through the process with encouraging words and gestures.
  • Offer words of encouragement when the child engages positively with others, reinforcing desirable behaviours and encouraging repetition in the future.
  • Practice specific social situations, such as playing games that kids their age play or discussing favourite TV shows, to familiarise the child with basic social concepts and behaviours.
  • Use storytelling to indirectly teach social skills, portraying characters who exhibit desired behaviours and praising their actions within the narrative to encourage learning.
  • Utilize visual aids such as pictures, checklists, and prompt cards to facilitate communication and reinforce social skills, making conversations and activities more accessible and engaging for the child.

ASD Family Experience:

Beyond the initial expectations of typical childhood experiences, parents of children with ASD often face a lot of difficulties related to communication, sensory sensitivities, and social interactions. These challenges can range from difficulties in verbal expression to sensory overload triggered by everyday stimuli. As children with ASD may struggle with social cues and forming connections with peers, navigating social situations requires extra support and understanding.

When families learn that their child has a developmental disability, they find themselves navigating unfamiliar terrain and often fear the worst. Parents may feel responsible for their child’s disorder and may feel a sense of loss because their child will not have the life they wanted them to have. There is a range of emotions involved from guilt and grief to frustration and anger due to the lack of understanding that exists in society regarding the challenges of ASD.

However, as time passes the unknown becomes the known and things become a little less scary. There will be challenging times, of course, but the child will still grow up, progress and live the life that any parent hopes for. Therapy services, school support and societal expectations all while managing their expectations regarding their child’s progress.

Societal Pressures:

There is significant societal pressure to fix a child with a disability. Our society just doesn’t understand when they see a child or anyone with a disability rather they look, judge, and comment. Unpredictable, disruptive, and unusual behaviours frequently lead parents to avoid public situations because they fear others’ responses.

This can lead to isolation and frustration. Despite the efforts to educate and raise awareness about ASD, misconceptions persist. This encourages social stigma and makes it even more difficult for families to feel accepted and supported. Often the stigma can discourage families from seeking out an evaluation leading to the child not receiving proper care and services. 

Autism is not a processing error, just a different operating system.

After exploring the emotional journey and societal pressures faced by families of children with ASD, it’s essential to shift our focus towards practical strategies that parents can implement at home to support their child’s development and well-being. When parenting a child with ASD, it’s essential to be open to a new way of thinking, also acknowledging the fact that life is going in a different direction than planned. While the journey of parenting a child with ASD presents unique challenges, some numerous techniques and approaches can make a significant difference in their daily lives.

Take Away

Parenting a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a rollercoaster ride filled with ups and downs. From the initial shock of diagnosis to the journey towards acceptance and resilience, families experience a whirlwind of emotions. Society’s misunderstandings and prejudices only add to the challenges, leaving parents and children feeling isolated and frustrated. But amid these struggles, there’s a glimmer of hope. 

By focusing on understanding, embracing acceptance, and implementing practical strategies, parents can empower themselves to nurture their children’s growth and happiness. With the support of therapy techniques, community encouragement, and unwavering determination, families can navigate the complexities of ASD together. Let’s work towards creating a world where every child, regardless of their abilities, can thrive and shine. 

References +
  • Elbeltagi, R., Al-Beltagi, M., Saeed, N. K., & Alhawamdeh, R. (2023). Play therapy in children with autism: Its role, implications, and limitations. World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, 12(1), 1-22. doi:10.5409/wjcp.v12.i1.1
  • Sharma, A., Sane, H., Biju, H., & Shetty, A. (Eds.). (Year of Publication). Parent and children guidebook for autism (2nd ed.). 
  • Bernier, R., Mao, A., & Yen, J. (Year of Publication). Psychopathology, families, and culture: Autism. Psychopathology.
  • Rudy, L. J. (2023, November 16). 6 Autism Therapies Parents Can Provide in Their Own Home. Verywell Health.
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