5 Ways to Express Love to Your Child with Autism

express love to child with autism

This post originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of the Autism Alliance of Michigan MiNavigator Newsletter . Written by former Healing Haven BCBA Carita Niemann, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA. 

express love to child with autism

Valentine’s Day is a special time of the year. We often pause and express love to those who are close to us. However, communicating this love to each person in our lives takes a unique form. According to Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages®, everyone expresses and receives love in a unique way. Children with autism are no different! 

In my 10 years of working with children with an autism diagnosis, I have loved the challenge of finding ways to “reinforcer pair” with them. This is applied behavior analytic talk for “loving them in their own unique way.” For some children it can be as simple as providing them with their favorite toy. While for others, this can entail months of chasing them with hand puppets, blasting them up like a rocket, and working up a sweat to evoke one heartful giggle.

As parents and caregivers of children with autism, when we do the work of finding ways to show love to our kids — they return the love tenfold. Just like any relationship, it is always helpful to reflect on new ways to express our affection.   

5 Ways to Express Love to Your Child with Autism

Using the wisdom of The 5 Love Languages®, here are a few ideas of how you can express love to your child with autism this Valentine’s Day:

Words of affirmation

Many children with autism are visual learners. As a result, they respond well to pictures, videos, and written words over spoken words of affirmation. Consider creating a photo book with pictures of significant memories with your child and a few words to describe each memory.

Physical touch

Children with autism seek sensory input in a myriad of ways. Some enjoy the physical touch of loved ones through hugs, tickles, cuddles, and kisses. While on the other hand, others find more enjoyment in the sensory input from the physical environment in which we live. This Valentine’s Day, if Michigan winter allows, try spending time outdoors with your child exploring the cold snow. For extra sensory input, take food coloring with you and watch a winter wonderland turn into modern art!

Quality time

Our children receive demands all day long— “get dressed,” “clean up,” “do this,” “do that,” etc. As adults, it is challenging for us to spend time with a child without placing any demands. However, with some effort, perhaps this is a true gift we can offer your child this Valentine’s Day. Intentionally plan for one hour of praise, imitation, attention, and freedom to be exactly who they are in that moment.

Receiving gifts

Although chocolate and a teddy bear may be the perfect gift for some kids, there are other options too. A beautiful gift for any child could be the gift of a new experience. Depending on your child’s interests and preferences, here are some ideas to consider. You could take them to a sensory friendly movie, bake cookies from scratch, complete a science experiment, visit an indoor trampoline park, or explore the various children’s museums in Michigan. Additionally, find a winter activity in this blog post that would feed their need for sensory or motor input. Then purchase the items and package them together for a gift this Valentine’s Day.

Acts of service

As a twist, the recommendation for this category does not directly involve expressing love to your child with autism. As parents and caregivers of children with special needs, we spend much of our time caring for others. In order to give from a fuller cup, try scheduling time for self-care this Valentine’s Day. As little as 10 minutes of meditation can lead to decreased anxiety, physical pain, and even cardiovascular disease.

Remember, “The number of ways to express love within a love language is limited only by your imagination” (Chapman). Let your creativity soar this Valentine’s Day as you express love to your child with autism – and anyone else in your life!

For additional reading on this subject, our Founder & President Jamie McGillivary, MS, LLP, BCBA, LBA, spoke about it with Metro Parent in 2022 – What Love on the Spectrum Looks Like.

Success Stories of Individuals with Autism

Autism Success Stories
Autism Success Stories

We live in a world where it is so easy to think about the negative values of something or someone. That’s why it’s crucial we prioritize the positive aspects. This is especially true for people with autism. There is a reason it is called autism spectrum – each individual is born with their own unique traits and abilities. Some on the autism spectrum may also have an intellectual disability. However, it’s important to note that around 44% of those diagnosed with autism have average or above average IQ. So why wouldn’t there be several remarkable success stories of individuals with autism?   Here we hope to share some inspiring examples of people who have used their autism diagnosis to excel in their passions.  

Temple Grandin 

Starting out with a more well-known story within the autism community, Temple Grandin is a renowned American author and educator. She speaks on the treatment and behavior of livestock animals, as well as a public speaker and advocate for autism.  

Grandin was not “officially” diagnosed with autism until much later in her life. At this point, she already had a successful career she had paved for herself. She accomplished this despite hurdles that were uncommon for children to have at the time of her upbringing. These included speech delays and social skills challenges.  In the face of these hurdles and the bullying they evoked, Grandin discovered what she was passionate about – science.  

She went on to receive several degrees on the topic and remains teaching to this day. In a quote from one of Grandin’s books, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, she explains that autistic kids often have uneven skills. “Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job,” according to Grandin. She adds that “we need to be a lot more flexible with things,” when it comes to what we label as a “disability.” This way of thinking is at the foundation of Healing Haven’s values. We focus on our clients as kids and teenagers first, not their diagnosis. And we celebrate their unique strengths that come through neurodiversity. 

More stories of successes like Grandin’s are available here.  

Alexis Wineman 

Alexis Wineman is the first woman with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to participate in the Miss America competition, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wineman’s story presents the perspective of being the only member of a large family to have an autism diagnosis. Her story focuses on what it is like to grow up with the support of neurotypical siblings. She also highlights the key role that siblings can play in the life of an autistic child.  

Wineman’s sister, Danielle, said her advice for someone who has a sibling with autism is “to become a solid shadow for your sibling.” She points out that “when you’re diagnosed with autism, it’s a diagnosis for the entire family and not just that person.”  

Another sister of Wineman’s, Kimberley, said that it is valuable to “engage them (your sibling with autism) and help them find their niche.” Wineman’s brother, Nicholas, said that he has learned and developed the skill of empathy due to growing up with his sister.  

There can be endless advantages of having a family member with autism. And there is no doubt that a diagnosis can also strengthen a family. Comparable stories to Winemans are available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.  

We love hearing these sibling perspectives and agree that an autism diagnosis impacts the entire family. In fact, it’s another one of our company values – to serve the entire family through parent training and counseling for parents and siblings. 

Clay Marzo 

Clay Marzo is an American professional surfer. He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as a teenager (before that designation was removed from the diagnostic definition in the DSM-5). Clay is known for his “unique ‘double-jointed’ style of turns and spins”. Marzo has “been hailed for his creativity with the board and his innovative maneuvers,” according to Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC) Sierra Leone.  

 In addition to features in several surfer films, Marzo is also in a documentary, ‘Clay Marzo: Just Add Water‘. The documentary delves into his life as a competitive surfer and a person living with autism spectrum disorder. He also volunteers with the non-profit organization Surfers Healing. The organization creates opportunities for children with autism to experience surfing through surfing camps in the United States and Canada.  

Other stories like Clay’s are in this Lifehack article.  

Dani Bowman 

Dani Bowman is a writer, artist and motivational speaker who is on the autism spectrum. Creating an animation empire, she founded DaniMation Entertainment at age 14 in 2009. She has several professional degrees and is a powerful voice for those on the autism spectrum.  

Bowman is also on Netflix’s ‘Love on the Spectrum,’ where she shares much about her personal interests. In this, she brings attention to the struggles she faces to find a potential life partner. She expresses the complications of not only finding someone who relates to her but who understands and accepts her romantically.  

Further information about Bowman and her work is available on her company website.  

Katie 

Katie is currently a young adult on the autism spectrum. She grew up working closely with Healing Haven’s founder, Jamie McGillivary. Jamie credits her journey working with Katie as what helped shape her into the person she is today. Jamie’s experiences with Kaite as child inspired her career path and the creation of Healing Haven. Katie worked as an administrative assistant for the company and also worked at her local library.  

Katie spoke at a Healing Haven Open House and shared her story with guests that included parents, doctors, and professionals. “I’m here tonight to tell people you shouldn’t underestimate people with disabilities. Through hard work you can live your dreams. Your child could have a bright future. Tonight, I can live my dreams such as being independent, working as an administrative assistant, and now being a public speaker.” You can read more of her story in this blog article, Never Underestimate Individuals with Autism.  

Katie is an inspiration to all at Healing Haven and everyone who knows her personally. 

Raising Expectations

We hope these stories inspire and offer hope for you and your child or loved one with autism.  An autism diagnosis comes with a broad range of potential struggles as well as unique strengths. An average of 28% of our clients at Healing Haven graduate from our services or titrate down to needing lesser services. We work to make sure clients are as well-equipped as possible to thrive in their educational journey and prepare them for life beyond school.  

There are many success stories of individuals with autism we should celebrate. But even if your child may need extra support, we all can work together to highlight the possibilities and help raise expectations for those impacted by autism. Incredible things can be born from the “bounds” of difference. 

We would love to hear any stories you might have to share. Please feel free to comment below! 

What is ABA Therapy: Your Questions Answered

child doing therapy explaining ABA Therapy
child doing therapy explaining ABA Therapy

Following an autism diagnosis, many professionals recommend ABA Therapy as the first form of support. But many parents often leave those meetings wondering what is ABA Therapy? It’s common to have lots of questions. It’s important to feel informed and clear on treatment options as you seek support for your child. Not to mention, choosing a therapy provider can be overwhelming and can take a lot of time. We’ll break down some commonly asked questions about what ABA Therapy is so you can feel prepared to help your child.  

What is ABA Therapy? 

Considered the “gold standard” in autism treatment, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) Therapy is a scientific approach to understanding behavior. It’s a method of therapy used to improve specific behaviors, decrease interfering behaviors and help a child gain new skills such as communication, play, social, and daily living skills. ABA Therapy is evidenced-based and the most frequently recommended option for the treatment of autism.  

Is ABA Therapy effective? 

ABA Therapy proves to be highly effective, based on over 50 years of research. Medical professionals and institutions such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the U.S. General Surgeon approve ABA as a valid treatment for autism.  

ABA Therapists and BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) create and implement plans for the client to meet specific goals tailored to the client’s needs. They set the client up for success by breaking down the steps to each goal. If an approach isn’t working, the ABA Therapist and BCBA will find another one. For example, a child may be working on regulating their emotions during tantrums. The ABA Therapist and BCBA might implement tactics such as deep breathing, sensory input, and physical relaxation. But if sensory input seems to further aggravate the child, that tactic will be removed and replaced with a helpful one. 

Is ABA Therapy a fit for my family? 

Parents love their children and want what is best for them, no matter their diagnosis. You may be asking, ”How can ABA Therapy help my child?” All children have the right to learn important skills in order to be independent and to maximize their happiness later in life. For children with autism, learning some skills can be harder. ABA Therapy can build on your child’s strengths while also supporting their learning in the areas they need it most.  

In deciding if ABA Therapy is a fit for your family, it’s important to understand the provider’s approach to ABA. ABA Therapy should be customizable to your child’s needs, with an emphasis on generalization to make sure skills transfer to the natural environment.  

Additionally, it’s important to know the credentials of the BCBA and understand the center’s training program for their ABA Therapists. This is to ensure they are qualified for the work they are providing. Another factor is to make sure they have a positive and comfortable relationship that allows room for learning. There should also be frequent and open communication between you as the parents and the child’s BCBA in order to build goals that are appropriate and sensible to you. Remember, you know your child best and it’s important to find professionals that align with your specific values.  

What do ABA Therapists do? 

ABA Therapists are trained behavioral professionals that work closely with and under the supervision of BCBAs. They help implement behavioral goals set for the client. As a team with the child and BCBA, the Therapist will help teach functional skills, address problem behaviors that interfere with learning. They also help the child gain skills that will allow them to better participate in school and the community. 

What is a BCBA? 

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, “A Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, has a graduate-level certification in behavior analysis. Professionals certified at the BCBA level are independent practitioners who provide behavior-analytic services. BCBAs may supervise the work of Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts – (BCaBAs), Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs), and other professionals who implement behavior analytic interventions.” 

At Healing Haven, BCBAs also provide parent training and can work with school professionals to help therapy translate efficiently across all situations and settings the client is in. To become a BCBA, an individual must undergo a 5-step process that includes: earning a relevant Master’s Degree, completing required behavior-analytic graduate coursework, completing required supervised fieldwork, apply for, take, and pass the BCBA exam, and then apply for state licensure.  

What happens during an ABA session? 

An ABA session typically begins with specific goals established for the child, which are discussed prior to starting therapy sessions. Throughout the session, the Therapist works one-on-one with the child. Their job is to ensure the child is learning and understanding the skills that are being taught. ABA Therapists utilize encouragement, praise and other motivational tactics tailored to the specific child and programs being worked on. Therapy is delivered both with and without supervision by the BCBA. 

Kate Fritz, MA, BCBA, LBA, is the Clinical Manager of our Early Intervention Clinic. She describes a typical ABA session at Healing Haven this way: 

In ABA sessions, we work hard and play hard! How an ABA session looks can greatly vary depending on the client’s age and skillset – programming is individualized to the client. In general, you can expect to see the use of play to work on communication and social skills, building up independence with daily living skills (e.g., working on putting on a winter coat), and both individual and group times to work on behavioral goals related to school-readiness. In action, this may look like a kid sitting in circle time imitating song motions, then reading a story with their therapist and pointing to animals and colors throughout the story, sitting and eating snack with peers, going to the restroom to work on washing hands independently, then heading to the playroom and pointing to toys up on a high shelf to communicate what they want to play with.  

When should my child start ABA? 

A child should start ABA Therapy if deemed appropriate, after receiving a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Autism, for example, can be detected and tested for as early as 18 months old and by age 2 can be considered a reliable diagnosis as a means for therapy intervention.  

Early intervention is key. “Research very clearly states that early intervention for children with autism and other developmental disabilities is vital,” explains Jamie McGillivary, MS, LLP, BCBA, Founder and President of Healing Haven. “When children start therapies like ABA early on, they receive strategic learning opportunities that support them in the areas they need.”  

However, ABA Therapy is also beneficial for older children and teenagers. Even if a child is diagnosed later, ABA therapy could be worth looking into to learn and improve in areas that may be challenging for them. It is also important to remember that ABA Therapy isn’t automatically a lifelong commitment. Many children transition to lesser levels of therapy as they master skills.  

Is ABA Therapy covered by insurance? 

Because it is considered a behavioral health service, ABA Therapy is covered by most insurance policies. However, this can vary by plan and from state to state. In Michigan, it can vary by employer insurance plans, so it is important to call your insurance provider. It is important to discuss the specifics of what is and what is not covered by your plan as it pertains to ABA Therapy services in your location. More information about this can be found when you search “Autism Spectrum Disorder Health Coverage” on your state government website. For example, Michigan’s explanation of autism health coverage is found here. The Autism Alliance of Michigan is also a great resource for parents navigating insurance coverage. 

We hope this information is helpful as you navigate therapy options for your child. To learn more about Healing Haven’s ABA Therapy programs for children and teens up, contact us today