Autism Evaluation Process: What to Expect

developmental testing and autism evaluation
developmental testing and autism evaluation

Are you a parent seeking a developmental assessment or autism evaluation for your child? Or did you try have your child start ABA therapy but ran into insurance issues due to an incomplete assessment? Whatever your situation, starting the journey to support your child’s development can be stressful, overwhelming, and confusing. But you are taking the right steps in seeking help for your child – and you! That is why we want to provide you with information on our autism evaluation process. Here is a detailed breakdown of how it works.

Where to Start

Maybe you are concerned about your child’s development, or your pediatrician is recommending an evaluation due to signs of communication and developmental delays. Whatever the reason, it can be confusing to know where to start. In order to access the most common therapies for autism (such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech or occupational therapies), most insurance companies require an evaluation that includes a series of standardized assessments. Additionally, they need a report with the data of those assessments to support a concluding diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. These evaluations are typically performed by a qualified psychologist or neuropsychologist. It’s important to note that most insurance plans require something more than a simple neurologist diagnosis; neurologists do not use the standardized assessments insurance companies look for.

What to Expect

The overall evaluation process at Healing Haven is not very long. It consists of three appointments which total roughly six hours altogether (depending on the child’s age and level of skill.) The turnaround time from the first appointment to receiving the final report averages about one to two months. But it’s important to note that time can vary depending on the facility performing the testing.

However, the wait to receive the assessment is generally the biggest issue. Most facilities that offer quality evaluations have waitlists of several months or up to a year. But time is precious when it comes to a child’s development. Those several months can make a huge difference when it comes to receiving therapy supports and interventions.

One of the most impactful things you can do as a parent is obtain a clearer understanding of your child’s struggles. At Healing Haven, we try to keep all evaluations–from the time parents contact us to when they receive results–within three months. This way, if intervention is necessary, your child can access it as soon as possible.

The Autism Evaluation Process

Our autism evaluation and developmental testing process is typically divided into three appointments. These appointments are after you complete the initial intake paperwork and questionnaire.

First Appointment

During the first appointment, a parent or guardian meets with the clinician. They will discuss background information, family history, and any concerns regarding their child’s development.

Second Appointment

The second appointment involves the direct assessment of the child. The clinician utilizes several standardized assessment tools to gather objective data on the child’s skills and their behaviors. The clinician will use this data to reflect the child’s developmental progression in comparison to other children of the same age.

Third Appointment

After these two first meetings, the clinician compiles all the information gathered into a report. In the third and final meeting, the clinician goes over the report with the parent(s)/guardian(s). Based on data and historical information, this meeting will specify whether a child may fall within the criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorder. If the child does not meet the criteria, parents and guardians may learn if something else is going on that better addresses their concerns (e.g. speech delay, learning impairment, anxiety, etc.)

Whether your child is on the spectrum or not, a developmental assessment provides a detailed evaluation of your child’s current level of skill and developmental status. A developmental assessment identifies factors contributing to your child’s difficulties, rules out diagnoses that may mislead treatment, and provides you with direction to address your child’s specific needs.

A developmental assessment identifies factors contributing to your child’s difficulties, rules out diagnoses that may mislead treatment, and provides you with direction to address your child’s specific needs.

What to Look for in an Autism Evaluation Provider

The most important question to ask a facility offering evaluations is, “If my child is diagnosed, will this report unlock insurance covered ABA services?” You are embarking on a lengthy process. So you are entitled to all the necessary information to access insurance covered services (if needed). Make sure you know which questions to ask of your insurance provider to understand exactly what your plan requires for ABA services.

However, many facilities that offer autism evaluations are unaware of the specific insurance requirements for ABA services. As a result, many testing facilities may be honest saying that they can provide an autism evaluation but are unsure if insurance to cover ABA services will accept the type of evaluation provided.

At Healing Haven, we’ve had countless families who had their child previously evaluated, but then found their diagnostic report was missing components insurance requires. Thankfully, some insurance companies are lenient and allow us to fill in the missing components. Other times, too many components were missing, requiring an evaluation re-do. Obviously this is time consuming and costly. It is also a significant barrier to receiving services. So again, do your best to make sure that what the testing facility offers will be sufficient for your insurance.

Insurance Plans

Healing Haven is now in network with most major insurance providers in Michigan for developmental testing and autism evaluations. We accept: Blue Cross Blue Shield (Michigan and out of state), Blue Care Network, Priority Health, HAP, Aetna, Cigna, United Healthcare and Beacon Health.

An Important Note about BCBS/BCN of Michigan

Many families in our area have insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or Blue Care Network of Michigan. For Michigan BCBS/BCN members it is important to know that they have a list of centers for which they will accept an autism diagnosis. These specialized locations are called Approved Autism Evaluation Centers (AAEC). The AAECs are spread throughout the state, but unfortunately can have long waitlists – sometimes up to 12 months. As a result of these long waitlists, and because early intervention is so critical, BCBS of MI and BCN will accept an autism evaluation from a qualified psychologist or neuropsychologist – if it meets their standards. They call this type of evaluation a “Bridge Authorization”. This authorization serves as a place holder, allowing families to access services while they remain on a waitlist at an AAEC.

We understand how time-consuming and worrisome the autism evaluation process can be as you strive to get support for your child. But we are here for you and you are not alone in this journey. If you have questions or want to start the developmental testing or autism evaluation process, please reach out to us today!

Sesame Street’s Autism Resources

Helping our world “See Amazing in All Children”

Can you believe that Sesame Street has been producing quality educational programs for children for almost 55 years? And it’s been six years since Sesame launched their first puppet on the autism spectrum. Julia appeared on her first episode of Sesame Street on April 10, 2017. She originally was created in digital form when Sesame Street launched their autism resources in 2015.  

The iconic television show has a long history of inclusive representation of individuals with disabilities. They often featured children with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, as well as kids in wheelchairs, blind, or other disabilities. They were doing this when individuals with disabilities were rarely, if ever, seen in entertainment. Doing this sent a message of inclusion to children- that being “different” is okay. But the creation of Julia is the first time a puppet has had a specific disability.

See Amazing

The Sesame Workshop’s autism awareness initiative is called “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” What an encouraging message for families impacted by a disability! Everyone has something to offer, even if they struggle to talk or learn in the same way other kids do.

One of Sesame Street’s autism resources are Daily Routine Cards. These are digital social stories to show kids about various activities or daily skills. Visuals like this can help prepare children for things that may cause them anxiety (like getting a haircut), or other daily living and social skills. We work on many of these things in our ABA Therapy, as well. 

In addition to visuals, other autism resources from Sesame Street include helpful information for adults. They have a guide called Taking Care of the Caretaker with tips on reducing stress and taking care of yourself so you can take better care of your child. This falls directly in line with our philosophy of stress management for parents and caregivers.

“The Amazing Song” celebrates how every child has something amazing to offer. And it’s wonderful to see how inclusive it is by showing how some kids talk with a digital device, others struggle with eye contact, and others may flap their hands. But it’s all displayed in a way that’s made to show it’s okay and normal.

Creating Inclusive Places

Another aspect of these resources is the Provider Guide. It’s filled with ideas and suggestions for providing autism-friendly atmospheres and events that organizers can create within their communities. With this kind of focus it’s no surprise that Sesame Place, the Sesame Street themed amusement and water park, was the first theme park in the world designated as a Certified Autism Center by the IBCCES.

Even though the program states the goal is to provide resources “designed to serve autistic children and their families”, simply by including Julia as a friend of Elmo and Abby communicates a powerful message to all neurotypical kids watching. Children can learn at a young age that the classmate they have who is like Julia can be a friend.

In addition to the website, you can search the hashtag #SeeAmazing on social media to find content related to this initiative and even include it in your own social media posts.

We are huge fans of Sesame Street Workshop. They educate children on the fundamentals like letters, numbers, colors and shapes. But they also do an incredible job of teaching even more critical skills like friendship, acceptance, diversity, inclusion, and care for one another.

If you found this information helpful, we’d love it if you’d share it with your network!

Top Autism-Friendly Vacation Spots

Autism Friendly Vacation Ideas

Does the thought of going on vacation with your child with autism stress you out? Taking an individual with ASD away from their familiar environment and routine, to a place that may not understand their unique needs is no idea of a vacation for most parents. But thankfully there are many theme parks and resorts that are taking extra steps to create autism-friendly vacation destinations. In addition, there are also several cities throughout America that are Certified Autism Destinations (CADs). There really are places that are fun for everyone, including kids with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental needs. 

Here’s our list of the top autism-friendly vacation spots: 

Theme Parks –  

Sesame Place®  

As the first theme park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC), Sesame Place is a perfect place to enjoy a variety of fun rides, shows and activities for every member of your family. They have earned this designation from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). Sesame Place currently has two locations – one in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and the other in San Diego, California. Both locations are recognized for their thorough training of their employees on autism, sensory awareness, social skills, communication, motor skills, emotional awareness and much more! 

On top of their trained staff, the park also has quiet rooms, noise-canceling headphones and low-sensory areas. They also provide low-sensory parade viewings, special character dining accommodations and meet-and-greets with Julia, Sesame Street’s first character with autism.  

LEGOLAND Resorts 

Located outside Orlando, LEGOLAND Florida added new features in 2017 to become an autism-friendly destination. LEGOLAND New York and LEGOLAND California followed suit shortly after. They created quiet rooms for families to take a break, equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets and LEGO building tables. The resort also offers a “blue hero pass” for guests on the spectrum. The pass allows the guest and their family expedited access to popular attractions. 

In addition to specialized training to equip their new employees with skills to more effectively interact with guests on the autism spectrum, the LEGOLAND Training & Development team created social stories to provide an illustrated, step-by-step walk-through of every theme park ride and show. This allows guests to know ahead of time what rides have loud noises, periods of darkness, bright lights or other elements that might be overwhelming for some. All of these special touches make LEGOLAND stand out as an autism-friendly vacation spot. 

Peppa Pig Theme Park in Orlando, Florida 

Adjacent to LEGOLAND Florida, this special park, created in 2022, is not only great for young children who have never been to a theme park, but also for children with disabilities! The park is partnered with the IBCCES and is an accredited CAS, offering many useful tools to optimize the experience of those on the spectrum. These tools include similar ones to what LEGOLAND offers, such as a “Hero Access Pass”, which allows guests who have trouble waiting in lines expedited access to popular attractions, and downloadable sensory and accessibility guides. Check out this new and fun park that your child is guaranteed to enjoy! 

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee 

Situated in the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood features a natural environment with lots of trees for shade, creeks running through the park, and a less crowded feel than many theme parks. Even with this setting, employees observed parents using bathrooms to try to calm overstimulated kids. As a result, the Dollywood team set out to create a haven for families that needed a break. In 2016 they added a Calming Room, which includes items like weighted blankets, fiber optic strands, a teepee and comfy soft places to relax. In 2017 they added a Calming Corner at its water park. Dollywood has certainly shown why they are an autism-friendly vacation spot. 

Tradewinds Resort in St. Petersburg, Florida 

Recognized as an autism-friendly resort by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach offers a wonderful vacation get-away for families who have a child with autism. At check-in they have room safety kits that provide parents with a door alarm, outlet covers and more. Additionally, they offer temporary safety tattoos, highlighting how this resort has thought of many details other places have not. Furthermore, their popular Konk Club (“Kids Only, No Kidding”) staff are trained in autism awareness.  Parents can plan with the staff before they arrive to make their child’s visit as fun and stress-free as possible.  They also created a downloadable social story to prepare kids for their vacation stay at the resort. 

Cities and Other Locations –  

Surfside Beach, South Carolina 

Proud to be named the world’s first official autism-friendly destination, Surfside Beach, South Carolina is a perfect choice for families wanting a beach vacation that provides specialized options for their child with autism. Located south of Myrtle Beach on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Surfside Beach is unique in what they do not have – loud or overstimulating boardwalks and crowded beaches. They also partnered with CAN (Champion Autism Network) to create the CAN Card. Showing the CAN Card is a subtle way to let participating attractions, restaurants, hotels and resorts know that they have a family member with autism. Participating businesses are trained in how to accommodate the variety of needs a child with autism can have. 

Visalia, California 

Visalia, a Certified Autism Destination, offers several attractions, hotels, and businesses that are Certified Autism Centers, CACs, (specially trained through IBCCES). Whether your child likes going to the museum or simply exploring a downtown area, there is plenty to do for all members of the family in this city. Find out more over on Visalia’s tourism site

Mesa, Arizona 

Mesa, recognized as the country’s first Autism Certified City, is similar to Visalia in that it is filled with CACs. In addition, the city encourages the option of a Live Life Limitless Passport, a digital passport “that serves as a tour of the destination”, providing all locations and attractions within the city that are CACs through text and email. Discover more about what this special city has to offer on their website.  

High Point, North Carolina 

High Point, the first CAD on the east coast of the country, offers endless options for the whole family. With a variety of autism-friendly attractions, restaurants, and lodging options, High Point is prepared to host your family’s vacation. The High Point website has even taken some of the planning stress off your shoulders by preparing an itinerary of what to do and when to do it! Or you can customize the itinerary to your family’s specific interests. Visit the city’s website to learn more.  

Additional Resources 

We hope these ideas for autism-friendly vacation spots help you to plan a get-away that your entire family will enjoy! To find a more expansive list of IBCCES-verified autism-friendly destinations, visit Autism Travel. We also wrote a companion blog post to this one, which includes destinations closer to Michigan, as well as international destinations. 

Please let us know in the comments if you’ve found another park, resort, or destination that was perfect for your family! 

Water Safety Tips for Children with Autism

It’s summertime, which usually equates to a lot of time outside. And with pools open and all the lakes here in Michigan, that often means time in and around water. While swimming and playing in water are fun and great exercise, it can also be very dangerous. In fact, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has a new flag warning level for the Great Lakes. Because of the increased danger lakes and pools have, water safety for children with autism, or any child, is extremely critical. 

Why water safety is so important for children with autism

Children with autism, as well as Down syndrome, often wander, which can obviously be very unsafe if they get close to water unsupervised. Additionally, drowning can occur without making any sound. Children may also be unaware of things such as water depth, water temperature, water currents, or slippery surfaces. Not every child likes to be in the water, especially children that struggle with sensory issues. However, all children should still be aware of water safety in case of accidental slips or falls into a pool or lake. 

This statistic is scary and sobering, but every parent of an autistic child needs to know – drowning is a leading cause of death for children with autism. We’ve compiled some tips and ideas to teach water safety to your child with autism to help you prepare for this season. 

Get your child in swimming lessons 

Every child should learn to swim, and for children with special needs, it’s important the skill is taught in a way that resonates with them. Make sure the teaching environment is not too distracting or overwhelming for your child. 

There are many programs that provide adaptive swimming lessons for children with special needs. You can start by contacting your local YMCA. And the National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Toolkit for caregivers provides an excellent guide and resources for managing wandering, as well as how to find swim lessons in your area. 

Provide reinforcers

Have reinforcers and preferred items available when your child performs important or difficult tasks related to water safety. This could include tolerating getting into the water, using appropriate safety gear, getting out when a whistle is blown for “adult swim time,” or leaving the pool when instructed. 

Visual learning of water safety

Use video narratives, social stories, or visual routines to teach water safety. The Swim Angelfish channel on YouTube, for example, is a great resource which provides a variety of videos that can be utilized to teach water safety to kids with disabilities. 

Many children with autism spectrum disorder are rules-driven, so use that to your advantage. Set specific rules for how they are to behave around water. Then practice those rules in real world situations. And if you have a pool at home, or live on/near a lake, consider placing “STOP” or “DO NOT ENTER” signs on doors that open to the outside, or gates to the pool. 

Use appropriate swim gear

Even if your child knows how to swim, it’s still a great precaution to use a life jacket or flotation device around water, whether they are planning on swimming or not. It can also offer reassurance when attempting a new skill and teaching independence. The especialneeds website is a great place to purchase special needs and sensory-friendly water gear, if needed.  

Teach key information

Because of the high percentage of wandering in kids with autism – nearly 50% – make sure your child knows his or her name, address, and phone number in the event he or she is separated from you. If your child does not speak, make sure they wear a bracelet, tag, tattoo, etc. with their name and your name and phone number. 

Set up your environment vigilantly 

Even if you feel confident that your child thoroughly understands the rules of water safety, accidents can still happen. It’s important to prepare for the worst so that nothing slips through the cracks. When preparing your environment near water, consider installing fences or gates with alarms around the body of water, if applicable. Additionally, you should also think about placing alarms or chimes on doors that open to bodies of water and keep toys of interest away from the water when not in use. Taking these measures will ensure that life-threatening wandering doesn’t take place.  

Communicate with others

Talk with your neighbors, whether at home or on vacation. Ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child wandering alone outside your home or property. Even if you don’t own a pool, but your neighbors do, ask them to be particularly aware of your child wandering near their property. 

We hope these ideas help you implement water safety for your child with autism. And for more general recommendations for pools, beaches, lakes, etc., check out this swimming safety guide. We want everyone to have a less stressful and more enjoyable summer

If you found this information helpful, we’d love it if you’d share it with others!

Join our Team: ABA Hiring Event

ABA Hiring Event Join the Healing Haven Team
ABA Hiring Event Join the Healing Haven Team

The team at Healing Haven has an exciting announcement! We will be hosting an onsite ABA Hiring Event on Friday, April 28th, 2023 from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. This event will take place in our administrative offices, located at 30701 Barrington St., Suite 125, Madison Heights, MI, 48071.

This hiring event coincides with Autism Acceptance Month in April, where we work to spread a message of acceptance and inclusion of individuals with autism in our society all month long. As a result of the continual increase in children receiving an autism diagnosis, the demand for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy services continues to grow as well.

We want you!

Our team at Healing Haven is recruiting dedicated and energetic individuals for full and part-time ABA Therapist and Registered Behavior Technician positions. These roles provide one-on-one therapy for children to increase communication, social, play, and life skills. Our ABA Therapists have the opportunity to make a direct impact on a child’s life–and that impact has ripple effects on their family and friends.

Interested candidates can schedule an interview time slot in advance here. Additionally, walk-ins for interviews are welcome between 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Individuals should bring their resumes, and prepare to interview with the Human Resources team. Job offers may be offered on the spot at this ABA hiring event! Candidates will have the opportunity to tour our therapy clinics. They can also meet our President & Founder, Jamie McGillvary, MS, LLC, BCBA, LBA.

A few important details to know:

First, we don’t require ABA field experience. We provide thorough hands-on, didactic, and online training to develop competency in applied behavior analysis. Additionally, Healing Haven provides Registered Behavior Technician® (RBT®) Certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Further. We offer continual support and training throughout employment. And finally, there are many opportunities for growth and advancement in our company.

At Healing Haven, we serve children and teens ages 2-16 with autism spectrum disorder and other development needs and their families. We have three clinics on our campus. As a result of the steady increase in children being diagnosed at younger ages, our newest clinic is designed for this group. 

Our Early Intervention clinic opened in August 2021 and serves our youngest clients. Our Young Learners clinic serves children in Pre-K through early elementary. And our School & Community Readiness clinic serves our oldest clients who are in upper elementary, middle, and early high school.

ABA and Autism

In March 2023, the Center for Disease Control updated the autism diagnosis prevalence in the United States. The rate increased to 1 in 36 children. It’s important to note that ABA therapy is the most frequently recommended therapy for treating children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. ABA Therapy teaches children how to communicate, play and socialize with their peers, as well as learn important life skills.

Sign up for an interview below. Then learn more about us by heading over to the Join Our Team page. And to help you prepare for the interview, check out Applying and Interviewing at Healing Haven: to Expect.

We hope to meet you on April 28!

The Importance of Early Intervention for Autism

child working on fine motor activity in early intervention
child working on fine motor activity in early intervention

In recent years we’ve experienced a noticeable increase in parents of younger children – 2-3 years old – contacting us for services. This means they are getting evaluations and receiving an autism diagnosis at younger ages than the national average. Data from the CDC indicates that the average age to receive an autism diagnosis is over 4 years old. Receiving an autism diagnosis before the age of 3 provides great opportunity for early intervention for autism to begin.

Early Intervention for Autism

But once parents receive that diagnosis, choosing the right treatment for their child can be as complex as the diagnosis. There are no miracle cures for the varied challenges that can come with an autism diagnosis. However, behavioral therapy, or Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, is evidenced-based and the most frequently recommended treatment for helping a child diagnosed with autism.    

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

Whether it’s communication, social and play skills, or activities for daily living (brushing teeth, eating with utensils, potty training), children who struggle with these skills can make great strides when provided early intervention support. Additionally, the likelihood of negative behaviors decreases because they learn appropriate behaviors from the beginning. 

ABA Therapy

early intervention for autism

A child’s individual early intervention plan will address their unique areas of need. For instance, if it’s developing language and communication skills, the ABA therapist will work on helping the child learn to label items and appropriately request things they want or need. And the mode of communication will vary. It may be pointing to a picture, or handing a picture of what they want (Picture Exchange Communication System). And some may use a communication device (tablet), or verbal expressions.  

In addition, if the child has negative behaviors their ABA therapy plan will address them. Some common negative behaviors include: damaging toys or property, non-functional crying and screaming, resisting transitions by falling to the ground or running away, aggression or self-injurious behaviors.

The behavior plan developed by the child’s BCBA will include strategies to address the types of behaviors listed above. They will work to pinpoint the reason for these behaviors and teach them skills or replacement behaviors to reduce them. 

“For example, some children flop to the ground when transitioning to a new activity. Their ABA Therapist may address functional ways to communicate that the child may need a break,” Jamie explains. “Or they may introduce proactive strategies to warn the child that a transition is about to occur. Giving warnings and visual information about what is to come helps decrease the anxiety surrounding transitions.”  

Generalizing New Skills

As a child makes progress on and eventually achieves their goals, we can work on scaling back one-on-one support. The ultimate goal is for the child to generalize the skills they’ve learned into their natural environments. We provide additional programs to support the child and family in this goal. 

“We place a significant emphasis on parent training and involvement,” says Jamie. “When parents participate, we increase the likelihood that what children learn in the clinic will carry over to their natural environments.”  

As a result of early intervention services, young children with autism receive a strong foundation to learn, develop and grow. It’s good to remember that autism is a spectrum and each child is unique. Some children need more support, while some need less. Some will need ongoing ABA therapy, while others will move on to their school environment with varying levels of support.  

You can learn more about all our early intervention services for autism here. And contact us to get your child started with therapy services.

If you found this information helpful, we’d love it if you’d share it with your network!

5 Ways to Express Love to Your Child with Autism

expressing 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. 

expressing 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.

Back to School Tips for Parents of Different Learners

A few years ago we created a pretty extensive list of back to school tips for kids with autism. At first it seemed there wasn’t much more we could add to it. But upon further thought and research, we want to share more in-depth back to school tips and resources. Many of these ideas can benefit typical kids in addition to those with special needs or a learning disability. In this post we also connect you with some great resources to help you as you get ready for the new school year.

So why is preparing for the transition back to school so important, especially for different learners? By doing some preplanning, you can help reduce anxiety in your child about a new school year. You can also make sure your child has the proper support they need in their new classroom or new school. And with some advance preparation, you can create some important routines that we know many children rely on. Read on for helpful back to school tips that you can start on now.

Use a Back to School Countdown

Let’s face it, there is so much going on in the rush before school starts. You want to squeeze in the last free days of summer, while shopping for school supplies, new clothes and scheduling any needed doctor appointments. How can you cram anything else in? This Back to School Countdown from Understood.org offers some great ideas to get your child ready to go back to school. Not all of the tips may apply, but there are sure to be some that will help you, as well as your child, prepare for that first day back in the classroom.

In addition to the practical back to school tips for you, an actual countdown calendar can be helpful for your child. Create a calendar of the few weeks before school. With your child, cross off each day leading up to the first day of school. Doing so provides a visual for them to see when school starts and may help reduce some anxiety they may have.  

Use Social Stories

Social stories are a great way communicate to your child what they can expect in a new situation, teach appropriate behavior, and much more. And thankfully there are a ton of free resources out there to help you so you don’t have to start from scratch. By creating a print social story, or using a topical video social story, you can help reduce anxiety your child may have about the new school year, new teacher, new classmates, new routine, etc.

Dyan from “And Next Comes L” has an extensive list of free back to school social stories you can download and print. She also includes some topical stories for times that may cause more stress and anxiety, like changing classes for gym, art or music. Additionally, she has a few video social stories about High School, riding the bus, listening to the teacher, how to greet people at school, and more!

Communicate With Their Teacher

Create a “get to know me” document or write a letter to your child’s teacher. By sharing your child’s diagnoses, strengths and weaknesses, dietary restrictions, sensory needs, things that interest them, and strategies that work for them, you are empowering your child’s teacher with important information for their success at school. There are a few templates available for introduction letters and “get to know me” documents.

  • This Card to Help Teachers Get to Know Your Child is from Understood.org. Older kids who are able to write and communicate could complete it on their own, which will help them develop self-advocacy skills.
  • Understood.org also has two different Back-to-School Introduction Letters for elementary and middle school students. They are fairly basic, but may be just what you need to communicate important information with your child’s teacher.
  • For younger students, or those starting at a new school, a more robust document may be warranted. The Autism Alliance of Michigan has a free download called “The Big Book All About Me. You can print it out and fill in a variety of important pieces of information like your contact info, family member details, photos, your dreams for your child, their learning style and so much more!
  • You can always just type up a letter detailing the above things for the teacher and email it to them before school starts – if you know who your child’s teacher is.

And don’t forget to make or send copies of whichever version you choose to your child’s aides, the school therapists, principal, “specials” teachers, basically anyone who will be working with your child.

Using Technology

If your child uses an AAC to communicate – an Alternative and Augmentative Communication device, ask if your child’s teacher(s) and aides are familiar with using them. There are several different programs available, so some training may be needed. Work with your child’s speech therapist to help ensure those working with your child day in and day out know how to utilize this tool to facilitate communication with your child.

In addition to communication, there are apps that can help students with a variety of learning and back to school challenges. Here’s a list of different apps to look through from supporting academics, executive functioning skills, managing anxiety and more. One of the apps that stood out to us is Tiny Tap. “TinyTap helps grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers work on specific academic or social skills. Families and kids can create lessons, games, or quizzes on any topic. Kids can also access dozens of lessons and games created by other people. There are a bunch of popular ones made by teachers to help kids learn to make inferences and understand social situations. It has reading and math lessons, too.

A few more reminders….

If your child has gotten used to sleeping in, be sure to start easing them back into the earlier wake up schedule a few weeks before school starts. Getting them to bed a little earlier each day and waking up a bit earlier each day will help them get the rest they need, and hopefully help reduce the stress that comes with rushing out the door because they slept too late.

If your child seeks sensory input or is upset by loud sounds, prepare a sensory kit for school with their favorite fidgets, chewy necklaces, noise-reducing headphones, etc.

Do you have some other back to school tips or routines that have helped you prepare? If so, share them in the comments. We wish you a smooth and successful new school year!

And if you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends.

Befriending An Autistic Person

befriending an autistic person
*This post was written by a guest contributor, Grace McGillivary.
befriending an autistic person

Befriending an autistic person is just like making friends with any average Joe. However, there are some things you want to keep in mind when hanging out with them. Check out these three helpful tips if you are unsure how to befriend a person with autism. 

Actively Listen 

Something interesting about having an autistic friend is if the two of you have a similar interest. If they are fixated on it, you could talk with them for hours on end without them getting tired. Sometimes, however, they might be particularly passionate about another subject. Take time to listen and hear them out. It might not mean much to you but actively listening on your part could really make an impact on someone. 

Be Flexible 

Despite our friends with autism wanting to be treated like anyone else, sometimes they need space, just like neurotypical people do. If they say they need some time alone, let them have some. Depending on the person, they might not be able to do some of the activities you can. Keep this in mind, and plan accordingly. Make sure it is something that they want to do before going through with your plans. 

Sometimes you will find that it is easier to follow the other person’s lead. If they want to go about doing things a certain way, let them. It will make it more interesting for both of you. Perhaps you’ll learn something new from them.    

A personal example of this would be when one of my friends played Pokemon Shield with me for the first time. None of my other friends own that game, so it was a fun experience to let her show me the ropes.  

Treat Them the Same 

This is by far the most important of the three tips. A person with autism is no different from you, or anyone else you might know. They have their own interests and personality, too. The diagnosis does not define them, and you should not let it define how you act toward them. Treating them as you would other friends is the best way to make them feel included. But remember to keep the two earlier points in mind.  By simply showing kindness you can be a great friend. 

A Note to Parents

Additionally, if you’re a parent, it’s great to teach your kids how to befriend autistic kids. Perhaps your child has a classmate with autism. Helping your child learn about differences in others and being friendly is so important.

Now that you have some tips, you are better equipped to befriend an autistic person.  Please remember to keep these ideas in mind when hanging out with them. You just might develop a wonderful new friendship!  

Meet the Author 

Grace McGillivary is a freshly graduated high school student who has been regularly writing as a hobby. She is relatively new to writing blogs, and occasionally partakes in other activities such as drawing, taking long walks, and playing piano. Art, music, and writing are her pastimes. She also has several friends with autism, as she has served as a peer model at Healing Haven since its inception. 

More Autism Friendly Vacation Ideas

Our blog post – Top 5 Autism Friendly Vacation Spots – was one of our highest trafficked posts for that year. So with more hotels, resorts and theme parks making efforts to provide an enjoyable and safe experience for families impacted by autism, we decided to do a follow-up post with even more autism friendly vacation ideas.

That previous post included Sesame Place®, LEGOLAND Florida, Surfside Beach, South Carolina, Dollywood and Tradewinds Resort. We also did an addendum to share about VillaKey, provider of autism friendly vacation rentals in Florida.

Thankfully we are seeing lots of places becoming “autism friendly” – and when they make these efforts they are creating inclusive places for everyone to enjoy. Hotels, resorts and theme parks are providing training for their staff about autism. They are creating quiet rooms and sensory rooms for individuals who get overwhelmed and need a place to relax. They are adding safety measures for kids who are prone to wander. All of these thoughtful efforts benefit families with an autistic child, but also kids with Down syndrome and even typical kids. By doing so, they are opening up vacation opportunities for families who never dreamed of going to some of these places.

So here are a few more autism friendly vacation ideas to add to your list.

Heading to Florida

Disney World – Orlando 

Disney World is a destination for many families with young children. For those with an autistic child, Disney has some accommodations to help make your time there more enjoyable. If you are considering a vacation there, look into their Disability Access Service Pass that allows pass holders to avoid lines at rides. They also have Disney’s Strollers as Wheelchairs program, which is a special safety measure for kids who wander, or who need a familiar seat to feel safe and secure. For qualifying children, this program allows kids to remain in their strollers while on a ride or visiting an attraction. Disney also offers a visual guide of the park for individuals with disabilities that you can download before you go. There are a number of additional accommodations for individuals with autism, like Rider Switch, Break Areas and Companion Restrooms.

Discovery Cove – Orlando 

Earlier this year Discovery Cove, Orlando became a Certified Autism Center. Discovery Cove is SeaWorld’s all-inclusive family resort. They have created accommodations and supports for individuals with autism and other sensory needs. As explained on their website – staff receive specialized training to ensure all guests have an enjoyable experience. Training focuses on: sensory awareness, motor skills, autism overview, program development, social skills, communication, environment, and emotional awareness. They offer a Sensory Guide that provides details on their attractions and how a person with sensory issues may respond to each experience so that families can plan accordingly. Another benefit Discovery Cove offers is they limit the number of daily attendance of 1,000 guests. So crowd control is built into how they operate.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex – Merritt Island

In 2023, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex became an IBCCES Certified Autism Center. Located just East of Orlando, this unique NASA experience provides a comprehensive Sensory Guide to help plan your visit with sensory-sensitive individuals or children. It also offers complimentary noise-reduction headphones on a first-come, first-served basis to those with hearing sensitivities. Explore the various adventures this attraction presents, guaranteed to pique the interest of every family member.

Closer to Home

Cedar Point

At just over 2 hours away from Metro Detroit, Cedar Point’s autism accommodations can provide for a great get-away for families. Known as the Roller Coaster Capital of the World, they also provide some great services for families with an autistic child or other disabilities. They offer a Parent Swap ride program and KidTrack is a wristband program if your child is known to wander. There is a Family Care Center and other places for a quiet place to take a break and cool down. Additionally, there are several Family Restroom facilities for those who need support. You can download the Cedar Point mobile app to check on ride wait times, attraction accessibility, events and more. And for overnight stays there is Cedar Point’s Hotel Breakers that provides many features to make it a fun get-away.

Hersheypark

For a little bit longer trip but still a doable drive for a long weekend, Hersheypark is about 7 hours from Metro Detroit. They partnered with Parent to Parent of Pennsylvania to make sure their park and attractions are accessible to individuals with disabilities. One feature is their Ride Accessibility Questionnaire – families can answer some questions to receive a detailed list of the rides and attractions suited for your personal family situation. They have several Quiet Areas throughout the park to provide a private place for those who may become over stimulated. Additionally, guests can download a Rider Safety & Accessibility Guide ahead of their visit. And if you have dietary restrictions, you can learn about their allergen information and dining options.

Going Above and Beyond

Morgan’s Wonderland

A park designed to cater almost exclusively to children with special needs? That’s Morgan’s Wonderland, in San Antonio, Texas! It is the world’s first “Ultra Accessible Theme Park”. The park offers an impressive number of traditional and adaptive rides, swings, and activities to suit all ages. Additionally, they have a Sensory Village, and entertainment that teaches messages of inclusion and kindness. And most importantly, children with special needs, including autism, receive free admission! It may be time to start planning a Texas vacation.

International Adventure

Beaches® Resorts

Beaches® is the first IBCCES (International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Studies) and Autism Certified resort company. Their resort locations in Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos islands offer specialized service to families with children with autism and other special needs. These services include mealtime accommodations such as custom dietary needs, kids camps for children of all abilities, and staff trained in autism needs, sensory awareness, motor skills, and more. Additionally, Beaches® partners with Sesame Street® and Autism and offers activities with Julia, the first Sesame Street® character with autism.

Shannon Airport, Ireland

If you’re thinking of traveling through Ireland, be sure to consider Shannon Airport as a thoroughfare! Ireland’s Shannon Airport provides an awareness program for kids with special needs, ensuring a smooth airport experience. Through this program, kids and those with special needs can access a 24-hour sensory room.

In conclusion, many resorts, theme parks and hotels are understanding the needs of autistic individuals. So we hope these autism friendly vacation ideas help spark your imagination to plan a get-away for your family that everyone will enjoy! And let us know if you’ve found another vacation spot that was perfect for your family.

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