Developing Relationships on the Autism Spectrum 

developing loving relationships when you have autism
mom hugging son

In the United States, our culture has predetermined ideas of what love looks like between parent and child as well as between adults. As most of us have experienced, relationships can be complicated, autism or not. And developing relationships when you have autism is just as important as it is for those who don’t. Autism can cause differences in communication, understanding of context and sensory perceptions. As a result, people often believe that individuals with autism don’t understand or even require love and loving relationships. However, that is simply not the case.  

The expression of love starts at a very early age as parents and others are teaching skill sets that children will need for the rest of their lives. Here in our clinics our team witnesses the many ways kids with autism connect with their therapists and show love. And, as professionals deeply invested in the wellness of our clients and their families, many of our team members read and learn about some of the less commonly discussed aspects of life on the spectrum — and that includes love. 

In this post we share some wisdom from our President & Founder, Jamie McGillivary. She shares what love for someone with autism may look like and how to help foster the ability to develop loving relationships. 

Start with understanding and acceptance 

Because love is universal and not limited by age, we will start with a couple of concepts about love on the spectrum for parents and loved ones to consider. 

First, it’s important to recognize there is a notable difference between feeling love and behaving in a loving way. And this difference applies to everyone, not only those with autism. Jamie says that when we consider autism as a way of being, rather than a disorder, an individual’s response to love makes a lot more sense. Essentially, loving behavior can look very different from one person to the next. Just because a person isn’t comfortable with hugging or kissing, doesn’t mean they don’t feel love. 

Second, individuals don’t have to excel at recognizing the emotions of others to have emotions of their own. Jamie points out a great irony regarding this idea. “As therapists, we teach the skills of putting yourself into another’s shoes, but, as so-called neurotypical people, do we do this when interacting with people with autism?”  

This concept is called “theory of mind”. It is the ability to understand the experiences of others, even if they don’t coincide with our own. For those of us who don’t have autism, we can show the greatest amount of love simply by extending understanding and acceptance. 

Expressing and receiving love 

Parents can gain a lot of understanding about how their child with autism, as well as anyone else in their lives, shows and accepts love by reading The Five Love Languages, a book series by Gary Chapman. There is a kid’s version too. 

The 5 Love Languages

Everyone has a preference as to what feeling loved means for them. The 5 Love Languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. You can learn more about each of the five love languages through Champman’s book, as well as in our post 5 Ways to Express Love to Your Child with Autism

Learning how your child expresses and receives love is an important skill. Jamie provides this example, “You can learn about your child’s love languages by observing their behavior. Are they in your space, do they say ‘mom, mom, mom, mom, mom’? This gives you a clue that they need you to fill their bucket with quality time.” 

If you sense that your child is feeling less connected, it might be that you or others aren’t communicating in their preferred love language. Receiving a gift can mean very little to someone who craves praise and acknowledgment. Some kids with autism want hugs but will never give them from the front. Thay may need a hug from the back or the side for it to be acceptable to them on a sensory level. 

Additionally, a common misconception is that kids with autism don’t want to be social. In reality, they may feel disconnected because you are not communicating in a way that’s meaningful to them. 

A common scenario most parents can relate to is when a preschooler wants to play with a peer but doesn’t know how to express they want to play.  So instead, they kick over the peer’s just-completed block tower. And the reverse of this is when a child asks another to come play but is ignored by the nonverbal child. The children in both scenarios have a need and a desire to be with each other. But unfortunately aren’t able to communicate it in a way that the other understands. 

This is called “negative reciprocal actions,” and when they add up, the person trying to connect eventually gives up. Socially, this is where we see a difference. Kids with autism express their needs on their own terms.  It’s important to learn how to speak their language of love.  

Setting a relational foundation 

As parents, you are the first role models for loving relationships. If you are accepting and open to your child’s differences, it opens the door to enter your child’s world. Follow your child’s lead and be a detective in how they communicate with you. When you figure that out, you will get more back in return. 

By recognizing your child’s way of connecting with others, it goes beyond your own parent/child relationship. You are helping them express their need for love to others. This sets the stage for teaching pivotal social interactions that can help them make deep friendships and develop loving relationships. Developing a connection with your child – or grandchild, friend, relative or love interest — with autism, is possible. The key is figuring out how they express and receive love.. 

Toilet Training Tips for Kids with Autism

toilet training and autism

Toilet training is a fundamental skill to teach all kids. But it can be a tricky skill for children with autism to master. Some parents may find toilet training a smooth process, while others find it a huge battle. Many parents try to start the process and feel discouraged, then decide to take a break. Wherever you are in your child’s journey to using the toilet independently, know that success is definitely possible.

Is Your Child Ready for Toilet Training?

The first step in helping your child with autism use the toilet? Determine if they’re ready. Our Director of Clinical Standards, Dr. Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, suggests a list of pre-requisites to consider before starting the toilet training process.

Can your child…

  • sit on the toilet or potty chair for a few minutes?
  • pull pants up or down?
  • hold urine for at least 30 minutes?
  • imitate skills such as sitting and wiping?
  • find the bathroom or potty chair in the house?

Your child doesn’t need to be proficient in each of these steps all at once to start toilet training. However, keep in mind that the process will be easier and more successful if your child can complete most steps first. If your child struggles with fine motor strength and control, consider occupational therapy (OT). OT can help with skills such as pulling pants up and down, wiping, etc. Additionally, there should be minimal behaviors occurring with bathroom use. If behaviors arise often, be sure to address them prior to starting the toilet training process.

Reinforcement and Encouragement

It’s important to utilize reinforcement and encouragement when working on toilet training your child with autism. You can reinforce their success in using the toilet in a variety of ways, including:

  • Food, such as candy or a small treat
  • A sticker chart
  • A highly preferred activity such as tablet time, a game or favorite toy

Along with reinforcers, use lots of verbal encouragement. Make sure it’s specific and descriptive: “I love how you asked to go to the potty.” Or “You did an amazing job sitting on the toilet for x amount of time!” etc.

Barriers to Toilet Training

Toilet training kids with autism can definitely have its setbacks. You might encounter challenging behaviors from your child, such as fear of using the toilet, refusing to use it, misusing toilet paper or other materials, or tantrums when encouraged to use the toilet.

Some children with autism might be hesitant to use the toilet due to sensory issues. If this is the case for your child, identify the sensory issue. It could be that the toilet seat is uncomfortable, they may feel cold, or feel afraid of the loud flushing sound. Perhaps utilize a toilet seat and let your child hold a stuffed animal or toy while sitting to help them feel safe and comforted.

Another barrier to toilet training is constipation. Kids with autism can be prone to constipation due to selective eating. If you notice your child struggling to void with bowel movements, consult your pediatrician.

General Tips for Toilet Training Kids with Autism

  1. Take toilet training one step at a time! While many parents are eager for their child to gain independence in the bathroom, try not to rush through the process.
  2. Have your child use pull ups or underwear as they transition from diapers.
  3. Use visuals in the bathroom such as a step-by-step laminated sheet with photos to help your child remember the toilet use process.
  4. When starting toilet training, plan a time to be at home with your child (Ideally, a week).
  5. Take data. You could create a chart, take notes in a notebook, or find a data sheet that works for you through an online search. For each toilet session, list the date, time, accident, success, location, and any independent requests.
  6. Make the experience fun and rewarding! Ensure your child is comfortable on the toilet by having them pick out a preferred toilet seat. Keep toys and books in the bathroom and even play music. The more enjoyable the experience is for your child, the more likely they will pick up skills and move towards independence.

If your child receives ABA therapy, check in with your child’s BCBA. They can give suggestions specific to your child as well as general support throughout toilet training.

Toilet training, though necessary, is a huge task to undertake as a parent. While it can be discouraging at times, remember to celebrate the successes. And with encouragement and consistent reinforcement, your child will learn in his or her own time.

Autism-Friendly Activities Around Metro Detroit 

autism-friendly activities in metro detroit

‘Tis the season, which means winter break is upon us! For many, this equates to extra down time to relax and play. But for children on the autism spectrum, this “down time” is out of their routine. A change in routine can cause anxiety or trigger behaviors. That’s why, for parents and caretakers of children with autism, it is helpful to have some autism-friendly activities in mind. Doing so helps to ensure an active and enjoyable holiday break for everyone.  

An amazing BCBA on our team, Megan Tucci, MA, BCBA, LBA, compiled a list of autism-friendly activities and events in Metro Detroit to share with her clients. And we thought it would be awesome to share it with all of you, as well!  

Sensory-Friendly Events and Activities Around Metro Detroit:

  1. AMC Sensory Friendly Film Showing : These sensory film-showings feature lowered sound and dim lighting. Patrons are able to bring their own dietary-friendly snacks and kids are free to “dance, walk, shout or sing” or move about the aisles. There are no previews or advertisements before the movies. The movies are geared toward children ages 5 & up and showings begin at 10 am on Saturdays. Wednesday evening movie showings, which may be geared toward an older audience, begin at 7 pm. The participating locations in southeast Michigan are Sterling Heights, Clinton Township, and Livonia.  If you do this, we suggest calling the location to get information about available showtimes.
  2. The Henry Ford : Many areas of The Henry Ford in Dearborn offer sensory-friendly kits that include noise-cancelling headphones, quiet spaces, and sensory-friendly maps. Staff members have also received special training from the Autism Alliance of Michigan.  
  3. Michigan Science Center : This fun and uniquely cool educational space offers “sensory backpacks”. They contain headphones, sunglasses, laminated maps, and fidget toys. The backpacks also have various sensory-friendly interactives.
  4. Detroit Zoo: At all times, the Detroit Zoo offers sensory bags equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads to guests who are prone to feeling overwhelmed by new environments. Additionally, staff receive training through the Michigan Autism Safety Training to recognize and handle sensory needs. For children who love lights, check out Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo this holiday season. They have dates available through early January! 

Other Autism-Friendly Events and Activities  

  1. Urban Air : This large trampoline park offers the chance for kids of all ages to jump, fly, climb, and participate in a variety of attractions and activities! 
  2. Legoland Discovery Center: This center, located inside Great Lakes Crossing Mall, contains several attractions inspired by – you guessed it – Legos! Experience a 4D Theater, have fun on rides, and of course, build some legos! 
  3. Outdoor Adventure Center: This unique interactive “outdoor” museum is indoors yet has all of the exciting features the great outdoors brings. The Center includes some awesome exhibits to enjoy. Sensory-friendly options have ended for the year, but keep your eyes peeled for the center’s 2024 schedule of specialized sensory-friendly days!  
  4. iFly Detroit: This fun, indoor skydiving experience is well suited for older, braver kids who are ready for an adventure! iFly Detroit is located in Novi and offers an “All Abilities” program specifically designed for those with physical or cognitive special needs.  
  5. MetroParks Holiday Lights/Events: It’s too late for this year but take note for next December. Each MetroPark hosts a different seasonal event. Events include Lights on the Trails, crafts, Holiday Lights at the Farm, Snacks with Santa, and much more! 

NOTE: We are not making specific recommendations for readers to participate in these autism-friendly activities. That is up to the discretion of parents in choosing activities they and their children participate in. 

AAC: What It Is and Why It’s Important for Children with Autism

There are many means of communication used in our world. The most common ones used today are spoken words, gestures, eye gaze, facial expressions, print, sign language, and even GIFs. When it comes to individuals with speech and language delays, it is possible to augment and provide alternative options for them to efficiently communicate with others. Children with autism, Down syndrome, and other speech and language struggles benefit from access to additional communication tools. In this post we will explain what AAC is and why it’s important for children with autism. 

AAC stands for Augmented Alternative Communication. What does augmentative mean, you might be wondering? Augmentative simply means to make something greater by adding to it, and alternative, as we know, is to have multiple options or possibilities available in a situation. So, when thought about it in literal terms, AAC is something every person uses to communicate. 

Types of AAC

There are two different types of AAC. The first type is what most people use in addition to or instead of verbal communication, which includes some of the examples we listed above. However, many children (and adults) with an autism diagnosis utilize aided AAC, which can be “high tech” or “low tech”. Low tech AAC can be anything that involves using pictures or icons to communicate. High tech describes communication apps on an iPad or tablet, such as TouchChat or LAMP Words for Life. Any type of computer with a voice, or even large buttons that talk, would also be considered high-tech AAC.  

Myths Surrounding AAC

When it comes to AAC, many people, including parents and professionals, are misled by the myths that have historically surrounded it. The most common myth is that AAC will hinder speech development. While this may seem easily believable, we have seen many examples in our clinic and elsewhere of children who build more speech due to having another opportunity as a bridge to spoken language.  

Another popular myth regarding AAC is that it’s not necessary so long as the child or person can communicate their basic wants and needs. At Healing Haven, we support not just the very basics of communication, but each individual’s growth and independence. This means making friends, expressing ideas, showing interest in hobbies and activities, showing love, and much more. Everyone deserves the opportunity to do these things.  

Effective Use of AAC

While AAC, whether high tech or low tech, is a bountiful means of communication, there are reasons it may not be effective, which can be discouraging to families.  

AAC is most successful when parents, caregivers, and school staff have been educated to personalize the device and present models appropriately. Presenting models “appropriately” may look different for different children based on their language level, processing time and interests. When these factors are not taken into account, ineffectiveness and inefficiency can result.  

It is important that families who are adjusting to a new form of AAC have the resources and support they need to effectively integrate the form of communication into their child’s life. At Healing Haven, this is a large part of the parent training we offer to each individual and their family. 

Teaching AAC with Spoken Word Communication

One must remember that AAC is just another avenue to communication for those with language and speech processing challenges. The autistic community themselves say they need more than one avenue to communicate. Many times, speech and language professionals teach an individual AAC and spoken word communication simultaneously. Through the therapy we provide at our clinic, the two will always go hand in hand. It is important to us that every child has more than one option in their modes of communication. 

It is important to understand your child’s style of language processing to personalize the vocabulary and provide appropriate models. Please reference the “User Tips for AAC” section below to learn more and see the link to our blog detailing Analytical Language Processing and Gestalt Language Processing. The Speech and Language Pathologists at our clinic are highly skilled in helping parents and children personalize AAC based on the child’s style of language processing. 

Setting Your Child Up for Success with their AAC Device

There are many steps you can take to ensure your child with autism has a pleasant and successful AAC experience. While some of these may be easily overlooked, they are vital in encouraging and teaching your child to communicate. Some of these steps are:  

  • Ensure the AAC device is always readily available. This includes having necessary AAC accessories such as cases with handles and straps.  
  • Learn how to edit and add new content to your child’s AAC device.  
  • Allow your child to explore the device as much as they please. Even if it seems like the child is just playing or “stimming” with the device, this interaction is still helping to familiarize the child with the AAC and its functions.  
  • Model consistently and often on the AAC device.  
  • Ensure everyone involved with helping your child communicate (family members, school staff, caregivers, etc.) knows how to effectively and comfortably model language on the device. This includes knowing and educating yourself on your child’s style of language processing. 
  • Do as much as you can to encourage your child’s use of the device. This could look like modeling on the device to talk about your child’s favorite cartoon character, food, or activity, or creating communication opportunities that are appealing to your child and their interest.  
  • Always ask your child’s SLP for help when needed. These individuals are AAC experts and should be able to help with whatever you may need to be as fluent as possible with AAC communication! At our clinic, the SLPs and BCBAS collaborate and work seamlessly to support the child’s communication. You have a team of resources. 
  • Lastly, ensure the form of AAC is consistent across all professionals and/or providers (the child’s entire team should be using the same type and same brand of high or low tech AAC). 

User Tips for AAC

When it comes to children with speech-language deficits, communication is most effective when it is used naturally. With that, we encourage you to follow your child’s lead with their communication attempts and always react with praise at any attempt they make to communicate. It is best to simply model alternative ways to communicate, as opposed to requiring a response from your child before giving them what they want.  

Many children with autism are Gestalt Language Processors (GLPs). For GLPs, there are four stages of language development. What stage your child is at determines the setup of their AAC device. If your child is at a stage 3 or higher, or once they get to that point, they are working on the freeing of single words and the combining of 2-3 words. This is where it’s important to know the difference between core vocabulary and fringe words.  

Many AAC devices have a core board, which is a page on the device, typically the main page when opening the app, that includes both “core” words and phrases and “fringe” words. The exact configuration of these words depends on the device and app being used. You can then use these words and phrases to help your child build their vocabulary and customize it to fit their wants and needs. Alternatively, if your child uses lower-tech AAC, such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), you and your child’s speech team can customize the words based off of the child’s interests and needs.

AAC Resources

If your child has an assigned Speech Language Pathologist, they will be your best AAC resource. Additionally, the internet is abundant with resources that can help you navigate and utilize your child’s AAC device. Here are some of the top websites we recommend to parents of AAC users:  

And of course, learn more about AAC by connecting with our speech team at Healing Haven, operated by Gigi’s Kids Speech and Language Therapy, which the information in this post comes from.  

We hope this post has helped enrich your knowledge of AAC and answered some questions you may have had surrounding it. If your child has benefited from the use of AAC, please feel free to share in the comments. Let’s continue to make communication all-inclusive! 

Holiday Stress Management Tips for Autism Families

The holiday season can be full of wonderful activities, parties and family gatherings. But there is also an added level of stress during the holidays because of the extra “hustle and bustle”. Shopping, baking, decorating, wrapping and hosting – how much can we add to our plates? And when you are also parenting a child with autism or other special needs, the demands of the holidays can become overwhelming. With input from our Counselors on staff, we’ve compiled some holiday stress management tips to help you enjoy this season. 

Holiday Stress Management Tips

1. Acceptance

Something that may seem obvious is the ability to accept your child as they are and be flexible about their needs. An acceptance mindset can be a significant driver to reducing your overall stress. Mentally prepare yourself that during this busy season your child may engage in more self-soothing behaviors to cope with the changes in their routine and added stress. They also may not want to interact with all the extra family and friends that you see this time of year. Giving your child some control and choices may help as well. You can offer controlled choices about the time they go and leave from gatherings, if they want to go somewhere, or where some decorations should go. 

2. Flexibility

Also look at your own expectations around the holidays and try to be more flexible.  Realize that it’s OK that your child may not feel the same way about the holidays as other kids. Your child may not like the traditional holiday activities, so stop and ask yourself the motivation behind doing something (like taking a picture with Santa). If the motivation is that it’s a “childhood tradition”, it’s not worth having your child stress out, panic or go into a full meltdown getting near Santa. Try to develop a flexible mindset. If you have to make a last-minute change because your child becomes over stimulated, that’s not only supporting your child and their needs, but also a self-care practice for you! 

3. Set Boundaries

You know your child and how and where they are at their best. If your entire family is gathering at Grandma’s house, there are ways you can still participate. Plan to stay for an hour so that you leave before your child reaches their sensory maximum. It may be helpful to communicate ahead of time the boundaries you are setting with your family members to avoid any misunderstanding. Here is a great resource to share with family or friends who are hosting holiday gatherings. And thanking them for understanding the choices you need to make will help them to feel appreciated for being flexible. 

You could also plan to arrive at gatherings early in order to allow your child to slowly acclimate to the number of people showing up in real-time, which could help make them feel less overwhelmed. 

4. Say No

With so many invitations, activities and options presented to us during the holidays, we can end up finding ourselves in situations that may take away from the enjoyment. Furthermore, saying yes to an event when you actually want to say no can lead to feeling overwhelmed and also experiencing resentment. If you know your child will not do well at someone’s house, you can kindly decline an invitation. Remember, all you need to say is “I am sorry, we cannot make it – thank you for the invitation.” You do not need to give a reason or explain why you cannot make it to the event. It can be hard to say no, but if it will reduce the stress in your life, you need to do it for your own sanity. 

5. Pace It Out

Decorating your home for Christmas can be fun for some, but sensory overload for others. If you gradually get your decorations out, your child can acclimate to the new lights, smells and sounds slowly. Progressively introducing new decor into the living areas of the house allows your child to gradually adapt to the environment. Otherwise, you risk overloading them with the changes all at one time. 

It may also be useful to take time to familiarize your child with the destination or venue of any gathering as well as the guests that will be attending. This can be done through photos or preparing a photo album they can hold and refer to during the event, as well as reviewing it beforehand. This can help reduce the chance of surprises and help them feel comfortable in knowing the environment and people they will see.   

6. Find Balance

An important holiday stress management tip is to work in some quiet, soothing activities with your kids to help them balance all the additional sensory input that comes during this time of year. And those quiet moments can benefit you, too. Furthermore, find balance in the ability to indulge in the yummy treats of the season without feeling guilty. It is common for healthy eating habits to take a backseat this time of year. But if you can balance out the sweets indulgence by increasing your water intake each day, you may feel more positive about enjoying the holiday treats. 

It’s also important to make sure to set some time aside to indulge in self-care activities that help you relax, have fun, or feel energized. These activities could include talking with a friend, going for a walk, reading, listening to music, or whatever else you enjoy. The important part of self-care is not so much what you do – it’s that you make time do it.   

7. Keep Structure

You and your child have schedules – daily, nightly, weekly routines. Keep as many things consistent as possible. For example, if you have self-care activities such as attending a workout class or getting your nails done, keep that commitment even during the busyness of the holidays. If your child has a nightly routine of taking a bath before bed, leave the holiday event with enough time to allow your kiddo to complete their routine. Keeping your typical agendas will set you and your family up for success during this often hectic time. And if a change in your child’s routine is unavoidable, creating a holiday visual schedule can help them prepare and process what is coming. Here’s another great resource for holiday social stories and visual schedules

8. Avoid Perfectionism

So many caregivers are perfectionists by nature and the holidays can intensify the desire for things to be “just right.” Though this may be difficult, try and focus on the big picture of the holiday season by avoiding getting caught up in the little details. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect, write it down or say it out loud – “things do not need to be perfect this holiday season!” 

9. Consider Dietary Restrictions

As you likely already know, autistic individuals are more likely than others to have dietary restrictions. This is something to be aware and mindful of, as well as make known to others so that your child isn’t excluded in that sense. Even if there are no dietary restrictions, having preferred food items around for your child can be an effective tool in helping them remain calm and comfortable in stressful situations. With this said, also be mindful of extreme amounts of sugar available and accessible, as this could also heighten stress and anxiety during the holidays.  

10. Sleep!

This is a small one and may seem somewhat of a cliché, but getting enough sleep is so important for stress management- especially around the holidays. With all the things we have to get done during the holidays, sleep often gets neglected. But we also know that lack of sleep makes most people more vulnerable to irritability, mood changes, etc. Protect your time to sleep by prioritizing what needs to get done today verses what can wait until tomorrow so that you aren’t sacrificing sleep to get things done. Do your best to ensure that your child gets enough sleep, as well, as this can make a huge difference in their energy and behavior.  

Some of these holiday stress management tips may seem easier said than done. But we hope that you find at least a few of them helpful and easy to incorporate into your holiday season. Even if it’s just hearing that you CAN say no and set boundaries… doing so just may lead to a less stressful and more enjoyable season! 

And if you find your stress level increasing into the new year, our Counseling program helps parents of kids with autism, as well as children and teens on the spectrum. Contact us for more info. 

If you found these holiday stress management tips helpful, please share this post with others! 

The Value of Occupational Therapy for Kids With Special Needs

Children with autism, Down syndrome, and other special needs often benefit from occupational therapy (OT), to support many areas of their development. Occupational therapy is typically characterized as exclusively addressing fine motor strength and coordination. However, there are many other areas of a child’s development that occupational therapy can positively impact. Skills OT’s work on include balance, core strength, body awareness, sensory regulation, executive functioning, attention, and greater independence with participation in school and self-care.  

The benefits of occupational therapy for children with special needs are numerous. Occupational Therapists are skilled in using a variety of strategies to address motor development, self-regulation and sensory needs. Additionally, they work on social participation, adaptive skills, and daily life skills. This means activities like brushing teeth, toileting, opening containers, writing, and getting dressed. OTs also incorporate sensory integration techniques to help children who struggle with sensitivity to touch and clothing textures, light and sound sensitivity, as well as balance and body positioning in space.  

Occupational therapy for children with special needs is built upon a foundational belief that children learn best through engaging in their natural “occupation” of play. Their goal is that the “work” should be FUN! They use a variety of play-based materials such as yoga balls, animal walks, scooter boards, swings, obstacle courses, and resistive tunnels to address gross motor skills. They also incorporate board games, crafts, and other manipulatives to teach fine motor coordination through play. It’s obvious our OTs enjoy building a variety of skills through fun and engaging child-centered activities. A constant cycle of assessment and treatment through engagement in such activities allows children to keep advancing their skills in a developmentally natural progression.   

Occupational Therapy at Healing Haven

As our ABA Therapy services grew, we added additional therapies to support our clients’ development. Doing so also provides one service location for parents.  We first added Speech Therapy and then in 2018, we added Occupational Therapy services. This provides collaboration opportunities among the professionals supporting a child. In fact, all our OTs receive ABA training and know how to work collaboratively with our BCBAs and RBTs.  

From the Beginning

Our first OT on staff has a long history working with our Founder Jamie McGillivary. Long before she ever ever considered studying to become an Occupational Therapist, Julie worked with Jamie at Beaumont’s HOPE Center. She was the Motor Room Expert in the Parent Training Program. She later went on to manage the summer programs in the early days of Healing Haven.

From Behavior Therapist to Occupational Therapist

Julie first met Jamie through a family she worked with more than 20 years ago doing in-home therapy and respite care. This family motivated her to work with individuals with autism and their families full-time. As a result of that experience, Julie studied to become a BCaBA – Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst. After several years working in ABA Therapy, she decided to pursue education to become an Occupational Therapist.

Julie

As Healing Haven grew and Julie studied to become an OT, she knew from her previous experience of working with Jamie, that she wanted to return to work here. She rejoined Healing Haven in January 2018 after receiving her Master’s in Occupational Therapy from Eastern Michigan. Her years of experience in ABA combined with her education and training as an Occupational Therapist are a powerful combination.

Julie describes her current role as her “dream job”. The primary reason she was drawn back to Healing Haven is that “the kids are so much fun!” She likes the saying ‘when you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. The reason is she has witnessed it lived out. Each child is unique, and Julie loves the challenge of discovering what motivates them. Julie also appreciates how the staff acknowledge each other for hard work. “I could not ask for better people to surround me each day.” 

Expanding Our OT Services

As our ABA Therapy clinic grew into two clinics, and then to three clinics, serving kids from 2-16 years old, we recognized the need to also grow our Occupational Therapy services. Over the past five years we have added several more highly qualified and passionate Occupational Therapists and Occupational Therapy Assistants to our team. Their breadth of experience are a tremendous asset to our clients. Many of them have years of experience working with children with special needs. 

Maddie

Occupational Therapist at Healing Haven

Maddie Gildner, MSOT, OTR/L joined our OT team in  early 2023. She graduated with her Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy from Western Michigan University in December of 2022.   

Maddie has always enjoyed working with the pediatric population, and she’s passionate about providing fun, effective, and client-centered care. Maddie “looks forward to partnering with and supporting children and their families to help them be as independent as possible in their daily lives.”  

Jacey

COTA at Healing Haven

Jacey Lacanilao, COTA/L, is a licensed occupational therapy assistant who joined our team in November of 2021. She graduated from Macomb Community College with an Associates of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy degree in March of 2021. Healing Haven is her first place of employment in her COTA career. 

Jacey has always had a passion for working with children with special needs. She emphasizes that no two kids are the same, and that each comes with their own fun personality. “Being a part of the journey that helps our kids grow into independent individuals is one of the best feelings,” Jacey says.  

In her free time, Jacey loves to play volleyball, spend time with family, hang out with friends, eat, and travel.  

Anna

Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant at Healing Haven

Anna Weir, COTA/L joined the Healing Haven team in February of 2022. She graduated from Northwood University with a Bachelor of Business Management and an MBA in Project Management. However, after accruing experience working with children and raising her own family, she discovered her passion for the field of occupational therapy. She obtained her Occupational Therapy Assistant degree from Macomb Community College. 

Fueled by the joy and determination of the children she works with, Anna thrives in the pediatric realm due to its variety and because it “allows me to use my creativity to motivate, teach, and promote daily life skills.” 

In her free time, Anna enjoys horse riding, hiking, kayaking, swimming, playing tennis with her daughters, acrylic painting, piano, pilates, yoga and walking her family’s dog, Chloe.  

Kaitlyn

Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant at Healing Haven

Kaitlyn Wynne, COTA/L, is a licensed occupational therapy assistant who joined our team in February of 2022. She graduated from Macomb Community College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program in 2021, having earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wayne State University prior.  

Kaitlyn is passionate about what she does, saying she loves “to create a challenging and nurturing environment for kids to inspire confidence and build the skills needed to meet their goals.”  

When Kaitlyn is not at work, she enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, watching movies, and being outdoors.  

Gabrielle

COTA/L

Gabrielle Brod, COTA/L, is a certified occupational therapy assistant. After graduating from Macomb Community College in 2021, Gabrielle joined our team in July of 2022.  

Gabrielle’s experience consists of working with a variety of clients aged 2 to 80 years old in settings such as pediatric summer camps, outpatient mental health facilities, and acute care facilities.  

In her free time, Gabrielle likes to hang out with her family and “go on different adventures with them.”  

Jenna

COTA/L at Healing Haven

Jenna Thill, COTA/L, is a certified occupational therapy assistant. She graduated from the Macomb Community College OTA program in 2009 and joined our team in January of 2023. 

Jenna has experience working in a range of different settings as well as with a wide range of ages. She found her passion early on and has spent most of her career serving kids and families in the ASD community, as well as children with ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Down syndrome, Angelman’s Syndrome, and more.  

Jenna loves the creativity she can incorporate into her therapy sessions and enjoys being able to celebrate successes big and small. Additionally, she enjoys “working closely as a team to help kids and families achieve goals, reach their highest level of independence, and live full and happy lives.”  

When away from work, Jenna adores reading, watercolor painting, crocheting, and spending time outdoors with her family.  

Getting Started With OT

Healing Haven offers occupational therapy for kids with special needs within our clinics and via telehealth. In clinic provides one service location for parents seeking behavioral, speech and occupational therapy for their child. Additionally, OT services are open to individuals not participating in our behavior-based therapy programs. If your child needs occupational therapy, reach out to us! Fill out our Contact Us form, or give us a call at 248-965-3916.

6 Fall Activities for Kids with Autism

Fall has arrived! It’s time for cozy warm drinks, choosing Halloween costumes, and visiting pumpkin patches. Fall is also a season with lots of change as kids return to school and adjust to new schedules. With all these changes, it’s important to make time for some fun. And as you know, kids with autism often need sensory experiences to regulate well. Here are six DIY fall activities for kids with autism that are easy on the budget and engage the senses. 

1. Sensory bin activities

Fill a small plastic bin with dried corn, chestnuts, pinecones, or any other dry fall goods. Kids with sensory needs are sure to love running their hands through the corn and feel the smooth or rough textures. Include items that help promote fine motor skill practice. This could be items like cups, spoons, or tweezers. Encourage your child to use these items to grab, scoop, and pour the colorful contents. Visit here for more sensory bin ideas. 

2. Bake treats

Baking is a step-by-step process with a yummy result at the end. It’s a great activity for older kids working on following instructions and taking turns. Whip up pumpkin muffins, Halloween cut-out cookies, or a seasonal fruit crisp and see your child enjoy the tasty reinforcement of creating! 

Fall is also the perfect time to roast some marshmallows over a fire. Enjoy time with your child outside in the crisp air, while helping them practice motor skills used to hold a marshmallow over a fire. Or, if being near an open flame with your child makes you nervous, you can alternatively use a grill or even the oven to get the marshmallows to the proper gooey state. The combination of different senses activated with this activity can be super stimulating for your child with autism.  

3. Create fall-themed crafts

There are so many creative and fun fall-themed crafts you can experiment with to see what interests your child with autism. Two great options involve items that fall often brings an abundance of: apples and leaves!  

If you’re tired of baking apples into pies and breads, or if you just have too many to eat, this season try utilizing them for a fun craft. Cut an apple in half, dip it into paint and press onto paper for cute, seasonal home-made stamps! 

As for leaves, collect some of the many variations covering your yard and turn them into a sensory craft. Cover a fresh or dried leaf with a piece of paper and rub crayons or oil pastels over the paper. Consider using tracing or parchment paper and a light hand. While you do this activity, discuss with your child the unique shapes and patterns each leaf exposes through the paper. For more fall craft ideas, visit this list from The Everymom.  

4. Make a corn squish bag

There are so many fall activities you can design with corn, but here’s a fun one for kids with autism who love squishy things. Fill a Ziploc bag with clear hair gel, corn kernels, and food coloring. You could also use permanent markers to draw a fall-themed design on the bag! Having your child assist with this activity can be a fun way to practice following directions and working together, especially if it yields a satisfying outcome for them. 

5. Spend time outdoors

Here in Michigan, we are lucky to have a very profound change within seasons. Colors come out, leaves fall to the ground, and the air turns crisp around us. If you are fortunate enough to live here or somewhere else the change of seasons is evident and exciting, just being outdoors can be incredibly enjoyable for your child with autism. 

Find a nearby trail, or even just take a walk through the neighborhood and enjoy observing and talking about the changes fall brings to the outdoors. Alternatively, you could spend some time in the yard helping your child create a leaf pile to jump into. The motor skills of collecting leaves by hand or rake combined with the sensory input of the texture, sound, and color of the leaves can create a lovely experience for you and your child to share. 

6. Carve pumpkins

It’s a classic fall activity but carving pumpkins is full of sensory experiences, from feeling the smooth outside of the pumpkin to smelling (and feeling) the slimy, squishy seeds and membranes as you clean out the inside. You could even extend the activity by baking and tasting the pumpkin seeds or another pumpkin flavored treat! And as always, it’s fun for kids to choose a design, work with an adult to carve it, and then see the pumpkin light up with a candle inside. 

Prepare for Halloween

In addition to all these fun fall activities for kids with autism, you may also want to start preparing them for Halloween. If this is their first time dressing up, going trick-or-treating, or they’ve struggled with these holiday traditions in the past, we have some ideas to help you prepare them. Head over to our blog post Halloween and Autism: 6 Tips to Prepare Your Child. 

Autumn is filled with opportunities to add some sensory fun for your child and work on important skills in a fun way. Whether at home with these fall activities, or out in the community with cider mills, apple picking, pumpkin patches and hayrides, we’d love to hear your family’s favorite fall activities. Let us know in the comments! 

The Power of Collaborative Autism Therapy

collaborative autism therapy

Individuals with autism can present with many complex challenges and behaviors. As such, a one size fits all therapeutic approach is not usually effective for them. This is why collaborative autism therapy services can have a greater impact.  

Research tells us that evidence-based treatment options are the best place to start. While Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy is the most effective intervention for children with autism, there are many other evidenced-based treatments that should be considered therapeutically as well. Different therapies often complement each other and are most impactful when performed in a collaborative nature.  

What Collaborative Autism Therapy Looks Like

At Healing Haven, we offer a comprehensive approach to autism therapy. In other words, we offer more than just ABA Therapy at our clinic. In addition to our ABA Therapy team of Board Certified Behavior Analysts and Registered Behavior Technicians, we have a wonderful team of Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, and Counselors, who support the needs and development of our clients. This collaborative autism therapy approach allows a family to get everything they need under one roof. Our interdisciplinary team works together to create and execute each unique therapy plan. 

How Collaborative Autism Therapy Works

An interdisciplinary approach ensures that all clinicians involved in a child’s care have the chance to meet and discuss the mutual children they serve. They collectively brainstorm techniques that will and will not work for each specific child, and strategically plan methods of generalization across therapy providers and environments. At Healing Haven, every professional is automatically on the same page when it comes to you and your child’s history and progress.  

The Benefits of Collaboration

There are many benefits to professionals working collaboratively when it comes to your child with autism’s developmental needs. All therapy providers being in a shared physical space is just one of them. When all professionals work together they get to witness and learn from each other’s work. Conversely, when we get a report from a client’s outside occupational or speech therapist, we can communicate about the goals in place, but we may not have the luxury of observing how the goals are being taught. 

Additionally, when parents don’t have to schedule therapies at multiple locations, it can help reduce their stress. The benefit of having an interdisciplinary team also eliminates the need to repeat the same thing to multiple professionals. This can lessen the likelihood of confusion and miscommunication between parent(s) and professionals. 

What Sets Our Collaborative Autism Therapy Apart

Healing Haven’s collaborative autism therapy approach is unique in that it encourages parent involvement in each type of therapy, as opposed to only requiring it in the autism therapy portion. Parents are active members of their child’s team, as they bring essential information to the table. Parents are essential to help their child generalize skills to the real world.  

It is our goal at Healing Haven for each child to gain the skills they need to move to a lesser level of care. And the best way to experience that is to make sure what we do in the clinic continues to carry over into the home.  

To get your child started with services, contact us today! 

6 Ways to Build a Positive Relationship With Your Child’s Teacher

positive relationship with child's teacher

As a parent of a child with autism, you want to know your child will be cared for at school. You want to send them to a quality learning environment and for their educators to know and understand your child. In order for your child to be successful, a positive relationship with your child’s teacher is a must. And establishing that relationship can also help alleviate stress on you. (This is a foundation of who we are at Healing Haven – providing strategies for parents to help manage their stress when you’re parenting a child with special needs.)

Here are some ways to foster positive teamwork between you and your child’s teacher to ensure a good school experience for your child.

1. Communicate well

This one is intentionally listed at the top- good communication is key to any healthy relationship! It is the foundation to how the school year will play out, how you will work through concerns, and greatly influences your child’s degree of success.

When communicating, especially for the first time, address your child’s teacher by their professional title and use a friendly tone. Remember to keep communication with your child’s teacher ongoing throughout the year rather than confined to only IEP meetings and parent/teacher conferences.

2. Start communication early

If you haven’t already, now is a good time to reach out to your child’s teacher. Though the beginning of the school year is typically very hectic for teachers, they highly appreciate this. Teachers often reach out first to parents, but you proactively reaching out shows the teacher you want to be on the same team. Establishing a positive relationship early can help ease solving problems later, as previously established trust provides a common foundation. Ask any and all questions you might have for your child’s teacher to solidify expectations. This keeps you in-the-know about what will happen in the classroom. And if your child has both a general education and a special education teacher, make sure to communicate with both of them.

3. Respect and trust

A trusting relationship between parent and teacher is almost guaranteed to help the teacher better understand the child. Likewise, practicing empathy strengthens relationships. Teachers, just like you in your role as a parent, are doing their best amidst many challenges. Even though it may be hard at first, err on the side of trust with the teacher. Most teachers would not be in their job if they did not want to put their students first and work for their best. Ally with your child’s teacher on the premise that you both want what is best for your child.

4. Go to the teacher first

Another way to build a positive relationship with your child’s teacher is to communicate concerns with the teacher first. It can be off-putting to the teacher when parents skip over communicating with them and go right to the principal to address issues or concerns. If no resolution is reached with the teacher, then consider bringing your concerns to administration.

5. Share about your child

You are the one who knows your child best, so communicate that with their teacher. Share helpful info that might not be included in your child’s IEP, such as likes/dislikes and strengths/weaknesses. IEP meetings often take place only once a year, so share any new info on your child with their teacher in the time between those meetings. Teachers want to know more about their students to better understand and serve them. A great habit to establish is creating an “About Me” sheet introducing your child to their new teacher at the beginning of the school year. This can be especially helpful if your child has limited verbal communication skills.

6. Show appreciation

Showing appreciation is incredibly impactful in building a positive relationship with your child’s teacher. Teachers often hear about the things they are doing wrong, which is very wearisome. Show your appreciation for your child’s teacher throughout the year in small ways, such as sending notes of encouragement and thanks. When the teacher does something you appreciate or value, tell them. Little acts of appreciation mean a lot to teachers as they manage so many pieces.  

BONUS Tip: Be a participative parent

We have added this one since we first published this post, so this is our bonus seventh tip: participate in your child’s classroom activities and events, if possible! Not only does participating give you a chance to experience your child’s classroom atmosphere, it shows the teacher that you care and want to be involved. Doing this can also be a great way of meeting other parents and building a community.

A note if your child also does ABA Therapy

Another important person to be brought into this parent/teacher relationship is your child’s BCBA. As teachers become more familiar with ABA therapy and how it benefits their students with autism, introducing them to your child’s BCBA can lead to a collaborative relationship between school and ABA.

Some of our BCBAs attend their client’s IEP meetings. They are another expert voice that can help ensure the proper supports are in place at school so your child can be as successful as possible.  BCBAs may also share with a client’s teacher strategies they use in the clinic. By bringing together all professionals working with your child, you can help create a more cohesive learning and therapy experience for your child.

All in all, cooperation between yourself and your child’s teacher not only benefits your child, but can also benefit you in reducing the potential stress of school, IEPs and supports. Remember that teachers want the best for their students and you want the best for your child. Unite on this premise and your child is likely to thrive!