Wednesday 10 May 2023

How Empowered Parents Can Empower Children: Tools To Support Children With Special Needs & Learning Disabilities

As the founder of Hands On Fun Occupational Therapy, for over twenty five years, I have dedicated my personal and professional life to promoting healthy occupational, cognitive, and social development in kids through tailored playtime activities. 

Research has clearly demonstrated the numerous benefits that occupational therapy can have on children, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. So, let’s dive into some of the signs that your child may benefit from OT interventions, and talk about how parents can support their children following their diagnosis.

First off, it’s important to keep in mind that autism and other learning disabilities can be diagnosed at any age, but recognizing the signs quickly is incredibly important so that you can seek an early diagnosis and begin interventions as soon as possible.You may already know that, depending on their age, your child might display a variety of atypical behaviors related to their language, communication, and social developments, but let’s break it down a little more. 

Early signs of autism can be difficult to spot; however,I’d advise parents to pay attention to the following things: 

1) Your infant doesn’t responding to his or her name being called, or avoiding using gestures to communicate with you or other toddlers. 

2) Your child avoids making eye contact with people in general. 

3) Your child show preference to doing activities or playing alone. Another big non-social cue is if your child displays an abnormal fixation on OR aversion to certain sensory stimuli, such as intense staring or sniffing and, on the other hand, avoiding touching objects with specific textures or sounds. 

While it's common for your child to receive an accurate diagnosis of autism before age two, it’s possible that you may not identify potential signs of autism until your child starts to become more social and engages in more complex activities. At this age, it's crucial to look out for struggles with social interaction. Particularly, 1) making friends, 2) understanding social cues, and 3) maintaining conversations. At this age, kids are just starting to make connections with the world around them, so it’s common for them to develop specific interests; however, if your child has autism, they may obsess over these interests at the cost of neglecting other important activities. 

Finally, learning disabilities are fairly common in children with autism, and that’s because they often experience difficulty with tasks related to what’s called executive functioning. That’s the part of the brain responsible for things like planning and organization. In school, this can manifest as struggling with reading, writing, and math, as well as trouble with memory, attention, and time management.

Like many parents who seek professional support early on already know, getting a diagnosis for autism or other learning disabilities can take time, and this waiting period can be difficult for parents. Naturally, early intervention from speech, occupational and behavioral therapists will give your child the best chance at overcoming the challenges associated with their diagnosis, but in the meantime, there are still things you can do to support your child's development at school and right at home. 

From an education perspective, parents might find it beneficial to work with their child's school to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These plans outline accommodations and modifications that can help their child succeed in the classroom. This might include them getting access to assistive technology, or having extra time to complete tasks. I have also seen tremendous progress in students where teachers have gone above and beyond to tailor their lessons to suit a child’s learning style, to make lessons more engaging. School is a great space to look for ways to incorporate your child’s interests into their academic work. For example, if your child loves dinosaurs, you could use dinosaur-themed math problems or reading materials to help them practice important skills.

My biggest tip for helping your child with autism thrive at home is to lean into their strengths and interests. Encourage them to engage in hobbies that excite them, and provide opportunities for socialization and play in small groups. Parents can also look for ways to incorporate learning into everyday activities, such as cooking or playing games. Above all, I’d encourage parents to celebrate their child's accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem, and offer support and encouragement during challenging times.

Finally, my last tip to parents is to make time for their own self-care as well. Caring for a child with a disability can be emotionally and physically demanding, so seek support from family, friends, and mental health professionals as needed, and remember to celebrate your own accomplishments as well as your child's. Recognizing signs of autism or other learning disabilities is important for early intervention and support, but with the right support and strategies, you can help your child thrive academically and in life too.

My mission is to empower parents, caregivers and educators alike by equipping them with the necessary tools and activities that will ensure their child meets their developmental trajectory milestones and, above all, thrives at school as well as in life.

Senior Occupational Therapist for the NYC Department of Education and founder of Hands On Fun OTKim Cunningham, sharing how she's helping children with early signs of development delays.

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