I quite often hear American friends on social media referring to ‘weighted blankets’ as a great resource to use with their children or, in the case of autistic adults, themselves. Intrigued, I searched for a UK supplier recently and ordered a lap and shoulder pad to trial with Dylan (well actually I bought the shoulder pad for myself).
Another thing I did recently was make Dylan a countdown chart to his birthday. I’d mentioned his birthday to him one morning, looking ahead to it a couple of weeks, and when we went to the supermarket later that day Dylan tried to buy a packet of candles and a cake. I struggled to get Dylan to put these back and later, regretting the incident and my part in it, I drew Dylan a simple chart showing how many ‘sleeps’ he had to wait. This is the sort of visual aid that has been used with Dylan in one form or another all his life.
These two objects – the innovative weighted products and the old faithful countdown chart – led me to reflect on the various interventions I have used with Dylan in the 18 years since he was diagnosed as autistic. I recalled that in just the pre-school period, i.e. within the first three years of diagnosis, I had trialled (in roughly chronological order) the following interventions and approaches:
• non-directive play therapy
• LOVAAS behavioural therapy
• holding therapy
• gluten and casein-free diet
• Auditory Integration Training
• video teaching
• mega-vitamin therapy
During this time I also visited the Options Institute in Massachusetts, attended UK conferences, events and training courses and between 1997 and 1999 (when Dylan was aged three to five) gave up paid employment in order to work intensively with him on a home education programme. The only thing I didn’t get around to doing during this time was swimming with dolphins.
I’m struck, now, by the frantic and eclectic nature of this activity. Just reading the list exhausts me. How did I find the time for all that, especially with a new baby? Did I care that the approaches I was trialling represented different philosophical positions? Was it a case of being prepared to try anything? Did I believe in everything or nothing? What did I imagine would be the impact on Dylan of all this activity? As I pinned up the countdown chart the other week it occurred to me that 18 years later I am still working on some of the same skills with Dylan. What difference, I ask in this post, did those early interventions make?
‘The Early Bird Catches the Worm’
There is no doubt that the years after early diagnosis are hard; as well as adjusting to the emotional impact I remember struggling to manage the practical implications of caring for Dylan. Coping with the difficulties of toileting, sleeping and feeding in particular took their toll on my family. Dylan is quite severely affected by his disability and this has meant that almost every developmental step has been demanding, difficult and exhausting to take. There was a time when it wasn’t possible to involve Dylan in family life or everyday activities outside the home. Events such as shopping trips, visiting or errands were impossible. Changes in lifestyle in order to accommodate Dylan and his needs (and for him to accommodate us) followed slowly. Gradually we learned to juggle family life and commitments in order to manage those difficult early years.
If someone had told me then that Dylan would make progress – slow and idiosyncratic but progress nonetheless – that would have helped enormously. I think in those early days I imagined that Dylan would get bigger but would otherwise stay the same. It seemed that the only thing that might make a difference to this (short of a miracle) was me. Early intervention, I was told, was crucial. The advice from organisations such as the National Autistic Society (NAS) was that the earlier you started work with your child the better; ‘Early Bird’, an NAS programme at the time, promoted the idea that a swift response to diagnosis could have a positive influence on later outcomes. This advice is still promoted with parents. Only this week I read that researchers at the University of California have identified brain abnormalities which they suggest reinforce the importance of early intervention; the patchy nature of the abnormalities, the scientists claim, may explain why some autistic toddlers show signs of improvement if treated early enough (Briggs, 2014).
If someone tells you that the main thing that is going to make a difference to the progress of your autistic child is you, it has a profound impact on how you feel about your role as parent. While all parents like to believe they make a difference to their child’s development the stakes seem particularly high following an autism diagnosis. As a new parent (new not just to autism but to parenting) I tended to follow guidelines and advice. I had read Penelope Leach’s Baby & Child while waiting for Dylan to be born and after his birth I had read along chapter by chapter as he got older. Now I relegated Leach to the back of the cupboard and focussed my efforts on ‘early intervention’.
The problem, though, was that no one could say what form this early intervention should take. How should we go about catching this worm? I remember the consultant who confirmed Dylan’s autism diagnosis telling me that the only thing he had ever known make a difference was love: go home and go on loving your child was his advice to me. There was, however, a clamour of parents, professionals and organisations on the newly-emerging Internet claiming treatments and miracle cures for autism. Parents of newly-diagnosed children are particularly vulnerable to these ‘rescue narratives’ because they feel it is their responsibility to do anything they can to improve the prognosis for their children. In particular, the possibility that you might be able to restore the world to the way it was before diagnosis can be irresistible. So even if I wasn’t sure what would make a difference, the dizzying activity made me feel better: at least I was doing something, keeping busy, trying my best.
Intervention in Hindsight
Although I still look for ideas to try with Dylan it is not with the desperation or dreams which characterised my search for treatments in the aftermath of his diagnosis. Then, because I didn’t know what might help Dylan or what I preferred, I tried everything I could. Now I have a better sense of what is likely to help Dylan and what we’re both comfortable with. My expectations are realistic: I know what the interventions are likely to help with and what they can’t achieve. Also, importantly, I’m no longer looking for a cure.
Over the next few posts I will offer reflections on my experience of early intervention during the pre-school years. I’m focusing specifically on this period as it is a time when parents are vulnerable to the idea that they should be doing something to help their child but are also often most alone. In reviewing early intervention I will use the following categories which I’ve found useful in thinking about my own practice:
- Sensory Adjustments
- Medical Trials
- Dietary Interventions
- Behaviour Modifications
- Educational Programmes
Next week I will reflect on the sensory interventions I trialled with Dylan and subsequent posts will consider the dietary/medical and behavioural/educational programmes I adopted in the years following diagnosis.
As I reflect on interventions and evaluate their contribution to Dylan’s development I will ask what choices I would make now, with hindsight. Decisions about interventions (including doing nothing) are not straightforward and are influenced by a range of factors. The most obvious influence on the choice of intervention is the child; the spectrum nature of autism means that what is helpful for one child may not be appropriate for another. As well as being determined by the child, however, the choice of intervention is affected by the caregivers’ feelings and beliefs. Parents embark on their own journey following an autism diagnosis and will be ready to embrace different options at different times. Society’s perspective on autism (i.e. the ‘dominant discourse’ ) also affects the options for intervention following a diagnosis. Attitudes to autism in the last 10-20 years have been transformed by research and the testimony of autistic people and this has had a significant impact on the interventions which we now consider acceptable. Finally, practical considerations (such as resources and family context) and opportunity (e.g. the availability of therapies) will play a part.
These four factors (child, parent, discourse and opportunity) combine to determine the choices which parents make. Because my reflections are based on Dylan they will be specific to a child presenting with a learning disability as well as autism. In reviewing events 18 years after my son was diagnosed I am intentionally reflecting on my feelings about intervention at different points in my journey as a parent. Society’s understanding of autism has changed since Dylan was diagnosed and some of the approaches which were current in the 90s (and which I used) have since been discredited. The options available to parents today are also different to those which I encountered 18 years ago; in particular, developments in technology have transformed the range of possible responses to children on the spectrum (e.g. through i-pads and Facilitated Communication).
Even with these changes in discourse and opportunity the categories of intervention I identify above seem to me to have remained constant. By reviewing experience in relation to these categories I hope to focus on the underlying philosophy of intervention rather than the nuts and bolts of individual therapies. Writing the posts may change my thinking but I imagine I’ll argue for a primarily sensory-based approach in the early years with non-directive and visual support. Throwing everything at your child, as I did when Dylan was first diagnosed, is exhausting and helps no one. I’ll suggest that some interventions may be useful but are better left until later. Part of the trick, I think, is assessing a child’s readiness for a particular intervention. Leach is not entirely useless; some of the regular stages of child development may still be relevant and recognising these, and being ready to respond with an appropriate intervention, can be important.
The Worm of Self
Something else which I will reflect on in upcoming posts is unexpected outcomes. For me, one of the main outcomes of early intervention was the changes it brought about in me rather than in Dylan. I don’t think the various activities and trials I embarked on after Dylan’s diagnosis made any real difference to him during that time, but those years helped me to understand and become close to him in a way I might not have otherwise. Looking back, the early years were crucial to my development; I was the one who had to change so that I could understand Dylan’s world and re-think my parenting. In this way, the significance of early intervention may lie in the difference it makes to parents rather than to children: the ‘worm’ which parents are urged to be quick to catch may perhaps be found within themselves.
Briggs, H. (2014) Autism ‘Begins Long Before Birth’ BBC News, 27/03/2014
Leach, P. (1989) Baby & Child: From Birth to Five Penguin