I wanted to share my experiences with intervention with my sons with autism, and maybe now that I have perspective, see what was useful and what wasn’t as important as I had thought.
I have three children diagnosed with autism. One was diagnosed at 3.5 years old, another at 5 years old, and the other at 2 years old (this is how I’ll refer to them in this post). All started intervention within 3 months after diagnosis. The 2 and 3.5 year old sons didn’t learn to expand their speaking at the developmentally appropriate time (some time between 18-24 months). Both began to learn to speak quickly with the right-matched intervention (one eventually became proficient in speaking; one is moderately verbal). My 2 year old received “early intervention” with the public system. He learned nothing from them in the six months they provided six hours a week one-on-one in my home. When I started my well-matched intervention, he immediately began to learn. The 2 year old became age appropriately verbal at 5.5 years old. Interestingly, the leap came for him the summer without any interventions after rooming with the older brother with autism. The 3.5 year old is my partially verbal child.
My 5 year old had chronic ear infections from 1 year to 2 years old. I figured his language delay was because of that, though his language was also “disordered.” He had other unusual traits, but I figured he was just unique. He was diagnosed with high functioning autism. Because of his basic language skills, I prioritized the other two. For language intervention, he went to a speech-language program at the local university for about a year and a half between 6 and 7 years old. There were a few successes there. I did a one-on-one intervention with him for about six months when he was 8. He learned quite a bit because I individualized it. He became age appropriately verbal maybe around 13-14 years old.
What did I learn in retrospect? First, it’s only relevant to supply “early intervention” at the appropriate developmental time frame for learning the skill. Language intervention is started so early because language usually begins between 1 and 2 years old. I didn’t teach preschool skills at 1, and I didn’t teach addition in preschool. Second, early intervention doesn’t guarantee outcome. All of my sons with autism are grown now. Who is my most competent adult child? My son diagnosed at 5 who received limited intervention. And, third, the biggest growth for each of my children is when I individualized the intervention with the core being making a connection and linking to an interest, not just teaching a skill as a means to an end.
The next focus I had was for social intervention. I remember clearly a lesson I learned two years after the diagnosis. Because we were moving away, I had a going away party for all those involved in helping the boys progress. I noticed my 3.5 year son spent most of the time sitting on the stairs watching, and the 5 year son also kept to the outskirts, but my 2 year son was in the middle of everyone. I commented to a wise friend how I found the differences in their autism so different. She pondered for a moment, and replied, “I don’t see it as autism at all. The 3.5 year and the 5 year sons remind me of your hubby and is more introverted, and the 2 year son is more social like you.” That was a shift I needed badly. Of course! A diagnosis of autism doesn’t negate the inherent personalities and traits and learning styles they have as individuals.
So, first my intervention for social skills started with age appropriate development in this area. For instance, learning and being social begins with the ability to imitate, so that’s what we started with at two years old with my younger son. We built up in skills from there. Interestingly, I realize I subconsciously took into account each child’s own individualized time for learning these skills based on their temperaments and interest. As mentioned, my two year old was a much more naturally social child than my 3.5 year or my 5 year sons. Therefore, I didn’t focus on specific social interventions for my 5 year son until he was around 9, after realizing he was doing just fine when I put him in a preschool at 5 and a co-op preschool at 6. My 3.5 year son was introduced to social intervention around 5. But my 2 year son enjoyed it around 3. When I speak about this, I’m particularly talking about intervention with their peers. Before that, we were building relationship connections with the adults in their lives through interest-based interactions.
What did I learn in retrospect? I learned not to put my social perspective on my sons. Not only did they have a different view on being social because of their being introverted and my being extroverted, but living with autism often draws their primary focus to their interests. My 5 year son loved his LEGO. He told someone when he was 9 years old that they were his best friends. Some might find that sad, but he was perfectly content. When his brain shift happened at 12, he wanted to become more social and asked for help, but he emphasized to me at the time, “But not TOO social.” I respected that. Like many introverts, my 3.5 year son prefers one to two close friends. These are those adults who take the time to appreciate his interests with him. For my social 2 year son, I found that my goal became giving him the skills to be social to the extent that he wanted so as to not allow autism to interfere with that area. Today, he enjoys being social especially with those close to him, but he finds his interests most important and has a group of on-line people interested in the same things. Of course, you may notice that I’m comfortable with the neurodiversity my children represent and haven’t tried to make them “normal heads” as my 2 year son refers to us, something he has no desire to become…haha!
Everyone may not know this about autism, but one of the things that can be prevalent is that they learn their alphabet and numbers at a young age. All three of my sons knew their alphabet between 1 and 2 years old just from typical toy, video, and puzzle interactions. Richard Scarry videos were a favorite. It took no effort on my part at all. However, my 2 year son learned to read at the traditional age of 7, and my 5 year son didn’t learn to read until 10, which is normal for a right-brained learner.
My 3.5 year son happened to love the alphabet and numbers as his special interest. As he started to learn language, he struggled to recognize the pronunciation well because of his weaker auditory input preference. He was highly visual for his input modality preference. He also had strong pattern and matching skills. With all of this in mind, I wondered if I taught him to read, he might be able to learn to speak more efficiently. I used his love of matching and his interest in the alphabet and alphabet books to teach him to read.
I bought a new alphabet book that was a lift-the-flap version and kept it from him. Each letter in the book had three words. I put the words on cards with a matching picture card for him to match. He quickly took to learning the words. After he learned the words through about H, I gave him the new alphabet book. Each flap had a word on it, and when you lift the flap, there’s a picture underneath. Basically, it was a natural self-correcting, self-teaching resource. As he started tor “read” the first pages, I saw his eyes light up! He realized he was reading a new book. When he got to the new words/pages, he was able to teach himself the new words. We moved onto a few other new books, like Brown Bear, Brown Bear and Chicka, Chicka, Boom, Boom. Eventually, he could continue learning more books and words on his own through read alouds. Sure enough, I was right. I could write out what language I was trying to teach him, and it helped him accurately pronounce words better.
What did I learn in retrospect? Having differences like autism doesn’t change how a child best learns. He still needs well-matched time frames, resources, and methods incorporating their interests to learn joyfully and optimally. I also discovered that early acquisition of skills have nothing to do with intelligence and has more to do with developmental readiness linked with traits that are used to match resources and methods. For instance, my gifted son learned to read at age 9, typical for a right-brained learner, using a resource and method that capitalized on his high visual and pictorial traits. Yet, my 3.5 year son (mental retardation IQ) learned to read at 4 because of his interest and knowledge of the alphabet along with his high visual and pattern traits. Today, my gifted son is my best reader, and my 3.5 year son capped out at about the third grade reading level.
Obviously, I’m not against early intervention. It’s just that I don’t believe in intervening before the developmentally appropriate time frame. I also believe that different learners deserve a well-matched learning environment with a strengths-based, interest-centered focus like every learner deserves. Further, every child still has their individual personality, temperament, and social characteristics that impact interactions, as well as having brain processing, input modality, and interest preferences that impacts learning. With all that I learned, is it really “intervention” or is it simply connecting with who your child is, what he needs, and why he does what he does? And is it really different no matter who you are? With all this in mind, I definitely applaud the movement toward embracing neurodiversity.