In most places, as soon as a child is identified as autistic, they are funnelled straight in to early intervention therapies. Based on a medical model of disability, these therapies see autistic children as disordered, and aim to change autistic children so that they will play, communicate and move more like their ‘typically developing’ peers.
In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm* views autism and other neurodivergence as a natural and valuable part of human diversity. There is not an ‘ideal’ brain or correct style of neurocognitive functioning; all are valued. There is not an ideal or correct way for children to play, communicate and move; all are valued.
If families, caregivers and health professionals accept the neurodiversity paradigm, ‘autism early intervention’ looks very different. The target of intervention is not autistic children, but their social and physical environments. Autistic children are supported in families and communities to develop as unique and valued human beings, without conforming to the developmental trajectory of their neurotypical peers.
1. Learn from autistic people
Learn as a family about autistic ways of being and autistic culture, neurodiversity, and disability. Autistic people are the only experts on autism; find us and our work. Don’t ask us to educate you, but listen and learn.
2. Tell your child they are autistic
Tell them now, tell them early. Talk about autism matter-of-factly. Explore what being autistic means for them. Teach your child about disability and how they are disabled by society. Build pride and an understanding of human rights from a young age.
3. Say NO to all things stressful & harmful
Say no – to quackery, to intensive normalising therapy, to excessive socialising, and to inappropriate school environments. Say no to anything that causes stress or harms their bodies. Say no to anything that will interfere with their ability to say No themselves in the future. Model self advocacy early.
4. Slow down your life
Autistic children need time and space to develop in their own way at their own pace. Ideas about happy ‘productive’ childhoods are based on neurotypical norms. Cut out all of the extra activities and socialising, and busyness of life. Discover the pace that works for your children. You might find that lots of downtime at home is vital for their healthy development.
5. Support & accommodate sensory needs
Observe your child closely, talk with them, and tune in to their sensory needs. Meet their sensory needs creatively (you don’t need to spend lots of money). Defend and protect your child from sensory assaults. Frame this as an accommodation they require as a child with disability, in the same way other children require ramps or interpreters.
6. Value your child’s interests
There is no right way to play. Special interests are good for autistic brains, and a natural way that autistic children learn and develop. Don’t use them as a ‘way in’ for other learning, therapy or change. Don’t attempt to broaden their interests, or restrict access to special interests. Join in, learn about and share their interests; but also respect your child’s wishes for time alone with their favourite things.
7. Respect stimming
Stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour) is like breathing for autistic children and adults. It feels good, helps us feel connected and focused. It is harmful to interfere with children developing and enjoying their own stims. Unless children are hurting themselves or others, respect their need to stim; never shame them or stop them. Stimming is beautiful!
8. Honour & support all communication
Don’t overly focus on the development of verbal speech. Human communication is much more than speech, and many autistic people are non-speaking. Honour and respond respectfully to all communication from your children. Support your child to access communication supports such as symbol-based AAC, sign language, typing, or RPM so that they have access to alternative ways to communicate with family, friends and others.
9. Minimise therapy, increase accommodations & supports
Intervene with therapy only for issues impacting health and wellbeing. A good question to ask: “Would my non-autistic children access this therapy?” Focus your energy and advocacy efforts on accessing accommodations and support for your child to participate in family and community as they choose. Autistic children may require 1:1 support more often or at different times than other children. They also have a right to accommodations to enable inclusion in school and community.
10. Explore your own neurocognitive differences
Explore similarities between you and your child’s sensory, cognitive, and social needs. Accepting and valuing your own unique brain, goes a long way towards respecting and accommodating your children’s needs. Many autistic children have neurodivergent parents; exploring your differences might help you identify something really important about yourself!
– Briannon Lee
For more about neurodiversity, the neurodiversity paradigm and movement, please see Nick Walker’s succinct and clear definitions – http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neurodiversity-some-basic-terms-definitions/
For those who prefer visual presentation of information, Michelle Sutton’s neurodiversity infographic is a great primer on neurodiversity – http://michellesuttonwrites.com/66-2/the-basics-of-neurodiversity/