Author Archives: Janelle Durham

About Janelle Durham

I teach Discovery Science Lab and Family Inventors' Lab, STE(A)M enrichment classes in Bellevue, Washington for ages 3 - 9. I am also a parent educator for Bellevue College, a childbirth educator for Parent Trust for Washington Children, former program designer for PEPS - the Program for Early Parent Support, a social worker, and mother of 3 kids - age 26, 22, and 9.)

Circle Time for Toddlers

music-play-youth-musical-instrument-children-sports-sound-music-group-human-positions-music-garden-995658

I teach a parent-child class where the toddlers are 12 – 30 months in September. Each week, we do a circle time for music and stories. I tell the parents that not only does music have many benefits for children’s learning, and not only do rhymes and songs help teach language skills, circle time is also a chance for children to begin to practice key skills for kindergarten readiness: the ability to sit still, to listen to a teacher, to notice and do what the other people around them are doing, and to stop doing something when asked. (We do the shaker song every week, “oh you shake and you shake and you shake and you stop” and I talk about how huge this is for practicing impulse control.) My secret agenda is that teaching parents things to do with their children builds connections. Plus, of course, circle time is fun!

At the beginning of the year, I make sure parents know that their children will not yet be good at sitting still and paying attention for the full circle time, but the more we practice, and the more we model that behavior for them and encourage them to try, the better they’ll get. At the beginning of the year, circle time is about 10 minutes long. By the end of the year, it’s 20 – 25 minutes.

I always go in the same order each time, just adding more pieces to each segment as we go along. That way the children learn the ritual, and are better able to participate because they can predict what will happen next.

  1. Greeting Songs – each week we do the “I roll the ball to [name] song” and one other greeting song which uses the child’s name and gives each child a moment in the spotlight.
  2. Lap Songs – when we bounce children in a rhythm, it helps to instill rhythm in them at a fundamental level. It also helps to build their vestibular system. These songs are also super fun, and get lots of giggles going.
  3. Finger Rhymes – these teach a lot of vocabulary, and also teach children to notice patterns… “after dad says ‘with a one step and a two step’, he’s going to tickle me.”
  4. “Theme Activity” – I always have some small toys, puzzle pieces, or decor items tied into the theme gathered in my red gift bag. We sing “what’s in the red bag, the red bag, the red bag…” song. The kids come running over to find out. I give each one an item to take back to their parent – they talk about it together, then we do a few rhymes or songs that are related, then they bring them back to me.
  5. Book (we start these about halfway through the year)
  6. Shakers – we do the shake and stop song, sometimes some other songs, sometimes we turn on recorded music and dance and shake to the music.
  7. Active Songs, with or without parachute. Moving around the room in rhythm to the music is great at building coordination, rhythm, and large muscle skills.

I’ve gathered the ideas for my circle time rhymes and songs from many great sources. I have lots of favorite songs (here are links to lyrics and to videos showing hand motions). I have some favorite toddler books I share.

I have a full year’s worth of circle time plans for my toddler class – it’s organized by theme, and we do each set of songs for about 4 – 6 weeks. Themes include: fall, winter, spring, farm, zoo, stars, transportation, ducks, and beach.

For my science class for 3 – 6 year olds, we do two completely different circle times each week – opening circle teaches a rhythm activity, a discussion of the day’s topic, and a non-fiction book. Closing circle teaches a song, we read a fun imaginative fiction book related to the day’s theme, and we often do a group game to reinforce the day’s learning. You can find about 35 topics worth of circle time plans at www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.

Do you have any great tips for how to help circle time go well, any favorite songs, or favorite resources for finding more ideas?

Resilience

This is a companion piece for “Building Resilience in Children“. This post offers a deeper look at theories of resilience, and links to some key research in the field.

What is Resilience?

So, what is resilience? And how do you know if you have it?

If you were lucky enough to never face any challenges, you’d never know if you have resilience (and honestly, you probably wouldn’t, because we build resilience by facing and mastering challenges in our lives.)

But, for most of us… challenges come to us on a far too regular basis, right?

Types of Challenges We Might Face

Anytime we face a life transition, or a new developmental stage, that’s a challenge. (These predictable developmental cycles are called “periods of disequilibrium.”) Whether that’s a toddler who falls down many times before they learn to walk, or the new parent who has to cope with all the tantrums that might cause. There’s midlife crises, there’s the challenges of aging… those are “expected challenges” that any developmental psychologist can tell you are typical, but that doesn’t mean they’re not hard for the people going through them.

There’s also all the unexpected challenges – the fall in the mud puddle, the flat tire, the spilled milk, the flu.

And then there’s interpersonal challenges – the boss who makes unfair demands, the girlfriend who says she’s “just not that into you,” or the parent who lets you down.

Challenges just keep on coming.

But… and people in the midst of adversity hate it when you say this…  each of those moments of adversity is a learning experience. Each one offers “opportunities for personal growth.” Each one helps us learn how to stretch and how to bounce back.

Bouncing Back

One way of defining resilience is “doing better than expected in difficult circumstances.” We all have times when it seems like life is trying to knock us down, in small ways or in big ways. The question is: how will we respond? It seems there are three main pathways of response: Will we let adversity pin us down? Or will we bounce back up the status quo? Or end standing stronger and taller than ever before? And how can our family and our community and our beliefs help us to bounce back?

Image showing three responses to adversity - defeat, return to the status quo, and empowerment

Resilience is a really complex issue. There are lots of factors that influence our response to adversity. Several different models have been developed to examine factors. I’ll share a combination of those that shows my best current understanding.

Protective Factors vs. Risk Factors

The reality is that hard things come into everyone’s life at some point. Sometimes they’re expected challenges like a move to a new home, but often adverse circumstances arrive out of the blue – an illness, a home break-in, or a job layoff might appear in our metaphorical inbox. When a challenge hits, we start running with it, and we figure out our response as we go along.

running with it

Several things affect our response and whether or not we end up in a good place in the end. The risk factors drag us down. They challenge our ability to cope and to recover from this challenge, and increase the chance of poor outcomes. The protective factors – things that make it easier for us to cope – lift us up and make it more likely we’ll have a positive, empowered result.

risk and protective

What tips the balance for good outcomes is when the protective factors outweigh the risk factors. When we have so many good things going for us that the hard times are easy to overcome.

seesaw

Among the factors that influence our response, some are on the individual level  – specific to that person and the ways they interact with the world, some are found within  their network of family, close friends and communities,  and some are influences from the broader society as a whole.

levels

Individual Factors

Some people are just inherently more resilient than others, no matter what life throws at them. Dr. Thomas Boyce has researched the human stress response for 40 years, and he says some people are dandelions, and some are orchids.

Dandelions are people who can go through almost anything, and be unfazed by it all. Orchids are a lot more sensitive – they’re more vulnerable to stress, and need more support to weather the storms. But given the right nurturing care, they can thrive and become incredibly beautiful.

So what individual factors help to make us more or less resilient?

  • Internal Locus of Control – Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner found that resilient people have a strong internal locus – they believe they are in control of their own destinies. Even if bad things happen to them, they feel they can choose how to let that impact them.
  • Confidence – Resilient people have confidence in their own competence. And they have a growth mindset… instead of thinking of themselves as “not good” at something, they think “I’m not good at it yet. If I just keep working hard, I bet I’ll figure it out.”
  • Temperamentit’s easier to be resilient when you have a sense of humor about life, when you’re naturally easy-going, naturally flexible, and calm.
  • Mental and physical health – Our mental health is influenced by many things beyond our control – genetic, epigenetic, and environmental. Depression can make it supremely hard to bounce back from challenges, and anxiety can mean that even small challenges quickly become overwhelming as you spin into worry about how much worse it might become. Physical illness and disability are challenging circumstances on their own, often creating chronic adversity, and they can also make it harder to bounce back from other challenges. Good mental health and physical health is a huge protective factor.
  • Goals – Having goals you’re working toward helps with resilience – it’s the “eyes on the prize” focus that helps you push through the hard times. Resilient individuals tend to have things outside themselves that give them a reason to get up every day. This can be an interest or passion, such as music or art. This can be big dreams they’re working toward. Or, it can be knowing that other people are counting on them.
  • Perception – According to psychologist George Bonanno, a key individual factor is  how we interpret difficult circumstances. Do we perceive an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Sometimes even something tragic, while very sad in the short term, might also be a powerful life event that changes someone for the better in the long term. This positive perception… finding meaning in loss… is more likely for people who have a spiritual or religious faith.

Which brings us to the next set of protective factors.

Family and Close Community

Our family of origin, and the close communities that we interact with throughout our lives (like a child’s school, an adult’s workplace, or a church community) have a huge impact on resilience. When these circles are healthy, they provide the key protective factor of a secure base.

From these communities, we learn our values – what does it mean to be a good person? We learn about faith – whether that’s a belief in a higher power, or a belief in a greater good, faith can provide a strong beacon of hope in the darkness of despair. We learn our stories. The most powerful stories are when members of our communities say “we’ve had good times and bad times, but we are a strong, resilient people and we keep moving forward together.”

In these communities, we find our key relationships. Researchers at Harvard found that no matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable, committed relationship with a supportive adult. Whether that’s a parent, friend, clergy, teacher or coach. That person offers us emotional support, they help us to see our own strengths, they teach us how to plan and how to cope in healthy ways.

In these communities, we can learn that we are valued, and that we can contribute in meaningful ways. If we have clear roles, we can see that our commitment is essential, and sometimes on our darkest days, what keeps us going is knowing that other people are counting on us, and we have to show up for them.

These communities can also be a source of concrete support – a ride to the doctor’s office after an injury, a bed to crash on when a relationship falls apart, a loan when we can’t pay a bill, someone to watch our kids for us – all these “little things” can help carry us through a hard spot.

Now, the problem is that our families and our communities are not always healthy. And just as a healthy home base can build resilience, an unhealthy family is devastating to our long-term resilience.

There is some really important research in health and mental health called the ACE’s study – where ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences.

Researchers asked people about their childhood – had they experienced things such as abuse, witnessed domestic violence, had parents with mental health issues or addiction or who were incarcerated, or had experienced homelessness. 60% of people have one or more of these experiences in childhood. The more you have, the less resilient you’ll be as an adult. About 12% of people have an ACE score of 4 or higher. With a score of 4 or higher, you’re four times more likely to experience addiction, 3 times more likely to have heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes, far more likely to experience mental health challenges, and 6 times more likely to say you never feel optimism or hope.

The good news about ACE’s is that they can be overcome.

Knowing about the negative impact of ACE’s and working to mitigate it is the first step. Another key step  is connecting to healthy relationships and healthy communities. The research is really clear that even for kids from very toxic home environments, even just one healthy relationship with one positive mentor in the community is a huge boost on their path to recovery.

Now let’s look at the impact of Society and Resources.

Societal Factors and Resources

We have a strong cultural narrative in America – the cultural narrative that everyone can succeed if they “just try hard enough.”

But we don’t have a level playing field in America – we’re not all starting from the same place. A person who is living in poverty, in a crime-ridden neighborhood, where drug use is a common escape from the pain of living just doesn’t have the same resilience resources available to them. Or, even if someone had all the other advantages they could have, if they happen to have dark skin, or happen to be female, or gay, or trans, or disabled, or non-Christian, they have to carry the weight of systematic oppression. click to add That weight makes it harder to magically “bounce back” from challenges.

It is so much easier to be resilient if you happen to have been born into a stable, white, middle class family. If you made it through childhood with an ACE score of 0. If in adulthood, you’ve always had resources… so whatever challenge might arise, you’ve got back-up plans: car insurance, home insurance, health insurance. Flexible hours at work, paid sick leave, and short-term disability pay. Cash in the bank. A safe, warm home. People to take care of you, people to take care of your kids. If you’ve got the skills to research and access any services that you need. If you can speak with educated words and a voice of authority and white skin that afford you respectful treatment by those you encounter. All of these things make it easy to “bounce back” from whatever happens.

So, let’s start talking about how we can build resilience in ourselves and in others.

Building Resilience

At the Societal Level

Let’s first look at this societal level, and what we can do to tip the balance.

societal

We can work to dismantle systematic oppression. Respect and support cultural identities as tools for empowerment. Help increase equitable access to concrete resources and safe communities. Support organizations which work to increase hope in impoverished communities through the arts, access to job opportunities, and tools to help people reach for their dreams.

At the family and community level:

  • Think about the Stories We Tell. Stories can mobilize sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. When you’re facing difficult times, it helps to feel like you’re a part of something bigger. There are three types of stories we can tell – 1) our people are always successful (unfortunately, this can bestow a sense of entitlement if you as an individual are successful or a sense of personal failure if you’re not at the moment), 2) our people are never successful and things always get worse for us, or 3) our people have a history of weathering challenge and emerging stronger than before. That third kind is the best for building resilience for future adversity.
  • Build Relationships, and Be a Mentor. Remember, a key factor in resilience for children or for anyone is having a relationship with someone who believes in them, encourages them to be their best possible selves, and helps them keep moving when life seems too hard. You can be one of those people – not just for your friends and family, but for anyone you encounter in the broader community. Any time we interact with anyone in a way that reflects their inherent worth and dignity, we build their resilience.
  • Invite and Value Contributions. Let people know that their presence in the community matters, and that they can make valuable contributions. This is even in the little things. I’ll occasionally ask a child to help me as I set up or tidy – even a three year old can be asked to help carry something. Sometimes kids are surprised to be asked, because we often don’t ask them. But when we do, and we thank them for their help, it increases their sense of efficacy.
  • Concrete Support. Lending a helping hand to a parent with their hands full, offering a ride to someone recovering from an injury, helping someone work on a resume, passing on news about available affordable housing, or accompanying someone to a support group meeting are just some examples of simple things we can do to help people get back on their feet after a challenge. Keep your eyes open for your opportunities.

At the individual level:

  • Build others’ internal locus of control. Support others in viewing themselves as having control over their destiny. You can use a framework of “I have… I am… I can…” that encourages someone facing hardship to think about what resources they have, to tell themselves a positive story of who they are, and to think about concrete steps that they can take to help improve their situation.
  • Support a growth-based mindset. Carol Dweck has researched what she calls “the Growth Based Mindset” which is a belief that we are capable of learning more and doing better. And Angela Duckworth has researched what she calls “Grit” as a vital mechanism in achieving success despite barriers. One way to build these things is to talk about mistakes, failures, and setbacks as normal parts of learning, not as reasons to quit. Remind yourself and those around you that everyone runs up against things they can’t do. The ones who succeed are the ones who pick themselves up and try again.
  • In terms of Temperament – some people are naturally more fearful, and when things seem hard, their anxiety takes over. Researchers at Yale have learned that if we accommodate too much, it actually makes anxiety worse. If we tell someone “I know that’s scary, so you don’t have to do it”, it actually validates that this thing is way too scary and way too powerful. Instead, we can say to ourselves and others “It’s OK to feel scared. We all feel scared. Let’s make a plan for how we can do it anyway.”
  • We know Mental Health and Physical Health are huge protective factors. So, at the societal level, we can be doing public policy advocacy to increase access to health care. But, at the individual level, with ourselves and others, we can think about self care. We can remember that it’s important to prioritize self care – it helps to help recharge our batteries to give us enough energy to face whatever challenges may come.
  • We know that having a goal in mind helps us to keep pushing forward. Ask people to tell you about their dreams. Help them to figure out what the next manageable step is toward achieving that dream. Emphasize that even when challenges seem hard in the short term, we can work to overcome them and not let them block us from that long-term goal.
  • Perception – Learn how to re-frame challenges for yourself, and share with others what you have learned. There are three aspects to re-framing:
    • If you find yourself believing that when bad things happen it’s always your fault, try reframing to “sometimes bad things happen that are beyond my control. What I can control is how I respond to them.”
    • Stay focused on fixing the specific problem rather than thinking it’s a sign of some global problem. For example, if you don’t get a job you were hoping for, remember that it’s not that you are fundamentally unemployable. It’s just that one job that said no…. keep trying till you find the right fit.
    • View problems as impermanent – it will get better in time, and there are steps you can take to help it improve.

In the end, some of the most important protective factors that build resilience and increase positive outcomes  are the stories that we tell ourselves about the challenges that we face, and the stories that we tell those in our community about who we are, and what we’re capable of. If we believe that we are strong, and can overcome anything, the chances are much higher that we will.

 

Autistic? Or Just “Quirky”?

Recently, I’ve had multiple discussions with parents who are wondering whether their child is autistic, wondering whether they should have them tested, and receiving testing results of “well, we can’t say it’s autism, but we also can’t rule out autism.” I’ve also had conversations with colleagues about children in their classes, where they’ll wonder about a child’s unusual behavior, but also say “but I don’t think they’re autistic, because there’s these other things they do well.”

It’s tricky to figure out what to do about these “maybe?” cases, and trickier still when parents see that their child has challenges, and think they would benefit from support (like occupational therapy or ABA therapy) but their insurance won’t cover it unless they have the diagnosis.

The Autism Diagnosis

When I was a kid, we tended to think of autistic people as ones who showed significant impairment in multiple domains: non-verbal, developmentally delayed, frequently stimming (e.g. rocking). Then there were a bunch of other kids who were skilled in many areas, but had some unusual behaviors. We called them “quirky” or “odd ducks” or said they “march to the beat of their own drummer.”

Then the term Asperger’s syndrome appeared, and was often applied to kids who were gifted and “quirky.” And we would talk about people in terms of “where are they on the spectrum” or “are they low functioning or high functioning?”

Now, Asperger’s is no longer a distinct diagnosis. It’s been pulled under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The criteria for an ASD diagnosis in the DSM-V are:
A) Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction (deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction and in developing, maintaining, and understand relationships) and
B) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (as manifested by at least two of: S
tereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech; Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of behavior; Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input.)

But within these criteria, there’s a range of behaviors from subtle to blatant, and from minimal impact to major impacts on school and home

What does it mean to be a spectrum disorder?

When autism is described as a spectrum, tt doesn’t mean this (source)

not very

Or this (source)

a little tragic

It means something more like this:

An illustration of a circle where the "pie pieces" are labeled language, executive function, etc. and dots indicate where the person might have more strengths vs. more difficulties

(That image comes from this great comic on “Understanding the Spectrum” by Rebecca Burgess – I highly recommend reading it.)

This graphic (source) breaks the spectrum into five categories, similar to Burgess, though the colors and the way they break things out are a little different:

GAO

And says that “the type and severity of characteristics varies from person to person.”

Picture1

C.L. Lynch on theaspergian.com uses this illustration

spectrum

Then gives a few examples of how this would apply for an individual person.

spectrum 2

I don’t know which one of these graphics might be helpful for you, but I find it very helpful to think of these more nuanced descriptions rather than a single axis of “a little quirky” to “tragic.”

I know that if someone asks me if my son is “high functioning” or “low” or asked “how autistic is he”, I would find it difficult to answer those questions. It’s much easier to tell you – “here are the things he’s good at, here are some behaviors he does that might seem odd to you but don’t harm anyone or anything, and here are some challenges he has and some accommodations you could make that might help him to manage them.”

To Test or Not to Test

I have been a childbirth educator for over 20 years. In that field, we often say – before you get a test, think what you will do with the results and how it will be helpful to you to have the results.

If you are a parent deciding whether to test, or an early childhood professional deciding whether to refer for testing, it’s worth asking that same question.

If there are services that you believe that your child would benefit from that they can only access if they have a diagnosis, then you should get your child tested. If it would be helpful to you as a parent to have a “label” that helps you better understand your child and learn more about what they need, then it’s worth getting them tested to learn more from a professional, whether that’s a diagnosis or just resources for more ideas and support. (My daughter chose to pursue a diagnosis at age 20, during her sophomore eyar of college. For her, the diagnosis came as a relief, because in the past, it was easy to think her “quirks” were her fault and she should be able to fix them herself. Once she had the diagnosis of autism, she was better able to accept that this is just who she is and it’s OK to ask for the accommodations she needs to be successful.)

I can share my own experiences about decision making for my youngest: As a parent, I suspected something was unusual about him from when he was about six months old – when he got overstimulated, he’d bump his head into things or have meltdowns. When he was a toddler, he would perseverate on things – like during one gymnastics class where he told his coach “I am an ankylosaurus” at least 20 times. He had singular obsessions – like the month where he wanted nothing but Cat in the Hat, or the periods where he only wanted to talk about the planets and could easily be calmed by just handing him 8 objects and asking him to decide which one was Mercury, which was Venus, and putting them all in order.

However, he didn’t fit some key stereotypes of autism: he’s very verbal, OK at eye contact, and seeks out social connections. So no professional ever told us that we should seek an autism diagnosis, but I suspected that was where we would be someday.

I learned  about autism and sensory processing disorders, and what accommodations help kids with those challenges, and I just did all those things for him. We chose preschools and activities that were a good fit for him, not ones that we knew would push his buttons. We didn’t have him tested yet, because having results wouldn’t have changed anything about what we were doing.

However, when he started kindergarten, things got more challenging. Luckily his kindergarten teacher was fabulous with him and just naturally did the accommodations he needed. But all of school didn’t accommodate as well. So, at that point, we had the testing done, and received an autism diagnosis, and that has made it easier for us to access the services he needs. For school, he has an IEP which ensures he gets extra support. And now our insurance will cover OT and ABA services for him due to the diagnosis. Those are the upsides of having the official diagnosis. (There is a minor downside… some summer camps and other programs say they can’t take children with autism or can only take a limited number, so there are some programs that are no longer an option for him. Not a big thing, but worth mentioning.) So, doing the testing when we did worked out for us. Your needs may be different.

To refer or not to refer

As a parent educator, I observe the kids in my class. I had one toddler where I had no doubt she was on the autism spectrum and would benefit from early and intensive services. I spoke to that parent early in the year, encouraged her to seek testing, and got her connected to services.

I’ve had lots of other students who were “quirky.” I do developmental screenings in my toddler classes, and this can start the conversation with parents about developmental issues – if it’s a minor delay in one area, I just talk about ways to enhance learning in that area, but if I see more delays, we have a broader conversation about what might be going on there. So far, I have not had another child that I told the parents specifically that they should have them tested for autism now. But, I have shared “here are some things about your child that are a little different than what we see in other kids their age. It could just be a temperament thing or just where they are in their development, but it does make me wonder a bit, so it’s something you could keep an eye on, and check in with me again if it becomes a concern.” I do mention the word autism, because I’ve spoken to parents of 7 year olds who have said things like “I can’t believe no professional we worked with ever mentioned the word autism to us before last  month. If anyone had the courage to have that conversation with us, we could have learned more about accommodations that would have helped us parent him more successfully and access services earlier.”

In my classes, I share my story of having two kids with an autism diagnosis (My older daughter was not diagnosed till age 20, because autism is different in girls and more difficult to diagnose especially for gifted girls). I hope to help people learn more about what autism looks like and how to interact effectively with autistic people.

I also talk about autism differently than the common dialogue. Autism is often treated as a tragic thing. I think it’s better to just think about it as a disability which creates some challenges but can also be accommodated. If a child is blind, or deaf, we don’t expect them to be able to change that, just by “choosing to behave better” or “learning to act normal.” We figure out what accommodations they need to move through the world, and to maximize their potential for a successful life. It’s an accessibility issue.

Autistic people also have unique strengths. For example, many have intense attention to detail, a high degree of persistence, and ability to analyze data. And “Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions.” (Source)

The Autism Self-Advocacy Network recognizes Autism Acceptance Month, which “promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people… making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.”

A Note on Co-Morbidity and Social Issues

Autism also has several co-morbidities: conditions that often occur with autism.  “Over half of autistic youth [also had] attention deficit disorder (53 percent) or anxiety (51 percent), nearly one quarter had depression, and 60 percent had at least two comorbid conditions. Other common comorbid conditions include sleep disorders, intellectual disability, seizure disorders, and gastrointestinal ailments.” (Source) Many of the challenges we think of as related to autism actually come from these co-morbidities. We should think of them as separate issues and handle them separately.

And many of the “challenges” of autism actually come from societal attitudes toward autism. For example, if a child jumps up and down with excitement, is that really a problem behavior that needs to be corrected? If a teenager gets overwhelmed by noises, so chooses to wear noise-canceling headphones in many situations, is there a reason anyone else should care about this? If someone can’t stand it when the different foods on their plates touch each other, isn’t it easy to use just a little extra care when dishing them up instead of using a lot of energy telling them that “they just have to learn to cope with that”? If the neurotypical community understood more about neurodiverse people, it would greatly reduce the “challenges of autism.”

Screening and Diagnostic Testing

If you’re wondering about your child, or a child you know, start with this list of symptoms, or red flags to watch for. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

If you’re still concerned, use a screening tool:

If you’re still concerned, talk to your child’s health care provider, and/or contact your state’s public early childhood system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. This is sometimes called a Child Find evaluation. If your child is under three years old, look at the ECTA website. If your child is 3 years old or older, contact your local public school system.

In King County, Washington, some resources for diagnostic testing include: Kindering (especially for kids under age 3), UW Autism Center (this is where my daughter was tested at age 20), and Seattle Children’s Autism Center. Some private practice psychologists also offer testing. For example, our son was tested by Heather Davis at Brook Powers Group, who had worked with him in their Incredible Years program.

Here is a podcast with tips for what to do when you’re waiting for an autism diagnosis or a PDF on the same topic.

What if they’re NOT diagnosed as autistic?

If your child has been tested for autism, and the diagnosis was “we can’t say it’s autism but we can’t rule it out” you’re in a bit of a bind.

If you feel your child needs services now and you can only access them if you have a diagnosis, you may have to do a fair amount of advocacy. Know that some clinics will refuse families who have already had an evaluation elsewhere – they worry that some parents may just be shopping around for someone who will give them the diagnosis they want and that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the child.

If it is possible for you to wait to pursue a diagnosis, that may work out better. In the meantime, you can learn more about autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD and other issues. You may discover that there is a description that is a better fit for your child. However, I personally don’t find it helps most people to become overly focused on pursuing a diagnosis – an answer to “WHY is my kid different than other kids.” Instead, you may find it more helpful to think: “given that my kid is who they are, what can I do to help support them?” Learn about how you can accommodate them so they’re not under continuous stress and pressure, while still giving them appropriate challenges so they learn and grow and reach their potential. A few months or a few years down the road, you may discover that they moved through a phase, and are now doing well in school and social occasions. Or, you may discover that things have gotten more challenging for them, and more professionals are on board with a diagnosis, given more evidence.

Resources on Autism and Accommodations

There are lots of resource guides from various organizations. Try these from the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, Autism Parenting Magazine, and the AAP. Plus these communication resources. Note: I have not vetted all these resources. If I discover materials that approach autism as a terrible disease to be cured, or focus on ways to “fix” our autistic kids, I set those aside. I choose materials that talk about autism as a neurological difference that shapes who they are and how they interact with the world, and talks about ways we can increase accessibility for them.

This article is short and helpful: 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism.

If handling discipline is an issue for you, I recommend the Incredible Years program. (We worked with Shanna Alvarez in Seattle, who was fabulous.) While the parents meet, the kids attend “Dinosaur School” which teaches social and emotional skills. Note: my Discipline Toolbox is highly influenced by what we learned at Incredible Years.

If emotional regulation is a challenge for your child, check out my post on Big Feelings and the Zones of Regulation approach.

There are helpful resources at https://brightandquirky.com which has webinars with leading experts on how to support kids who are gifted and autistic (or have other behavioral issues).

And for your child, here’s my list of Children’s Picture Books about Autism and other “quirky kids” stories. Seeing themselves reflected in a book might be helpful for them.