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To read about getting Levi diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, click here.
After Levi was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or more specifically, Asperger’s Syndrome (this is considered high functioning on the spectrum and is a developmental disorder affecting ability to effectively socialize and communicate), the neurologist we saw recommended using ABA therapy to help Levi with his behavior. ABA therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy) is a therapy that provides interventions, techniques, and principals for positive changes in behavior. Because his mind and his mouth were “not on the same page” or “on different wavelengths” so to speak, he could think things and understand what people were saying, yet he couldn’t respond appropriately, in a timely manner, or just not respond at all. I believe that his speech delay was because of his different wiring, not because he was being lazy, or stubborn, or being babied. He truly could not find the words to say because his brain was on overload trying to figure out how to respond to his thought process.
I think this is one of the misconceptions about autism. From personal experience, I have been judged for being a terrible parent and raising a brat. Or not disciplining him correctly or enough. I’ve even heard that autism is a diagnosis for being a lazy parent and there should be no excuses for the behaviors that kids with autism portray. I recently found a cute animated clip that explains autism in very easy terms. My kids actually learned from it about what their brother may be going through. You can see it on Youtube here.
With Asperger’s Syndrome, Levi is missing social cues and interactions around peers. He doesn’t play like other kids. He has showed a lot of repetitive behaviors, doesn’t look at people when talking, and just appears socially awkward. He has a hard time understanding appropriate and inappropriate behaviors with people. Sometimes he climbs on people like a jungle gym or gets too close in their face. He likes to wander off or sometimes run into the street because he doesn’t think about safety first. He can get obsessive with a subject or a character for weeks on end. On the plus side, he is really really good at math and puzzles, matching games and legos. He taught himself to count to one hundred and I didn’t even need to work with him. He taught himself to add basic numbers. He hasn’t even started kindergarten yet!
ABA therapy works on all of the behaviors he has. I found a group who evaluated him and insurance approved for him to have in home therapy sessions for behavior modification. We had two therapy aides come during the week to work with him on his goals. Some of his goals include using his words instead of angry screaming or throwing toys or hitting, following directions, and staying out of people’s personal space. In addition to working on his goals, they have also worked on his vocabulary and articulation, asking questions when needing help and working on following safety rules. And last but not least, he has a very strong competitive side. He has to win at everything or he has a meltdown. As I am writing this post, Levi is upset that his therapy aide found a match in his memory game and has more than him. The therapy aide is trying to calm him with deep breathing and reminding him what to do when someone else is ahead( good sportsmanship, congratulating him, etc…) Accepting loss is hard for all kids, but Levi doesn’t understand following the rules versus bending them to what he wants. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
When Levi first started ABA therapy, it was really hard for me emotionally. Listening to his meltdowns as they worked with him was hard. He loved to play with his new “friends”, but when it came time to get him to comply to their activities, he would shut down. It took months for him to learn how to comply with their requests without getting upset or melting down. While learning to comply, he was also learning how to share and take turns, and using his words to ask for things. As a four year old, that is a long list of things to learn all at once. After therapy ended, Levi would crash and fall asleep because his mind and body were exhausted and needed to reset. Sometimes I would hold him while he slept and cry because he would use so much effort to get through sessions. I remember a day where his melt down started an hour before the end of session and lasted an hour and a half. The therapy aide was so patient and stuck around even after the session ended, and after Levi complied with the request and the therapist left, he fell asleep for the rest of the night. And I cried and cried because I couldn’t calm him down or make it better for him without compromising the session.
Gradually ABA therapy sessions got easier to handle and I learned to step away when things got a little intense. The Therapist in charge of our case also worked with me on parent training, not that I need training on parenting, but teaching strategies on how to get him through meltdowns and work on his goals in their absence. Currently, Levi has a token chart. Every time he fulfills a request or does something listed, he gets a token on his chart. When he reaches the end, he gets a reward. As he was learning to clean his room, every toy he picked up, he was rewarded with a token. After earning ten tokens, his reward was to play one of his board games or puzzles. After so many weeks, the requests increase and he gets a token for every two or three toys picked up. We’ve also used the token system when we go out places. He is rewarded with tokens every few minutes if he stays next to me and doesn’t wander off. If he earns them all, he is rewarded with a trip to see the toys in the toy isle. We try to make sure that the rewards don’t always have monetary value. I’d go broke if that were the case. Levi is smart and will try to manipulate the system if I let him.
Because he starts Kindergarten this month, we’ve also been working with him on friendships, getting along with others(this is a work in progress with his siblings), and deep breathing techniques. My biggest fear is that he will get angry at a kid or the teacher and throw something at them. In preschool, he didn’t have any of those issues, so I am hopeful that the structured environment will be calming and positive for him.
ABA therapy is not for everyone. I’ve read of people who have had really negative experiences in ABA therapy. I think it really depends on the individual and their needs. But it has been a positive experience thus far for Levi and our relatives have made so many comments on how much his behavior has improved. We are in no way near done, but the improvement has made a great impact on the atmosphere in our home. Being able to listen to him speak and seeing his true personality come out has been rewarding and I know that he will do great things in this world.