Moving from Intensive Early Intervention to a More Inclusive Approach
November 15, 2023
By: Dr. Taylor Day
In 2001 my brother was participating in intensive early intervention. He was two, and I was 12. The therapy room in our basement was largely off limits for me; I would come home from school and our mom would come upstairs to greet me, unless he was having a meltdown, then she wasn’t permitted to leave the room.
In some ways autism care has shifted. In others, it hasn’t shifted enough. In 2023, we still focus very little on the family members of autistic children. When I entered clinical practice as a child psychologist, I felt passionate about changing the narrative of autism care by supporting the whole family. So much so, I created a methodology called The Whole Family Approachᵀᴹ, which integrates evidence-informed principles while ensuring we are looking at how the entire family unit functions. Historically, autism services focused on autistic children and supporting their needs, but we know from well-documented research outside of the autism field that what impacts one member of the family impacts all members of the family. Many parents of autistic children are told their child must participate in a plethora of therapy from ABA, to speech, to occupational therapy and more. Recommended by medical professionals, parents often fear that if they don’t do everything, they’re doing a disservice to their autistic child.
But what happens if the only slot for feeding therapy is at the time your non-autistic child has soccer? You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Traditional models tell you therapy is a sacrifice made for long-term gains, but that doesn’t mean they should be the only priority for your family.
Give yourself permission to make the best decision for your family. Your intuition as a parent is powerful. Progress doesn’t just happen in therapy rooms. Maybe your autistic child will meet a peer that invites them to play on the sidelines at the soccer game. While the opportunity for social interaction isn’t classic therapy, it has its own equally important benefits. The real-world application is why therapy is praised in the first place!
One of the greatest shifts I have observed in the autism field is towards neurodivergent-affirming approaches. There is more emphasis on the need to build an autistic child’s world around them instead of trying to change them to fit into a world that doesn’t adequately fit their needs. Change only happens if knowledge of neurodiversity extends beyond the therapeutic setting.
Educate your entire family about neurodiversity. Not only will this help your non-autistic children to build empathy and acceptance, but it will also encourage them to understand how their sibling’s brain works. Helping family members understand autism and neurodiversity can help them be more accepting of behaviors or habits that are not neurotypical. Proactive education for the whole family allows for compassion.
I don’t want to undermine the fact that there are challenging aspects that come with an autism diagnosis. As a parent, it is natural to have many feelings about the diagnosis: sadness, grief, anger, or confusion. Traditional models tell parents to bottle up feelings and focus on therapy for the child. The Whole Family Approachᵀᴹ creates space for those feelings and teaches parents how to effectively process them.
Your child needs your full self, not a bottled-up, bursting-at-the-seams version of you. Try sitting in silence daily and acknowledge your emotions when they arise. When you experience emotions, say “I see you” in response to that emotion. At first it will feel silly, but that simple acknowledgement is such a powerful way to validate your emotions. If you want additional support, or are finding these tips aren’t enough, seek out a therapist; either your child’s provider if they employ a family approach like I do, or one you can hire separately to help you navigate the support that you need.
The message is simple: put family at the center of your decisions rather than autism care. It might sound shocking coming from a psychologist whose profession is rooted in autism care, but I promise this approach will make a difference for your autistic child and your family. I understand all the messages that are telling you that you are missing critical moments for care, but we now know that is not true. Take the pressure off yourself to do everything, and instead, do the things that leave the most impact.
Dr. Taylor Day is a licensed psychologist with expertise in the early diagnosis and intervention of autism. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and her own private practice is centered on The Whole Family Approach, a process Dr. Tay has founded and perfected over the years. Dr. Tay specializes in working with autistic children and their families and uses a combination of evidence-informed principles, along with her personal expertise with an autistic brother, to provide neurodivergent affirming care.