If you read any narratives or stories about how children or adults have been diagnosed, you will begin to detect a pattern. And it’s not a good one. “Your child has autism. Have a nice day, and don’t forget to pay the lady on your way out.” The Boy was diagnosed eight years ago, and unfortunately, this pattern does not seem to have evolved at all over that time. It’s absolutely criminal.
In order to get a bona fide diagnosis (one that will qualify your child for an IEP), you must see a certain type of mental health professional. Psychologists are doctors, too, and I don’t understand how sending someone off with a diagnosis and little else is aiding anyone’s mental health. Because there are only certain professionals in any community that can even provide this diagnosis, I suggest that they could be doing so much more, in collaboration with the people and groups that can actually provide services that will help a family navigate a diagnosis of autism.
- The Psychologists and doctors who provide these diagnoses need to form a relationship with the local schools, and there needs to be a liaison from the school district that is willing to be the point of contact for parents with questions about how a diagnosis of autism will affect their son or daughter’s schooling. It is not sufficient to have a list of names and phone numbers on a piece of paper to hand to people, but rather a name and phone number (lists are intimidating and unreal, while a single name is much easier to humanize), and an assurance that this person will be contacting them to see if they need help. Don’t put the burden on the parent who has never even contemplated some of the next steps. Put it on the professionals who are in a position to help.
- In many states, a student is automatically placed on a social worker’s caseload when the team develops an IEP. A social worker should also be a point of contact as soon as a child is diagnosed. Too often, parents not only need information, but they need help processing the diagnosis themselves, and understanding what it will mean for their lives, both short and long term. There are also inevitably parents who will be in denial, as well. Having a community of professionals reaching out to you, providing support and information can only help.
- The psychologist should also provide more than a pamphlet or business card with the local Autism Society’s number on it. Again, there should be a liaison from the local chapter of the Autism Society who offers to mentor parents, and again reaches out to the family, even if they don’t make the phone call themselves.
- When The Boy was born, the hospital put together a “parenting” group of several families who had had a first child around the same time, run by a more experienced, volunteer set of parents who would host monthly meetings on topics that are commonly on brand new parents’ minds. Why not form a similar support group for parents of children who are all diagnosed around the same time? Just like those with brand new babies and no instruction book, parents of kiddos on the spectrum are just as bewildered, and to have a group of other parents who are going through the same things would mean a world of support to these folks. If our hospital could put it together for new parents, I don’t see why mental health professionals who diagnosis spectrum disorders couldn’t do the same.
- Parents should also be connected with an advocate, even if the child is still a toddler. While it is a great idea to have a personal connection to the school system, one has to remember that schools don’t have much money, and if they can save money by not offering a service, they will. Indeed many times, parents aren’t even aware of the types of services schools can and should provide. I worked for a school district that encouraged its special education teachers to gloss over any mention of extended school year services (ESY) during IEPs, and as a result didn’t run any type of an ESY program. A personal connection to an advocate will begin the process of educating the parents about their own child’s educational needs, sometimes in spite of what the school may say they need.
I think we have found that it really does take a village to raise a child, even more so a child on the spectrum. Why do we continue to make every parent with a newly diagnosed kiddo re-create the wheel? The trails left by those who have gone before are there – I know because we made them. But they need guides to find them, and it begins with the conversation that happens immediately after the psychologist says, “He has autism.” Maybe there are some health professionals already doing this. I sure hope so. If their aim is to truly help those in need, one would think they would have already thought of these ways of connecting with others in the community who can provide a support network – ready guides to help parents of the newly diagnosed to find the paths blazed by those of us who have already done it the hard way.