If you’re a mom of young children like me I’m sure you’ve had the thought of going to the zoo once or twice. It goes something like this:
The local zoo announces a baby. Let’s say an elephant is born so of course, you go rushing! You get to the zoo (pre-COVID, maybe) and see the beautiful baby elephant, just days old, walking behind their mama. In a short moment, you think back to your child’s infanthood and think, “baby boy(or girl) you had fewer skills than an elephant.” Infant humans, while incredibly squishy, cute, and forever smelling of Dreft and lavender, come into the world with no survival skills.
There are thousands of articles on the importance of early intervention. I spent my bachelor’s degree diving into many of them, followed by stocking my brain with new findings for the past decade. This is in part because I am a researcher by trade. The other part is because I am a nerd for human development. It fills my bucket. In my blog today I’m going to try and give you a snapshot of why development from infancy through kindergarten is so vital. I’m also going to talk about why it’s important for children with autism and our amazing clinics at Instructional ABA Consultants.
Focusing on Child Development Early
OK, let’s get started by going deep. Human infants are born without any skills because their brains need more time to develop than all other mammals. If babies grew into functional toddlers in the womb they could not come out of the birth canal. Women’s bodies are incredible but they aren’t magic; there is a limit to the size of what we can birth (yes, I’m grimacing as I’m writing this because medication-free birth with a newborn is magical, but birthing a toddler? Um…).
So we get these tiny humans, who are desperately in need of being cared for–it’s almost like they are in the womb for an extra three months after delivery. Then they begin to wake up. I remember when both Henry & Declan found their toes and fingers in amazement around three months old.
During this first year of life, thousands upon thousands of neuroconnections are made. Babies are quickly developing their brainpower, motor skills, and language through these high-speed connections. To do this babies need a few simple things. Infants need to be nurtured, to know that when they have a need their parent responds. This creates a secure connection and lets baby know the world is safe. Babies need food and lots of sleep. Once these basics are covered we move into the two most important things; environment and socialization.
Early Socializing & Environments
I like to think of babies, toddlers, and children as little scientists learning through cause and effect. The environment is a huge blank canvas for our children to discover how their world works. Socialization is the tool children need to survive in our culture.
In their early childhood years, these two pieces are so incredibly important because of the rate children can learn. From infancy to year five, children will learn more than any other time in their lives. “What about college,” you say? Nope. These foundational years are the years where connections are made in the brain that last a lifetime.
As a professional, I love looking at how all this heavy lifting helps to shape the outcome of children’s lives. As a mama, I drove myself crazy after Declan was born and I realized I was basically running a school in my home for Henry. This wouldn’t be possible with two kids under two.
This was insanity in hindsight. This was also when I was personally able to take a deep breath and remember what I knew. The two most important things are environment and socialization. It’s not about how “cute” my day is with my boys. It’s about how often they are able to explore and engage. These days you won’t really find me teaching at a table much. Instead, you’ll see a “yes” environment set up (more on this later but basically a safe space to learn), technology out of reach (no TV/no Tablets on the regular as these devices delay both language development & socialization), and lots of talking.
Henry and Declan get to flex their learning muscles through exploration and language. I get to flex my relaxation muscle by not trying to do it all. I’m lucky in that way because my children do not need intervention. If they did I would not be able to sit back because these experiences would need to be contrived. That’s why ABA is so helpful for young children with autism. Here’s why.
The Importance of ABA Therapy for Autism
When a child has autism the neural pathways or roads in the brain that tell that child how to communicate and process information are not forming, either naturally or as quickly as a neurotypical child. The connections are still there to be made but without intervention, a child with autism can’t connect the dots. What this looks like in each child with autism is different but always results in some form of socialization or communication developmental delays. This leaves the child with autism lost in their social world and wondering how to connect.
In applied behavior analysis (ABA), behavioral scientists (BCBAs) are able to assess the language and communication skills missing in early childhood based on developmental milestones. Children with autism are gifted learners but they learn differently because their neural pathways are routed differently. Through assessment, BCBAs are then able to figure out how our little students learn, what skills are missing, and how to connect those missing dots. This happens in three really key ways.
The first is one on one therapy (think personal trainer at the gym) to really teach to the student. The next is to help the child with autism apply what they are learning with their peers. Remember, socialization is hard but children who are neurotypical learn from other children. To strengthen the socialization neuropathway, children with autism need to practice these skills with kids their own age. The last is transferring learned skills back to mama and papa. If a child with autism is in therapy and can do all these skills at a treatment clinic but not at home, the neural pathway is not fully formed.
Therapy at ABA Consultants
Instructional ABA Consultants runs autism clinics for children ages 2 ½ to 6 years old (in addition to our home-based therapy for older children). Our clinics (Naperville & Oak Lawn IL, Castle Rock CO, and coming soon Northside Chicago) have a Preschool Instructor designing the socialization component of our students’ days and BCBAs designing the individualized instruction. Parents are at the core of treatment goals and together we’re helping their precious children make connections in their early development.
Whether you’re a parent of a neurotypical child or a child with autism know that your child’s early years are precious. While we all can dream of our children functioning like that baby elephant walking around fully skilled, the reality is human babies and children need shaping. We’re a social species.
So set down the tablet today, pack up all the toys the marketing teams said you needed, and let your children explore and enjoy. If your child isn’t exploring, jump in and help. If you need help teaching these skills because your child has autism (or this is a new way to parent for you) reach out. We’re all in this crazy world of parenthood together.
From deep within my being I have always known I’m an intuitive soul. I swallowed the feelings of the world from a young age. I can’t join any conversation or issue without feeling the full range of emotions being generated. I just can’t, I’m an empath.
I also have a force within me that demands I pay attention to the injustices of the world. To pay attention to who is being suppressed, why, and what strengths lie beneath their suppression. This is where I coined the term love warrior. As my aunt told me, “strong back, soft front.” It’s within my being to feel the energies the world places in my path and offer a way out of suffering.
Finding My Voice
Here’s the tough truth: this force of empathy was not only cultivated in me from who I was born as. It was reinforced through victimhood and abuse. I’ve spent well over two decades finding my voice despite personal abuse and suppression, layered with societal repression as a woman. I’ve been too ashamed to speak this truth fully, yet I know shame can’t live where there is light. And damn it, I’ve got something to say.
Shame holds back lions like me and angels like you from showing up as we were created to be. I thought my heightened sensitivity made me weak. I also believed there were so many things I could not do because I was told I was bad at them. Or things I should be doing because it was expected of me. Screw that.
You see, we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that society has a right to tell us who we are and how we should behave. Now don’t get me wrong, we do need to be able to operate as a collective species. Yet when we’re operating as a collective species based on fear versus love, all we’re doing is breaking our own hearts and, in turn, our world. Suffering begets suffering. Love begets love. If we honor our suffering and say to it, “I’m so sorry you came to me but I’m unwilling to bring you to another being, couldn’t we rewrite history?” I know personally, I’m going to rewrite mine.
I’ve doubted myself for a very long time and am often in awe when I look to see what I’ve done. Like, I can’t believe it’s mine. Yet here I am at 33 years old running a multimillion-dollar organization that I built with my bare hands on the backs of no one.
The Lies We’re Told
I’ve been told a great many lies. Let me share a few with you.
I’ve been told to temper my emotions. That they are too much to handle. My big emotions? They light fires to pave new ways and I will never tone them down, not ever.
I’ve been told to be nice, to put the needs of others before mine, and that I’m more loveable when I’m thin. Have any other women been fed that lie? It’s bullshit. Being nice is blinding us all. I cannot give when my tank is empty, and my beautiful body grew two babies who birthed without intervention. The female body is a goddess in all forms. I will not trade my stretch marks for anything, I earned them. Every one of them.
I’ve been lied to and asked to conform to make others more comfortable. I will no longer conform and thus I will never lose myself again.
I can say this because I’ve been lost in pain for such a long time. I see joy, celebrate, and then a wave of pain comes back over me. The waves that come at me are of course from the outside world and then my mind becomes confused by the pain. I’m empathic, remember? I swallow emotions. I think all love warriors do because we know how real, raw, and true feelings are. The trick here? Learn to protect our own hearts so when evil comes to us, fear finds us, or pain washes over us we can weather the storm.
I would like to think we can all walk through this world without pain. Truly, I love divine love. It’s not possible to do that because without the world showing us what we don’t want to be we would never know if we were becoming it. When pain comes for you, when a person or organization is pressing you down, remember this: pine cones bloom in fire. The pain, as hard as it is, is shaping you to become the tree you were always meant to be.
I’m walking a hard path right now. Someday I’ll tell you about it. Tonight I had a choice. Cry on the floor for the sixth week in a row or pick myself up. Today I walked into the gym and hit some heavy weights to remind myself this pain is forming me. Just as the pain of my past has taken me this far to show exactly what I do and do not want for my own life and the world.
I’ve got big plans for myself and the world.
I’m ready to call out anyone who believes it’s OK to lose sight of a child with autism based on a profit margin.
I’m ready to declare injustice and march for joy. To call abuse, abuse. I want to lead all of our broken hearts into a collective community where you can be you, I can be me, and we are all loved and accepted just as we are. I’m just getting started because the world asked me to be little, polite, and answer the story of shame. I’m making up for lost time. What has the world asked you to be? What lies have you been fed?
Won’t you walk with me and learn that you are perfectly imperfect? That if you’re lashing out in pain you can choose again? If you’re seeing someone as less than you to look again? If you’re seeing someone as more than you look again? That we are all the same. Won’t you honor the gifts of the spirit, of your beautiful, broken heart and write a new history with me.
Can’t we all just choose again? I know I’m going to. You can find me by my trail of ashes.
In my last blog, I wrote about accepting being an imperfect parent. I’m going to take a few weeks to do a mini-series on all my failures and wins as a parent because the joy of imperfect parenting is honoring both. I’m walking this path right alongside you. Ain’t no shame here!
Almost eight years ago I opened Instructional ABA Consultants for business. I was a loud, proud, young business owner with a full heart and mission. I still have that full heart and mission today. At the time I did what most business owners do; I got a cute outfit, took a gorgeous photo, and wrote my professional bio for my website. It’s still there today (picture updated because no one is 25 forever…). In my bio, I wrote a great many things including my areas of expertise. One of them was toilet training. During my undergraduate studies, I worked in a preschool and toilet trained dozens of children. Later on, when I received my master’s degree, I also toilet trained children for my caseload. I even held parent lectures. I’m laughing that this is still listed as an area of expertise… Enter my son Henry.
Toilet Training Your Children
We started with Henry sitting on the potty at every diaper change to get used to just sitting. Once we made it through this phase I created a schedule for Henry with a prize box for successes. I took him to sit every 30 minutes, set a timer for 2 minutes, and then gave him a small prize! I then stole these prizes when he went to sleep at night and put them back in the box (he never found out….). Henry started to pee on the potty and life was good!
I entered phase two per my own training; remove the diapers. Holy hell. When I removed diapers we entered a solid 8-month process of trial and accidents. During this phase, I used just about everything I could think of that I had used with my own clients. I tried going more often to catch the accident. I tried going 15-20 minutes after he drank water. I tried reading books, singing songs, and even the damn potty song on youtube (“Come on Henry what do you do, come on Henry it’s time to go poop!.) Yes, I just wrote that from memory. No, I can’t come back from that. There’s more.
I tried bare butt over Labor Day and Christmas break (except naps and bedtime). Yes, he smeared poop on his playroom wall. I tried having him clean up. We have a sprayer for cloth diapers so this was loads of fun. I followed the rules and while we were making progress with going pee on the potty Henry was still having accidents with pee when he wasn’t supervised. This was any time he was playing alone, playing in our yard (we have a fence and I can watch him within eyesight), or mommy was crying in the bath (j/k but for real). He also was not potty trained for poop. At all.
I decided to talk with my team, who I’m sure were thrilled I was begging for more ABA potty training advice. I mean, I’m their boss, it’s in my bio, I can do this, and I’m still whining at team meetings I can’t crack this nut. Honestly, the team was super gracious. I love them all to pieces for many reasons (including letting me be human). I wasn’t willing to go back to diapers because we were 80% there for dry pants and I didn’t want to move backward. But I had nothing else to throw at this.
Toilet Training During COVID-19
Enter COVID-19 and Shelter in Place. I did what any person who is sheltering and anxious does; I made a list of all the shit I was going to accomplish (more on that later and if you’re still doing this please be kind to yourself and stop…). First on the list; finish toilet training Henry!
You know what I did? Me with my decade-plus in the field and fancy degrees? I told Henry pants were a privilege and he could earn them back when he pooped on the potty. My son wore no pants for a solid month. I once had my acupuncturist tell me she did this with all her children and it took a weekend. Lies. I tried this weekend bare butt thing before, remember?
During the first two weeks of bare butt, Henry quickly learned to hold his poop for his diaper at nap. Then it hit me. The thing I tell every parent seriously; you cannot toilet train and use diapers. I just had never dealt with nap time or bedtime (as I wasn’t a parent at the time) so I kept using them. I ordered bed pads and a squatty potty (to help him stand and poop on the potty). Then I told him, “Henry you’re a big boy, no more diapers.” I put a toilet next to his bed and thought, “Godspeed little one.” And you know what? No rewards, no schedule, no waking up at night and Henry stopped using diapers while he slept.
As Henry’s mom, one thing I’ve learned from him is that he has to do literally everything for himself first. When he was a baby we would watch him practice new milestones (clapping, standing, words) in his crib on the camera sometimes weeks before he would show us. I needed to slow down and remember how he learns, even for toilet training. This would have saved us both some tears and yelling. Remember I’m not perfect and yes I’ve lost my shit in the bathroom when we need to leave and he’s refusing to go. No, I’m not proud of that. Yes, it’s over because I know this is a trigger and give myself more time now when we need to leave. No rushing, period. It’s a rule I follow for me not them.
So now we have it right? Henry is going on the toilet, all is well. It’s the longest it’s ever taken me to toilet train a child but I’ve done it, right? Nope. Turns out Henry really enjoyed bare butt and became a nudist. This included stripping outside, peeing & pooping outside (claiming he’s a puppy…) and a few times where he peed on my carpet like it was grass. I was horrified. I mean I was on business calls, mute, “Henry no! Pants on, no pooping in the yard!”
Luckily, I do have ABA in my back pocket so I created a “wear your pants program.” This was much easier than our previous feat. I gave Henry a fruit snack throughout the day when he had his pants on and set a timer for every 30 minutes outside to make sure he had them on. Outside was the biggest problem because of our, er, problem. In about a week of rewarding pants on behavior Henry started wearing clothing again.
It’s a month later and Henry is 100% clothed and toilet trained. When he poops on the potty AND wipes, I drop the microphone and pour myself a glass of wine. Rock on mama. One down, one to go. Declan, be easy little one. Please!
Over the course of the last week we as a nation have, and are still, struggling to make the best decisions possible in response to COVID-19. As individuals it began as laughing with friends over the toilet paper crisis to within days social quarantining. Many of us started stocking our freezers and cupboards to create supply. In my home my husband has lived through times without food in Bulgaria, this is no joke to him. We have enough food to feed an army after his trip to Costco, I’ve blanched A LOT of veggies, and he’s still scared. Our government and businesses are rapidly making new decisions each and every day. People are losing work temporarily every day. I’m working around the clock with a beautiful team and trying not to make this my employees reality, all sixty plus of them. It’s a scary time, one none of us have lived through. So how does surrender fit into this scenario?
Surrendering, to be clear, does not mean we are stopping. To surrender means to recognize that no matter how hard we try, sometimes things are out of our control. On a larger note, for my soul sisters and brothers out there, it also means to give an outcome over to the Spirit or Divine. I have used surrender in every darkness I have walked and it has always brought me home to myself and to whom I call God.
As a type 8 on the Enneagram, a Challenger, I can tell you honestly that surrender and I fist fight until I call, “Uncle!” It’s in my nature to fight obstacles, to rethink systems, and to always find a solution for the greater good. To serve the underserved at IABA (and my soon to be third company with fabulous Nicki Worden for postpartum mama’s) is easy as breathing for me. Please don’t roll your eyes, we’re all built differently and I honor you however you are built! Slowing down and realizing that there are actual things outside of my control is an actual process for me.
Going Through the Surrender Process
The process isn’t easy. It typically starts with a healthy dose of anger over the thing I’m trying to control. Just ask anyone how well I take to being sick! In the past it could have been a bad boyfriend, components of my marriage, business outcomes, and hell yea mommyhood. It now also includes COVID-19.
I think about how much I want a different scenario, self evaluate and then work my ass off (in the wrong direction) to change it. It’s the fight after anger. I say it’s the wrong direction because in all these scenarios big and small there are pieces to each of them I cannot control. Once I let my mind finally stop the fight and realize the outcome is either up to the other person or the universe I can surrender. In this surrender I’m honoring a couple of things. The first is that not everything is up to me. The next is that other people need to be given space to be their best self or to fail. It’s not my place to stand in anyone’s way of either. The last is in giving it back to Spirit I know it will be taken care of. By following this process what I’m accepting is that controlling outcomes isn’t accomplishing anything. That there is always a higher way to think about life and any situation in it. That everything is not up to me, really. My job is to be my best self and to show up for the work Spirit puts in front of me; that’s it. And I can tell you every instance of surrender things have worked out. They do not work out how I wanted them to be when I was stuck in fear or control, they turn out better.
So how do you or I surrender in the face of COVID-19? First we can go back to the first lesson of surrender; this is out of our control. COVID-19 is a virus rapidly spreading that none of us have antibodies to fight with a luckily low mortality rate. It just is. We can’t control that. We can control our own actions surrounding the outbreak.
Making Amends With Reality: Putting it into Practice
This means most importantly social distancing. In our social distancing comes another level of fear about our work and interruption of daily lives. Again, this is out of our control. What is in our control is either working with our employers so long as they have resources to employ us or with the state for emergency unemployment. It’s also within our control, for those who have more, to be aware of who has less. If we notice families without it’s our duty to step in and help provide; whatever that looks like. Personally I’ve seen so much love these past five days in my community alone.
In regards to our daily lives being interrupted, again out of our control. We can find peace in simplicity. Meals are less varied and always at home, more time outside, less consumption of goods, more time together. Perhaps instead of paper towels you’re now using wash clothes; mother earth thanks you. No, it’s not our normal lives and I miss what is available just like anyone else. But, in its place now that I’ve surrendered to the fact we’re here I’m finding ways to be grateful each day. That gratitude is building joy in my home.
Work is still unknown for our field. We’re actively working to ensure children with autism continue to receive our care. ABA is medically necessary for a child with autism and I can’t imagine pause in service for so many of our clients. If there is a state or nationwide quarantine, then there is. From there, together we’ll rebuild our therapy sessions but hope it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime my staff are doing a beyond fabulous job supporting each other and their clients through the crisis.
Me? I’m enjoying extra baby snuggles in my home, working my ass off for my company, and praying for the best for all.
In a bustling world where busy is the new cool, I wanted to take a moment and give thanks for the time I’m given to write these blogs and the time you are taking to read them. This is quickly becoming my favorite part of the week and I am hoping my experiences are serving you.
Last week we talked about taking care of ourselves to find the “what and why” for our children. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do a deep dive into each function of behavior. This week we’ll start with attention.
Everything happens for a reason; we dove into this a few blogs back (check it out here). In essence, the behaviors you and I engage in, as well as those of our children, are all a result of our environment. As social creatures we are almost always in a state of seeking or satiation (fullness), using our environment to get our needs met. This can be overwhelming when we think about how many tiny actions every human engages in each day. When we break down the big picture, however, it can be manageable and, I hope, life-changing.
Finding Out Why Your Child Seeks Attention
Let’s take a moment to imagine that your child is a big-time attention seeker or that they value attention from others. To start, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, we all have our reinforcers (things we like). In a balanced life what happens is your little (or big) someone really values their families or peers’ attention. Through the day they fill this need by asking questions, playing, reading, cuddling, or overwhelming their parents, siblings, and peers. It sounds lovely, right?
In many of our homes, however, especially when our children desire a lot of attention, we ourselves become overwhelmed. I can’t tell you how many times it’s made me feel worse when someone tells me, “But it has to feel good, Henry tantrums more for you because it means he loves you! You’re his mom!” I mean come on. Who, if any of us, are high fiving ourselves at the end of the day when our child has screamed at us for the 15th time? I’m normally slinking to a quiet room with Netflix and rerunning the day to try and prepare for tomorrow. So what can you do if you have a little attention seeker whose behaviors bring Big Feelings?
First, step back and identify the behaviors that are bothering you and your child that are in fact maintained by attention-seeking. Remember, the recipe we’re talking about is first; the absence of your attention (you are busy), second; your child’s disruptive behavior occurs, and third; you stop what you are doing to provide attention. Once you identify one of these cycles, you’ll see that attention is driving the behavior. After identifying this, there is a lot you can do.
Putting a Stop to Disruptive Behavior
First and foremost, we stop giving attention to the disruptive behavior and start prompting a more appropriate behavior. For example, if Henry is yelling “Mama” fifty times while I’m cooking, I can pause, wait for the yelling to stop, and then ask Henry to say, “excuse me, Mama,” then thank him. I can repeat this throughout the day to teach Henry that yelling at me isn’t going to gain my attention. This works, I promise but it needs some supporting pieces to not exhaust you!
The supporting pieces are jobs for both you and your child; we both have work to do. Your job is to figure out how often your child needs one on one attention (in ABA we call this the schedule) and pause throughout your day to give it to them. If your little someone is filled up on attention, they won’t need to yell at you for it. Make sense, right? Sure, but you’re still exhausted because now you’re just doing floor time every hour and prompting, “excuse me, Mama,” while you’re attempting to run your home.
This is where the job for your child comes in. In my case, Henry will need to learn to wait on a schedule that works for his age and his family. I can’t be one on one with Henry all day. Remember Declan? My thriving company, sometimes cool husband, and our dogs? They all take some of my time. I also carve out time for myself every day so Henry cannot have Mama all day every day. At his age (2), what this looks like is building up to waiting for about five minutes at a time and learning to independently play for about twenty minutes.
These five-minute little wait breaks teach Henry he’s OK without Mama and I’ll be back. The playing independently part keeps my sanity and I believe that it’s also incredibly important for him. It’s not my job as his mom to entertain him all day long. My job is to love him. To me, this also teaches him to respect my time and build up empathy. It’s OK for Mama to talk to another adult, answer the phone, cook, etc. without giving Henry constant attention. It’s working well for my family as we build it in.
Keep Up With Your Child’s Development
Now, as your child gets older you’ll expect higher wait times. By the age of five, you can expect your child to build up to at least fifteen minutes of waiting and thirty minutes to an hour of free play. Then this just increases through elementary and high school years. If your child is differently-abled and has autism, you may need additional help. Communication is one of the harder things for a child with autism to learn, so they use their behaviors to tell you what they need. ABA (applied behavior analysis) is your friend here; it will do the heavy lifting when it comes to figuring out what your child is trying to communicate, then teach them the missing skills.
If your child is four or younger, a clinic setting is going to be the best place for your child to get individual support while also learning from their peers. My favorite environment is at my practice. From here a team will help you build out a routine in your home to tone down the attention-seeking behaviors and build up communication (among many other things). It’s a win-win, I promise!
I hope this message serves you well on your journey into the world of ABA. If you give it some time you’ll begin to see it’s healing benefits.