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.
Okay, okay I hear you. That title! It’s a loaded one. I thought I’d just have a little fun this week with wrapping up our series about functions of behavior. I’ll explain the title in a bit.
Over the past month, IABA has republished my series on functions of behavior because it’s such an important part of working with children. It deserves an annual highlight! As a BCBA, owner of an Applied Behavior Analysis company, and boy mama this little piece of scientific knowledge guides so much of life.
Functions of behavior give us the framework for why a behavior continues to happen and lets us breathe easier knowing that all behaviors have a reason. We can start building our plan of action to address whatever it is we’re interested in changing once that behavior is identified.
Learning About Functions of Behavior
Let me back up a little and tell you why learning about functions of behavior was so life-changing for me. In doing so I’m going to go ahead and date myself. Thirteen years ago I was working as a line therapist with adolescent boys with autism who engaged in high levels of aggressive behavior. At the time there was little regulation in the applied field and while I was supervised by a BCaBA. I was not using function-based intervention because she wasn’t designing her treatment following this principle. As a new undergraduate, I knew I didn’t want to continue to work with children with autism if I couldn’t be effective. I was so frustrated for the children that our interventions weren’t working. I then decided to apply for my master’s degree with a goal to better understand behavior. I’ve been enjoying this gift for 12 years now.
One of the first things I learned in my master’s program was that behavior is maintained by the four key functions I’ve reshared this past month; escape, attention, access to tangibles, and automatically maintained behaviors. When a problem behavior occurs you want to make sure not to reinforce the behavior with what the learner is seeking.
My beautiful clients from back home? We were directed to put them in time out every time they engaged in aggression and their behaviors were maintained by escape functions. This meant each time they engaged in aggression, putting them in time out told them we were saying, “yes! That’s what I want you to do.” What should have been done instead is follow through with demands and teaching the boys how to tell us they needed a break. Their lives could have been changed using our science properly. This is a large piece of why I love ABA so much; lives change.
Using Functions of Behavior at Home
Fast forward to today and the wrap of our series. Learning about functions of behavior can be overwhelming. To think that all human behavior can be categorized into four sections and then studied from there is work by itself! This is the work we love at Instructional ABA Consultants but let me tell you this first hand as a mama, that shit is hard at home.
Raising Henry has been one of the greatest blessings of my life (Dametrius and Declan are the other two). Henry, as I’ve written, is a strong-willed child with a great big heart. Henry feels and responds to things the moment his feet hit the ground. This brings me to the title.
About a year ago I was transitioning Henry to a booster seat from his high chair. It’s a value of mine that my boys eat at the table and don’t wander around eating or zone out eating in front of a screen. I love food and want us to enjoy it together as a family. Henry? Henry had wanted no part in this family value.
I knew the function of his daily battling was escape from the table and followed him through each time for sitting. He would not back down. Frazzled, I went to my team saying I was now six months in and I still had to use strict follow-through at every meal to get Henry to sit and the end was nowhere in sight. One of our BCBAs (now supervisor & PhD!) Allaina Douglas said, “Jessie you have to pick your mountain to die on.”
What she meant was if this was an important value to my family that I would need to let go of other demands through the day that were less important and literally buckle into sitting at the table. So that’s what I did. I sat down and thought about what was really important for me with Henry so that when I made any demands, including sitting, I knew I had to be ready to follow through. This allowed me to lighten up on what wasn’t a value (PJs all day? Sure! Tv all day? No way) and hone in on what I did want to see out Henry.
Henry responded beautifully to this regarding the sitting. We then of course entered the 8-month potty training saga but hey, you win some, you lose some, but I digress. In the end, I understood that as a mama and clinician I couldn’t be function-based all day every day. That shit is exhausting. I could pick my values so that I could decide which behaviors will be allowed in my home and which ones won’t be. As my children grow up this will provide them their own moral compass to follow. I parent Dametrius way differently than Declan and Henry (as he is older) but our values are still the same.
Functions of Behavior and Being a Mom
This leads me to the second “purely mama” part of this. When you are choosing to live in a home where you are the leader and not your children it takes an incredible amount of energy. It would be super relaxing and wonderful if we could all say yes to popsicles for breakfast and binging Netflix every day. For most of this, we have different values than that for our kids (zero judgment here if these are your values!).
Being a leader in the family means you will have to implement rules and therefore boundaries. This is work! In order to do this, we as parents have to learn how to rest, reflect, and take care of ourselves so we can implement our values in the home. When we don’t we risk either giving in or blowing up. While this happens to the best of us, I know personally that I want this to be the exception to my parenting, not the rule.
In order to do the meaningful work of choosing what goes in your home and standing on that mountain, we as parents have to be at home with ourselves. That means spending time with our own thoughts, deciding our own values, and creating a self-care plan. The time with your thoughts and deciding values provides a compass for your home. Remember, attacking every single behavior and function in your family home would be exhausting! Picking your mountain means picking what’s important to you.
The self-care plan is included because, let’s be honest, as a mama or papa shit gets real fast. At any given moment our children are doing the next “please don’t do that thing.” We can navigate through our days with intention (most of the time!) when we’re rested and healthy. For me, this looks like morning meditation, evening journaling, and drinking more tea than wine these days. It also looks like saying I’m sorry when I do slip up and yell or holding myself accountable if I gave in when I didn’t want to.
Last night Henry had a high-emotion night because it had snowed and he really wanted to go outside to play at bedtime. I had to say no, it was bedtime. But I sure as shit could say yes when he asked me for a cool down bath with his swimsuit on. Rock on Henry, rock on Mama! We followed our values and I sat on my mountain. I hope this helps you find yours.
This past week has been a long and eye-opening one for me. It started with Henry and my first trip back to Illinois since our move out to the farm in Ohio. I crammed every second with people I love to work with. I couldn’t even walk into our old sitter’s home, now a dear friend, without crying because I miss her so much. But that’s the good stuff right there. Loving someone so much your heart explodes when you see them. I’m so lucky to have such wonderful women in my life and a work team that accepts me as I am. I think they’re lucky to have me… but I’m even luckier to have them. It’s reciprocal.
During my time away from home, I was able to take a deep dive into my emotions. Remember, our feelings are messengers. I wrote to you all a few weeks ago that I haven’t been feeling like myself for awhile at home. I thought self-care would fix it; it didn’t. During the trip back to Illinois I spent time reflecting on the “why.” A very good therapy session later it was loud and clear; I’m not being authentic at home.
Guys! This is tough stuff. One of my content buckets is authenticity. I show up at work each and every day with my whole heart. To have it pointed about that I’m authentic at work and holding back my true self at home was hard to hear. It was also necessary. A lightbulb went off in my head that indicated I needed to feel like myself again. I’m not joking–as soon as I saw it for what it was I felt like myself again. This reminded me about “A Course in Miracles,” that a miracle is shifting back to love. That’s it. What more is authentic than loving ourselves?
Let’s dive in.
Over the last five years, I’ve slowly shifted away from living authentically at home, which corresponds directly to becoming a wife. I somehow got this tiny, mad idea that I was responsible for how everyone was feeling (gender norms anyone?). Day after day, year after year, I started giving away pieces of myself to keep the peace. Now, while I did and still do activities I love, I still wasn’t showing up as myself. I was overwhelmed by the idea of making my husband uncomfortable because of the way he responds to my preferences. Holy crap, what total bullshit.
It’s not that my husband said, “hey you need to make me happy all the time!” but he sure didn’t and doesn’t stop me when I make concessions for myself if it benefits him. For me, this looks like giving up the things I hold to be true for myself that come across and bossy or uptight. I have a very specific way I like to do things based on my values. I love my values (they’re mine!) and yet I hate being labeled as a perfectionist, overbearing, and the like. I know that this is because I am a woman. If I was a man who was detail-oriented, confident and organized I would be labeled as sexy. Dare I say women can be labeled as bitches for this characteristic?
So I held back, pushed through, and fought. This looked like giving up on arguments surrounding how we eat, how I clean the home, how I organize bills, activities I like for the boys, not using shame, screen time, and so on. Sometimes I would fight the fight and sometimes I would concede because I was tired. On and on it went. This is how I lost my authenticity. Because I don’t want to be called bossy. Seriously Jess? Girl, it’s time to stop that bullshit.
You see, I actually am bossy. I employ over 75 people and run a multimillion-dollar organization built from my own heart and with an amazing team. I have to protect my company, employees, and clients which calls for being precise, protective, and loving. I hold the line on quality and values at Instructional ABA Consultants. I love what I do and love my team. Ask any one of them if my directness means they are not heard? That will be a resounding no because even though I’m holding the line, it’s my job to listen to my team. I honor their skills, they honor mine.
Learning to Be Yourself (Again)
So why is it that when I became a wife I adopted this story? That to be assertive at home isn’t Okay? I’m guessing I’m standing beside millions of women who may be asking themselves the same damn question. My idea? Society benefits from keeping women small and in their homes. Period. So even if my husband doesn’t outwardly say, “I need less of your personality,” he doesn’t have to. I stepped into a female role and while I fought sometimes it wasn’t always the case. I still found myself doing the laundry if no one else did it or wiping counters at 10:00 PM because crumbs bother me.
After I realized this is not self-love and to keeping myself small doesn’t serve my heart or the world, I did something radical. Ready for it? I woke up and embraced myself and told my husband I would never compromise my worth again, not ever. That ladies will be the daily practice of my life.
You see, a love warrior, as I’ve written, is someone who knows they are good, whole, and true despite what the world is saying about them. Sometimes that world is as small as our own homes. I’m committed to living this life authentically. Will my fellow love warriors join me? What a gift that might be.
In putting down what I felt my role was and the title of “bossy/uptight,” given to me by my husband, I am standing fully in my power through my heart. I poured a glass of wine last Thursday night and made charts for my home. How the boys and I eat, love charts for myself and the kids (for connection styles), labeled my pantry, wrote our values, wrote my boy’s daily schedule (the littles). Then you know what I did? I folded Martin and Dametrius’s laundry one last time and left a note, “You both need to clean up after yourselves, this is so not my job,” and left it on the stairs for when they got home.
Because you know what? It’s not my job to take care of the whole house, it’s my job to live authentically so my boys can live with their whole hearts. The cleaning crew comes tomorrow. I’ve got other things to do.
Okay, so I’m beyond excited to write this blog. It’s short but it’s a good one! I mean, I know I tell you week after week that I’m loving writing but this week I get to do one of my favorite things; dream.
Ever since I was a little girl I would spend hours a day dreaming about what I could create. As a child, it was more whimsical dreams, like “Wouldn’t it be cool if we built Japan for our Barbie dolls?” On a side note, we did this among many creative and scrappy things. Today that dreaming is still in me but I’m using it for the real world.
When I wrote to you all at the beginning of August I alluded that I’m building a new chapter in my life and company. I can’t wait to tell you more! But today is about you and all the parents we support. Today is about dreaming together.
Turning Dreams into Reality
Instructional ABA Consultants was built on my dream over eight years ago. It was all about building an inclusive company for children with autism and adults with disabilities. I was (and am) on a mission to close the funding gap that causes the disparity in service models.
I also wanted a place where Board Certified Behavior Analysts, now Registered Behavior Technicians, and our administrators could be fully supported in their work. I’m no dummy, my employees are my most valuable asset and deserve to be treated as such. They are also human beings and you all already know how I feel about equality, humility, and grace. This was my dream, I’m living it and just like any good dream, I’m adding to it.
I’m in this awesome space at work. We’re dreaming, building, and preparing for the next steps at Instructional ABA Consultants. We’ve gotten the ABA thing down and our clients have come to expect a one-size-doesn’t-fit all treatment plan and therapists providing care with their whole hearts. What we also know is that in behavior analysis our client is not just our client. Our client is also anyone who surrounds the client. For kids, that’s their family. That’s what I want to write about.
As a mama, the amount of resources that I need to wrap myself in on a daily basis is incredible. Prior to having kids, I wish someone would have told me the luxury I was living in. Things like waking up when I want, going to the bathroom by myself, going to the gym, leaving the house, you know basic freedoms. Day after day I’m presented with challenges in how I want to parent, what I want for my children, running a home & a business, and being plain human. I burn out, tune in, recharge in some ways, and start the next day all over again.
I also know I’m very lucky to have resources I can plug into academically when I’m struggling and a loving community personally. I also know that a huge part of my success and evolution as a human comes from asking for help and connecting with others. I’m curious about what you need and want if you’re a parent of a child with autism. You see I’m a mommy but I’m not a mommy of a child with autism. I need your voice.
In a therapeutic relationship you’re used to us serving your child but what about you? What additional support do you wish for from a therapy company? Is it an online platform to connect with other parents? Is it in-person (I mean COVID, but you feel me, right?) parent groups for both mom and dads? Is it educational nights? Date night outs? Self-care workshops? A playdate forum? More company events the kids can come to? More training from us about ABA? I could go on and on because as I’ve told you I’m a dreamer.
ABA and Your Dreams
But what about you? If we at Instructional ABA Consultants added a Community Corner what would be there for you? While I can’t promise to build everything I can promise to listen, really and truly. As I listen to our parents and readers I can get a better understanding of the wishes. Once I understand the wishes I can start seeing what is possible to build. I’m really good at building things, remember? And I just spilled that I love dreaming. I also thrive when I’m able to create.
I hope by reading this today you feel inspired to tell me what supports you’re looking for. I’m building a Tribe for us, so it’s best to start by hearing from the village.
Last week I wrote to you about the gift of applied behavior analysis to mamas and children with autism. I had every intention of talking about building a brand that works for mamas this week. Hang tight, it’s coming up next week! You see, when I sat down to write I realized I hadn’t finished the story from last week. Please let me try.
In writing to you last week I wrote about my little lion Henry and how applied behavior analysis helped him once again. As Henry’s mama, I’ve used function-based intervention with him since he was about 18 months (hang tight Declan! You’re 18 months this month baby boy). It’s been a wonderful tool I can use outside of work with my children, letting Henry know what behaviors will receive reinforcement and which won’t. ABA creates some really great boundaries we can operate from as a family. I noted last week that Henry’s behaviors had decreased by about 75% after returning to an ABA approach with him.
Changing Behavior with ABA
What I want to write about today is the other 25% of Henry’s decrease in behavior. Let’s get going!
Now to start I want to let you know this will be controversial. In applied behavior analysis, we would look for the final decrease in Henry’s challenging behavior based on the success of his intervention. While this is correct, there is another piece to this I think is monumental if you are a parent running the behavior plan. To be able to truly change your child’s behavior I believe you have to re-evaluate both your and your child’s internal needs. We don’t talk enough about this in ABA.
When I became a mama something incredible in my awoke. In birthing both Henry and Declan, I chose medication-free births to stay connected with my body and babies as they made their way into the world. I know them because I’ve birthed them and my body knows them. Now please don’t get me wrong, children can be deeply connected to non-birth parents too. I’m walking this connection with my son Dametrius. What I’m saying is that as parents we all have a deeper connection than I think we often remember that can guide us and our little loves.
So back to the present, to today, and Henry’s other 25%. As his mama, I knew (and have known) that my own energy inside of the home contributes to his outbursts. When I’m able to stay calm and be grounded within myself I let off energy to Henry that he can be calm too. And that when Henry isn’t calm (or Declan, or Dametrius) that I won’t match his unrest with mine. I will stay in my peace. I set the energetic example of what I want to see in my home. I’m going to be real with you, I haven’t really been this example since October last year.
Pushing for Inner Knowing
On a very personal level, I’ve been going through something that is incredibly hard for me that I can’t fix or think my way out of. Trust me I’ve tried and it’s done nothing but create frustration in me. I’ve been holding onto an outcome that I can’t force and refuse to surrender to. I’m not ready to say what this situation is to the public but can say I’m going through something. What I realized this past week when I was working on being calm for Henry again was that I had forgotten myself and my deep connection with my children during this period of unrest. I had pushed my inner knowing and connection to my children’s inner worlds aside.
Have any of you been through something like this? A death, job change, loss of income, divorce, an international pandemic? I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has gotten lost in themself and forgotten to attend to their own inner world and children’s consistently. I know personally I feel a lot of shame around it. To break this shame I can name it and shine a light. That’s exactly what I did.
Stepping Back & Detoxing
In order to help Henry finish decreasing his bursts in behaviors, I took a huge step back. I’m actually still taking this step back. It will take time to detox all the stress I’ve been holding in my body and the same I’m guessing is true for him. I’ve made a choice to surrender the outcome I was so desperately hanging onto and notice when my body is operating in frustration or anger. Personally, I feel a little flicker of heat at the top of my head when I’m operating from this space. Once I notice anger has come I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and come back to peace in my body. Becoming calm and placing peace in our home is the most important thing I can do for my children’s alignment. To let them know uncomfortable emotions do happen and peace is always waiting afterward.
This step back into my own alignment helped me to look at my little lion beyond ABA. I immediately saw Henry was reflecting on controlling outcomes (holy shit) and demonstrating bottled emotions (double shit). While Henry, as a child, needs me to step in with an intervention on what behaviors aren’t OK, he also needed me to be his positive model, not the negative one.
So I surrendered and decided for a full weekend to sit in full alignment with my children. To put myself and them first. These past three nights Henry has found his way to my bed and co-slept which we haven’t done since babyhood. We’re hugging more, kissing more, laughing more. Declan still fills my days with giggles and hugs. He’s my lamb. Dametrius gives me an attitude and a smile that will break many women’s hearts someday. I’m a full-blown boy mama with a heart full of love for each of them.
To decrease the negative behaviors in my family home I had to lean into love for myself and through that love lean into loving them fully once again.
P.s. No burst from Henry three days and counting!