Whether you’ve been part of the autism community for years or are just beginning your journey, you may find that you are underrepresented as a dad. While that may be the case now, there are many fathers in the autism community that aim to change that, one voice at a time. As the father of a child with autism or another special need, you play a critical role in their care and upbringing. Today, we want to highlight a few resources specifically for the dads in the autism community so that you can feel more empowered than ever in this journey, and above all, know that you are not alone.
The Importance of a Father
When we talk about parents and the critical impact they have on their child’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being, you’ll notice that often researchers discuss a mother’s influence. While we all know that moms are critical to providing the much-needed love, affection, and support that nurtures a happy, healthy child, we often overlook the impact that a father can have. Research suggests that when a father is present and engaged in a child’s life, children are less likely to avoid high-risk behaviors and are less likely to drop out of school or spend time in jail.
Gone are the days when dads were discouraged from being in the delivery room or caring for their infants. These days, fathers want to be involved, and research shows they should include themselves, for the benefit of their children. But when your child has special needs or is diagnosed with autism, caring for them and finding the right ways to connect with them can require more effort and openness to asking for help, like seeking out behavioral therapy or ABA therapy.
For years, a majority of men believed that any form of behavioral therapy was for those with “real issues,” thus men often refused to participate. Getting to a vulnerable place with a therapist and loved ones is a very uncomfortable reality for many men. Because therapy puts a man’s emotional weaknesses on display for all to see, it can make a man feel less strong than he cares to admit. However, admitting that there may be issues in a relationship, whether a marriage relationship or a family relationship, is the first step to making strides to improve upon those relationships. All parties must come together to do what’s best for their child, especially in relationships that may be strained or complicated with the addition of an autism or special needs diagnosis. That often means being open and receptive to a child’s need for behavioral therapy or participating in family therapy in your child’s ABA clinic.
Let’s take a look at behavioral therapy, ABA therapy, and play therapy and how each can impact the relationship you have with your child. Plus, we’ll give you tips for how you can get more involved in your child’s therapy, not just in the ABA clinic, but at home, too!
What is Behavioral Therapy?
Behavioral therapy is a broad term to describe any type of therapy that helps treat a mental health disorder. Common behaviors that behavioral therapy is proven to address include:
- Panic disorders
- Anger issues
However, in recent years, counselors have made great strides with the following disorders when it comes to different types of behavioral therapy:
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Substance abuse
- Autism and ASD
There are many forms of behavioral therapy out there. For our purposes, let’s look at the significant therapies one might have exposure to following an autism diagnosis: applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) and play therapy.
ABA Therapy 101
On the heels of an autism diagnosis, you’ve likely had plenty of acronyms thrown at you, and you’re probably unsure what they mean, why they’re critical, and how you can best support your family through them. You’re in luck! We’re about to teach you all things ABA therapy, so the next time it comes up in conversation, you’ll know what to say, and you’ll be able to advocate for your child’s specific needs.
What is ABA Therapy?
ABA therapy comes from B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, which says that behavior can be controlled or taught when one controls the consequences of actions. ABA therapy delves into how your child behaves and how those behaviors are significantly impacted by their environment, either positively or negatively. Its foundations require a meaningful reward system to be put into place to better encourage your child to alter their negative behaviors and replicate the preferred ones. In ABA therapy, we not only encourage a parent’s involvement, but we think it’s vital to encourage your child to form lasting changes that will serve them long after ABA therapy is over.
How Does Positive Reinforcement Help?
Decades ago, behavioral therapy centered around the use of negative reinforcement strategies. Today, we’ve learned many takeaways from that, specifically for children with autism and with ASD. Mainly, that positive reinforcement, rather than negative, has proven much more effective in ABA therapy. As discussed before, this means pinpointing a reward system specific to your child that encourages them to replicate the desired behavior. Some examples of positive reinforcement strategies include:
- Using verbal praise when your child executes the desired behavior
- Giving money (or something like a sticker that adds up to a highly coveted prize) for desirable behaviors
- Candy or another sought-after treat for each positive behavior
Often in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember these positive reinforcement tactics, instead falling into the ease of some sort of punishment, whether it be time out or raising your voice. Still, research shows us that those knee-jerk reactions often cause more long-term harm than good.
A Dad’s Role in ABA Therapy
So, how can you take an active role in your child’s ABA therapy? Truthfully, there are many ways you can make a difference in your child’s behavioral therapy experience, both in the clinic and outside of it. You know your child better than anyone, so your critical input will help your child’s ABA therapist get an inside look at your child’s everyday routines, likes and dislikes, abilities, and struggles. Plus, studies show that the more active and supportive role you take in your child’s ABA therapy, the more measurable improvements they will make. And at the end of the day, that’s what we all want, right?
A parent’s role in ABA therapy, or any behavioral therapy for that matter, means you need to wear quite a few hats. Often, at ABA clinics, we think of the parent’s role as a twofold endeavor. First, as reporters and second, as active participants.
Being a Reporter
As discussed before, you know your child best, and you’re around them more than their BCBA (board-certified behavior analyst); therefore, you know what works and what doesn’t. Beyond that, you can provide your child’s therapist with key behavioral therapy wins throughout the week and what is not working so well, so they can make much-needed modifications that will help your child thrive.
Being an Active Participant
Your job doesn’t stop once you get your child to their ABA clinic. In fact, therapists encourage parents to be a significant participant in their sessions, because the strategies worked on in ABA therapy will be incorporated in the daily routines that you take part in with your child. Why shouldn’t you practice them safely in the ABA clinic with a licensed ABA therapist at your disposal to ask questions and receive feedback?
You know that modifying behaviors will not happen overnight, so similarly, you may not master incorporating these strategies and techniques on the first try. But luckily, if you regularly participate in your child’s behavioral therapy appointments, you’ll have plenty of time to study and practice! Ask as many questions as you need to, that’s what your child’s therapist is there for. They know that your participation is critical, and they want to give you the tools and comfort you need to be successful when they’re not around.
Now that you know a little more about ABA therapy let’s take a look at a behavioral therapy you’ll likely see included in each session: play therapy.
A Closer Look at Play Therapy
Once you begin observing or accompanying your child to their ABA therapy appointments for any length of time, you’ll likely see them playing with their therapist. Often, that can seem counterintuitive, but if you recognize that most children that benefit from ABA therapy or another form of behavioral therapy often present with shorter attention spans, sensory issues, and communication barriers, you’ll realize that play is a vital way to communicate with them.
Here at Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center, we encourage our highly trained staff to engage your children in play, allowing them to freely move about their environment and explore as a child should! Just like how you need to be comfortable in a situation to open up and be receptive to learning new things, your child does as well. Through play, a licensed therapist can create a calm, natural environment that allows your child to learn these new desired behaviors in a less stressful way. To young children, especially, play can be its own language, that allows them to express themselves, but also allows you to model desired behaviors, as well.
A Dad’s Role in Play Therapy
Being active in your child’s behavioral therapy means more than just attending sessions at the ABA clinic. By incorporating play therapy at home, you are helping reinforce the vital lessons your child is learning in ABA therapy. This might also positively impact your relationship with your child in the long run, too. So, what can you do to bring play therapy home with you? Let’s take a look at a few examples of at-home play therapy.
Yes, the game you likely played as a child is a strategy that you can use at home with your child, too! This fun and easy game can help your child learn to mimic body language and study expressions or poses.
Pretend play is an excellent way to reinforce proper interpersonal behavior and relationships. Whether you use dolls to enhance excellent social skills or dress up as a fireman, policeman, superhero, or any of your child’s favorite characters to play out different scenarios, you’re on your way to incorporating play therapy with your child! Kids inherently love costumes, so this one is always a winner when practicing behavioral therapy skills at home!
One of the biggest takeaways to remember about play therapy is that there aren’t any rules on how to go about it or how long it should take. Developing your child’s imagination and introducing them to vital social and emotional skills is worth the time, too! We love that play therapy is so universal and can happen within the walls of your child’s ABA clinic during behavioral therapy appointments, but it can (and should!) happen at home, too! If you’ve ever wondered how you can take a more significant role in your child’s therapy, play therapy is an easy and fun way to do so! The time you spend with your child will be so rewarding for you both, as well.
Additional Resources for Dads in the Autism Community
As a dad to a child with autism, it can often seem like you’re alone. We’re here to tell you that there are plenty of resources popping up every day to help support you through your journey. We believe finding your community is vital. The days are often long and sometimes stressful, so having somewhere to turn is essential for dads, too! There are a few great resources we love for dads of children with autism that we think you’ll find beneficial:
Full-time single dad, Rob Gorski, has three boys with autism and is the owner of The Autism Dad blog. His mission in life is to show others in a similar circumstance that they are not alone while educating the rest of the world what families affected by autism deal with each day.
This documentary gives a voice to 14 fathers with children with autism or ASD, showing the world what their daily lives are like. The film’s director, Charles Jones, is not only the director of Autistic Like Me but also has a child on the autism spectrum.
- Autism Speaks
The Autism Speaks organization provides a lot of relevant research articles, as well as real-life accounts of what dads of children with autism need to hear. Guest blog posts written by dads in the autism community highlight pieces of advice other dads need to hear as well as key takeaways from their family’s autism journey.
No matter if you’re new to the autism community or not, we hope you know how important you are to your child’s growth in behavioral therapy, and ultimately in life. By taking a substantial role in supporting their therapies, you are not only helping pave the way for a healthy, happy child, but also a stronger parent-child relationship, one day at a time. For more information on ABA therapy or any other resources for dads in the autism community, contact us today. We’d love to show you how we can partner with you and your child on your autism journey!