Why the "Best" Autism Programs May Not Work for Your Child

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If you're like me, you hear a lot -- from friends, family, TV, or the Internet -- about amazing programs, schools, and therapies for kids with autism. You may even have watched as a friend's kid blossomed as a result of a particular therapy, school, or experience. At conferences, support group meetings or other events you take careful notes as parents talk about the wonders of a particular therapist or tout the amazing outcomes from a specific school program.

Then you make the call and bring your child in to meet the therapist or check out the school. Or you enroll you child in the "perfect" social skills program. You're excited -- all set to see amazing positive changes in your child's abilities, happiness, and social skills.

And your child...  does fine. Or does poorly. And, as you watch this "magical" therapist or teacher or school program at work you wonder what those other parents were talking about. You've just shelled out significant time, energy, and (often) money for something that really didn't live up to the hype.

What happened? Were all those parents and media wonks just trying to snow you? The answer is probably "no." In fact, they probably believed they were steering you in just the right direction. But here are some of the reasons why it might not have been the right direction for your particular child:

  • The program, school, or therapist really WAS all that for your friend or neighbor's kid -- who is very different from your kid.  This happens very often indeed, and is perfectly understandable, if frustrating. For example, we spent significant money on a "high end" social skills program that was perfect for kids who were eager to build relationships. Our son, however, was not ready to reach out to new friends. As a result, several of the boys in the group really did wind up with a group of buddies while my son... didn't. 
  • The program, school, or therapist is great at marketing, but not anywhere near as great at helping kids with autism. Most of us assume that if multiple media outlets tell us something is terrific, it's probably pretty terrific -- and it's easy for a local journalist to wind up hearing and telling only the most positive stories about outcomes. So you (and your friends) may simply have been responding to overblown claims.
  • The organization that houses the particular therapist or program has a huge reputation (it's a major research organization, for example) -- but that doesn't mean the particular person your child is seeing is "all that."  In fact, if that individual is more of a researcher than a clinician, he or she may be LESS of a wonderful 1:1 therapist than your garden variety, highly motivated college student.
  • The program, therapy, school, etc. really isn't very good at all, but because your friends or neighbors have already invested so much into it they are unwilling to admit the truth. This is also a fairly common occurrence. One way to identify such a program is to listen carefully for phrases such as "he'll get worse before he gets better," or "it may not look great when you first see it," etc. If kids are actually "getting worse," or a program looks pretty rotten at first sight, it's probably not worth considering.

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