Welcome to the August edition of Ask Dr. Emily! We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights  in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to theautismblog@seattlechildrens.org.

Q: While this is an absolutely wonderful article for daily activities, I am wondering if there is an article of the same level of information for major life changes. My son is 18 and is high-functioning autistic, OCD, anxiety disorder as well as ADHD. We recently moved into a new house, school ended (he is homeschooled), his brother and sister-in-law moved into our home with our grandson, and he just had another surgery that resulted in a pulmonary embolism and a 6-Day Hospital stay. Needless to say, he is very upset and exhibiting aggression as well as temper tantrums and wild mood swings. I have tried spending extra time with him and validating his jealousy as well as his anxiety. He has a tendency to go nonverbal when his stress becomes too much, He not only has done this but has started his tics again. Please help if you have any ideas on what we could do for him.

A: Let me start by acknowledging how much you and your family have been through recently.  As we know, humans, in general, like to know what is coming—what is next. Children, in general, respond to change and/or major life events (like loss, moves, change in school) in various ways; responses can include irritability, despondence or withdrawal, challenging behaviors (such as noncompliance and/or aggression), and/or emotional lability (e.g., tearfulness, outbursts). Children with ASD, specifically, may also demonstrate increased repetitive behaviors, increased sensitivity to the environment, outbursts, or aggression.

So how can we help kids (and children with ASD, in particular) through some of these major life changes? Many of the strategies recommended for day-to-day activities (mentioned in a prior blog) can also be helpful for big life events. I am encouraged to hear you mention more one-on-one time and validation as strategies you have tried; these are great relationship builders and can lead to positive outcomes. In addition, if you have time to prepare for life events, using social stories, pictures, practice, and preparatory exposure can be helpful. In addition, allowing extra time (if possible) for adjustment can be beneficial. We also want to provide as much structure as is possible (e.g., checklists, visual schedules, breaks). In addition, it can be helpful to keep as many things the same as is possible. For example, if changing schools, keep the same backpack, lunch items, and/or morning routine. If staying overnight in the hospital, having blankets/pillows/stuffed animals/foods from home can help to ease discomfort.

Ultimately, even when you go to great lengths to ease difficult situations, change in routine and major life events are difficult to cope with–period. A little understanding (and reframing our negative thoughts to more tolerant ones) can go a long way. Parents, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need in terms of support, too. In the end, children look to us for feedback about how to feel about situations. The more support we can get to cope with our own emotions, the better off everyone will be.

Q: I have a 5-year-old daughter on the ASD spectrum. She can repeat what you say (though not clearly) and has mastered some questions. She will also answer when asked a question (like, “What’s your name?” or “How old are you?”). Do you think she will speak spontaneously (i.e., communicate on her own) someday?

A: While I cannot predict outcomes, there are some good indicators out there that are associated with improvements in language functioning. First, we know that early evidence-based intervention (like speech therapy, behavioral intervention) often leads to more positive outcomes in language and overall functioning later in development. Second, we know that language skills build on one another. So mastery of early language fundamentals (like babbling, word approximations and single words) can lead to more sophisticated language skill development (like phrase speech, sentence speech, and spontaneous language more broadly). Finally, we know that using visuals (like pictures) to assist individuals in communicating can lead to improved communication outcome.  Bottom line, continue providing therapeutic  support for language growth, and she will show us what she can do.