“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. 

If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Chinese proverb

We’ve all heard this saying before and know that it is used to stress the point that it is more valuable and longer-lasting to teach skills towards being independent rather than to provide short-term temporary support.

As parents, we know the wisdom of teaching our kids to do for themselves rather than doing for them. This applies to parents too. At Seattle Children’s Autism Center, we strive to empower parents by providing them with tools for parental self-efficacy, the confidence and competence to handle the challenges autism presents.

First I want to recognize that as a parent new to the diagnosis,

I didn’t want to fish.

I didn’t want to be given a fish.

I wanted nothing to do with fishing. 

The voice in my head said,

“I don’t want to have to do this.”

“I can’t do this.”

“This is too hard.” 

After accepting that there was no choice about the matter, I then really wanted someone to do it for me. I didn’t want to be my child’s teacher, therapist, advocate and case manager. I just wanted to be her mom. This feeling didn’t stop me from accessing services and therapies for her. I did – but I did it with an internal struggle that didn’t make it easy on anyone. Only when I surrendered and ceased fighting the inevitable did things begin to get easier. Back then there were so few resources that there was not much choice so perhaps it was easier than today with more choices to weed through.

I asked our providers how they “teach parents to fish” and here’s what they had to say:

Jim Mancini, MS, CCC-SLP:

Knowledge is Power!” I encourage families to learn about and understand the systems that impact their child.  Educational, insurance, medical, and state systems are often complex and having knowledge about those systems is a strong step toward advocacy.

I often encourage families to connect with and communicate with others families who have a child with ASD.  While you might ask the advice of a provider, that provider is likely knowledgeable about his or her area of expertise.  Parents of children with ASD have to learn it all.  Getting information from other parents who are a little further down the path can save time and provide valuable direction.

Andy Adler, MD:

Sometimes asking parents what they have done in the past to address a specific problem can be empowering to them and validating to the good work they do already.  Explaining your thought process (as Ron Thomson does in giving psychoeducation on ABA) can also demystify problem-solving solutions for children with autism.

Jamie Yauch,  MS, CCC-SLP:

During my speech and language evaluations, I point out real life examples of a child’s strengths and challenges with communication and then teach parents how to improve their child’s communication using functional and every day activities. At the end of the evaluation, I talk about the strengths, challenges and strategies when providing diagnostic information and then provide parents with Patient and Family Education handouts that I created to help parents use and generalize these strategies at home. The handouts are available in the Patient and Family Education Database, and include:

Strategies to Promote Language Development – PE1691 (Spanish)

Using Books to Enhance Your Child’s Communication – PE1599 (Spanish)

Using Routines to Enhance Your Child’s Communication – PE1600 (Spanish)

Using Sign Language With Your Child – PE1906

Noa Hannah,  PhD, CCC-SLP, BCBA and her team:

  • We begin by asking ourselves, “How can we make this parent’s skill set stronger?”
  • We don’t just tell parents what we’re teaching their child, we tell them why we are. This typically means discussing the longer-range goal and the steps we will take toward it.
  • We give parents an opportunity to tell/show us how their child’s homework went and then problem-solve right then and there if need be.
  • We do a lot of “pairing” where we start work with the child alone to gain instructional control and later pair the parent with the clinician in the instruction with the child. We then gradually increase the parent’s role while decreasing ours.
  • We do a lot of coaching with parents where we observe and provide guidance as they work on a task with their child.
  • We provide parents with handouts that complement the work we do with their child so they have reference material at home.

Jo Ristow, MS, CCC-SLP:

Collaboratively develop a step-by-step plan for meeting communication goals and check in frequently about successes and barriers to achieving that plan both in the treatment room and at home. Focus on teaching tools and achievable, functional goals. This supports parent buy-in – if they can see a change, it builds confidence that more change is possible!

Raphe Bernier, PhD:

I like to talk to families about how to think about new interventions. I direct them to resources (such as this one: Considering Intervention Options) and go over them with parents.

Kyle Steinman, MD:

I review with families what constitutes a diagnosis of ASD and go over what challenges there child has that fits into the criteria we use to make a diagnosis. Hopefully this helps them explain their child’s diagnosis to friends, family, teachers, and others in their child’s life.

I point out to parents that schools operate on limited budgets, so it is often the “squeaky wheel” that gets what is needed. I encourage them not to feel wrong or ashamed being that squeaky wheel to make sure their child is getting what he/she needs.

When parents are not happy with the care or attention their child received from a medical provider, I let them know that I think obtaining a second opinion is always a reasonable and sometimes important thing to do.

I talk to parents about how to evaluate if using a “complementary and alternative therapy” (such as vitamin supplements, diet modifications, and auditory integration therapy) is right for their family. I explain the importance of looking at proven risks and benefits and unproven but theoretically-sound risks and benefits. I also remind them that risks are not only physical risks; it is also important to consider financial costs and time taken away from other therapies and/or “downtime” as risks.

Katrina Davis, Family Resources:

I am parent of a child with autism and work as a family resources specialist helping parents navigate autism resources, support and services.

When assisting parents I try to keep in mind a parent’s “readiness level” to take action.  The reality of the diagnosis can be so overwhelming that parents are sometimes not ready to make the changes necessary to activate services and support.  I’m sensitive to first understanding where a parent is — and then focusing on the list of things that need to be done.

If a parent is not ready or “does not want to fish”, no amount of advice support or recommendations will be effective. The approach then is to share the information and continue being available until the parent is ready.

One of the toughest aspects of my job is when I am helping a parent who feels that no one is helping when in fact, people are trying. It often occurs when a parent is resistant to “own the task” and seems to want someone else to do it.  While there are times when a parent is so overwhelmed that some hand-holding is needed, I know from experience that I am most effective when I provide parents with tools and resources they can then apply them to different situations and challenges. For example, rather than calling an agency for a parent, I offer some of my “go to” sites for resources and urge them to make the call.  I coach parents to communicate and collaborate with the people on their child’s team rather than speaking on behalf of the parent, and I unite them with other parents to obtain resource ideas and to form lasting connections

We’d like to thank our providers for their contribution to our blog on teaching parents to fish. If you have a story to share to help other parents, share it with us!