.   I’m the father of a 3-year-old son, who recently has been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. His mother died last year, so I’m the sole one responsible for getting him what he needs to succeed in life. I’ve learned about a special education program in the school system that starts at age 3 for kids with learning disabilities, including autism. Can you tell me what adjustments at home would be helpful, and how I can prepare my son to shift into a public school system from the day care where he goes now?

 A.  You mentioned a special education program in the school system for students with learning disabilities. You might refer to the article “Special Education 101: Meeting Your Child’s Needs.” It offers a good understanding of the program and the process for assessing the level of school support that will help him succeed.

Let me now address your other questions and hopefully add a bit of encouraging news as well. As you noted, autism is on a spectrum and severity levels vary among children. Early signs of autism spectrum disorder generally include delayed milestones, social awkwardness, and difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. The child will tend not to smile, offer eye contact or imitate others (such as waving goodbye). Children with autism tend to have delayed or lost speech and lack empathy.

Regarding adjustments you can make at home, like neurotypical kids, children on the autism spectrum almost always like consistency and routines. They don’t like change. Routines are usually comforting, so avoid interrupting repetitive behaviors. Children with autism often don’t like to stop what they are doing and move to a new activity. You can ease such transitions with warnings. For example, you might say, “In 10 minutes, we will do X.” Then give reminders as the activity time nears its end. To help with social skills, talk to your child as much as you can. Model social skills for him. It is crucial to provide opportunities to parallel play with other children too.

To help with the transition from day care to public school, take your son to the new school a few times. Show him the classrooms and introduce him to teachers. With permission, take pictures to show him at home. Talk about school and what to expect. Talk, talk, talk. The more you talk to and with him, the better. You might also benefit from finding a group of parents of children with autism who can share their experiences, or join an autism association, such as autismspeaks.org and autismsociety.org. They can provide support and answer your questions. I also recommend the books “The Way I See It” by Grandin Temple and “The Loving Push” by Debra Moore.

People with autism often have what some experts call “islands of brilliance.” One highly successful businessman with autism was able to build whole ships in his mind. He saw the proper dimensions of every aspect of the ships. I recently connected with the mother of a boy with autism. He had been able to read at two years old. She stresses the importance of talking with her son. Lots of work with speech therapists and her own conversations with her son have improved his speech and socialization skills. Be watching for special interests and skills that your son has and help him make use of those skills and interests.

Of course, it is more difficult when a child with severe autism lacks interests. In that case, caregivers will work very hard to get small gains. With professional help, a child can still show improvement.

Father, you have a challenge to maximize your son’s potential. The more effort and time you spend with him, the more likely it is that he will succeed in life.


Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psycotherapist.


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