Over the years of working as an occupational therapist, I have learned a myriad of things from children with autism and their families. I feel privileged to be part of the challenges in addressing the special needs of the child and the triumph in realizing their potentials. A positive family and professional partnership is essential to bridge this gap. The collaboration entails bringing to the table three basic elements necessary to achieve the goals set for the child.
All children with autism and their families are unique. As such, first on list is the need to understand the family’s diverse characteristics including the individual members’ life management skills, mental and physical health, communication style, and motivation. The authors of the book Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive Outcomes Through Partnerships and Trust notes that “these characteristics can either strengthen or limit the family as a whole.”
Second, “what happens to one happens to all.” The members of the family are like the pieces of a baby mobile. When you touch it, each piece moves, not just one. There are two questions to ask when we discuss about family interactions — “Are the family members close with each other?” and “Can the family adapt to meet changing life circumstances?” It has been researched that a high level of cohesion (i.e. family members are “close”) is an early predictor of a child’s growth and communication, social skills, and daily living skills while family adaptability and flexibility is a key factor contributing to positive adjustment during life-changing events.
The third element pertains to family functions which are “the tasks that families perform to meet the individual and collective needs of their members.” The eight categories of family functions are: (1) affection; (2) self-esteem; (3) spiritual; (4) economics; (5) daily care; (6) socialization; (7) recreation; and (8) education. Each member of the family has a role to play in meeting these needs. And children with autism CAN have a positive contribution. Research shows that children with special needs are a catalyst for a family’s increased spirituality.
In this family centered-approach, we move past seeing the child with autism as a patient but as part of a family. Therapy goes beyond one-hour direct intervention sessions in order to achieve equal opportunity, independent living, and full participation of children with special needs. In our aspiration of an inclusive society, we start where it matters most. These cannot be achieved overnight; but families and professionals can help each other and build on each other’s expertise, strength, and resources.
I have been fortunate to have worked with wonderful families who have enriched my life in so many ways. It is my hope that families and professionals continue to inspire one another because one way or another, we’re all part of one BIG family.
Girlie G. Baylon, OTRP, OTR