When Emma was first diagnosed she was still two years old. The supervising ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapist from the agency who provided us with Emma’s early intervention program was a huge imposing man with a beard. During one of her more difficult sessions, he took Emma into her bedroom where he told me he needed to have me not intervene as it would only make matters worse. I was told that she needed to learn she must comply or she would never be able to progress. I was told that no matter what, I was not to enter her bedroom.
As her screams grew louder and more desperate I huddled in the hallway against the wall to her bedroom, confused, horrified and angry and wept. It was a form of torture, listening to her screams. As the minutes wore on I wavered between the instinctive need to protect my daughter and the desire to do what would prove best for her. The problem was, it was not clear what the right thing to do was. If I went in and rescued her, according to the therapist, I would jeopardize all the hard work they had up to that point accomplished, reinforcing the idea that screaming would get her out of doing any “work” and if I didn’t intervene I had to sit with the knowledge that I had allowed a complete stranger to traumatize my daughter. These are the kinds of episodes we parents replay in our minds, with new ones constantly being added to the queue. Did I do the right thing? Should I have stopped him? What sort of long term trauma did I subject my daughter to? If I didn’t stop him, if I allowed these sorts of sessions to continue was I not an accomplice in harming my daughter? Was the therapist correct? Would the rigorous ABA program we fought so hard to implement have worked had I not doubted it so much?
As it was, I did not intervene that day. However, months later during yet another session when Emma cried and screamed with the therapist, while sequestered in her bedroom, I finally did. I was told by the therapist that it was my behavior that was causing Emma to not progress with her ABA program. I was told in no uncertain terms that the therapist (whom I liked) could no longer work with Emma because I wasn’t sufficiently supportive. Later that day I received a call from the head of the agency telling me they would no longer provide services for Emma because I was too difficult to work with. The year was 2005 and in New York City there were few other options. ABA therapy was considered the gold standard, the only scientifically “proven” methodology that worked with children on the spectrum. We had fought hard to obtain 35 hours a week of it for Emma.
The point is, whatever the methodology you employ with your child, there is no way to know whether it will help. Uncertainty is part of parenting. With a child on the spectrum that feeling of uncertainty is heightened and more loaded, the stakes feel so much higher. Are we doing the right thing? Will this help her in the long run? What will do the least amount of “damage” and help her the most? We neuro-typicals cannot know what it is to be autistic. We cannot speak for people on the spectrum. All we can do is hope that the decisions we make are going to help our children so that they can one day speak for themselves.
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to: Emma’s Hope Book