The moment your child receives an autism diagnosis is life-changing — and often laced with relief. A diagnosis helps predict the issues your child may face throughout their life and opens the door to a variety of academic and support networks. However, while these networks exist, the process of seeking them out can feel overwhelming.
L.A. Parent is here to help. Here is a roadmap for success.
How to find a school
Finding the right school for a child with autism can be a major point of stress for parents, but there are a variety of educational options available through school districts — from general education with accommodations to private and publicly funded specialized schools.
For children seeking non-specialized schools, placement can be determined through an IEP, or an Individualized Education Plan, developed by a team of individuals from various educational disciplines, the student with a disability, family members and/or designated advocates to ensure that a child who is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives specialized instruction and related services.
When it comes to assessing schooling options in Los Angeles, The Help Group is one place parents can turn. It is one of the largest nonprofit organizations serving children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Help Group runs 14 day schools in the L.A. area, most of which are nonpublic, meaning they provide special-education services based on students’ IEPs. Frostig School in Pasadena is part of The Frostig Center and serves 135 students in grades 1-12, with campuses in Pasadena and West L.A. Frostig students have diagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, processing disorders and dyscalculia, while others live with ADHD, high-functioning ASD and anxiety. And Bridges Academy in Studio City educates a diverse group of gifted students with a range of strengths, interests and learning differences.
Others to note: Young Learners Preschool offers children 2 to 5 a specialized, evidence-based curriculum with a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:3. Stem3 Academy caters to autistic children who have a particular interest in STEM fields. Bridgeport Vocational Center is geared toward young people 18 to 23 with ASD, offering vocational-skills training that includes job-placement support.
Navigating the education system for an autistic child demands both resilience and patience. There are advocacy groups to assist, although teachers and administrators are always a good starting point, especially with an IEP. The Help Group’s schools aim to help parents provide the best possible education for their child and, as Stem3 Academy puts it, instill in them the knowledge that “students with diverse needs are not less capable, not less able to flourish and produce meaningful results; they are every bit as capable, often more so, than their typical peers.”
How to find a therapist
Nearly all autistic children (and adults) with ASD benefit from some form of therapy. It is important for parents to evaluate their child’s functional skills (communication, daily living skills, emotional regulation, etc.) in order to formulate clear goals they hope to achieve in therapy.
When searching for a therapist, find someone with experience treating autistic clients. The Child Success Center is a developmental learning facility whose psychologists are dedicated to helping children with ASD succeed in all areas of life through therapy. The Child Success Center uses a “whole child” approach and sensory integration to craft a unique therapy plan for each individual, supporting them from infancy through early middle school. The impact of the Child Success Center’s therapy is evident from the testimonials given by parents with children in its program. One such testimonial reads: “My son left therapy today so happy and with such confidence, that I cannot find words to express what this means to us.”
For parents whose children are finishing up middle school, in high school or beyond, there are still other therapeutic resources to be explored. Last year, The Help Group launched Lumina Counseling, a new counseling center with therapists experienced in treating autism spectrum disorders. At Lumina, children, adolescents, adults and families can receive individual, group and family therapy, in conjunction with psycho-educational evaluations.
How to find a social network for kids
Making friends can be an especially challenging endeavor for people with autism, and recent research has found they not only connect more easily with others who have ASD, but also feel more comfortable and affirmed participating in groups led by autistic leaders. The Help Group knows this and offers a variety of programs and services to help children and adults with ASD connect with their peers and build social networks.
Younger kids might enjoy one of The Help Group’s Kids Like Me summer camps, clubs, classes and afterschool programs. Their classes include, but are not limited to, 2D game design, martial arts, fitness and cooking. Some of their popular clubs are karaoke club, Dungeons and Dragons and Craft Corner. All of Kids Like Me’s offerings are designed especially for children and adolescents with ASD, and the majority of them are open to all ages.
For those approaching or already in adulthood looking to form social groups, Advance LA is a promising place to turn. Another subsidiary of The Help Group, Advance LA specializes in one-on-one coaching for young adults with ASD. Life skills coaches provide clients with academic assistance, executive functioning practice, independent living skills and dating coach services. To help these clients create and maintain friendships, Advance LA also runs a social group called club l.a.. The group serves adults ages 18-35 and gets together every month for fun events such as karaoke night, bowling or “speed-friending.”
Club 21 provides the educational tools and resources that enable individuals with Down syndrome to be fully included. From first diagnosis onward, Club 21 Learning and Resource Center empowers families to identify the needs of their child with Down syndrome and teaches them how to navigate the terrain of the medical, educational and regional center systems to maximize their child’s potential. Its program focuses on family support, school support, direct educational training and community building.
There is a chain of seven regional centers in Los Angeles County operated by the state Department of Mental Health, and each center is a nonprofit, private corporation that contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services to coordinate or provide community support, resources and access to services for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
If parents find that their child shows no interest in programs like club l.a. or Kids Like Me, there is no cause for concern. The Help Group’s Senior Director of Autism & Clinical Services Dr. Laurie Stephens points out that “it is a ‘neurotypical’ idea that everyone wants friends and to be around others, when in reality that isn’t always true.” If a child does not express a desire for friendship or feelings of loneliness, they may be perfectly content spending the majority of their time on their own.
Support networks for parents
When trying to address all the needs of a child with ASD, parents often underestimate how crucial it is for them to find a support group for themselves. Navigating a child’s autism diagnosis can create high stress levels for families, and research shows that parents who participate in support groups gain a greater sense of agency, feel less isolated and perceive their parenting skills to improve.
Advance LA offers a free parent support group called Parent2Parent that meets bi-weekly and is facilitated by experts. Parent2Parent’s mission is to create a safe space to share struggles and celebrate their children’s successes. Groups like this not only allow parents to connect with other caregivers facing the same issues, but also function as a sounding board and problem-solving resource for them.
Getting your child, and you, the appropriate support is a big first step, even as discovering what that support looks like takes time. As Stephens puts it: “Remember that there is not one intervention strategy or methodology that works for all, nor is there one philosophy that applies to all autistic children.”
Effective support, and oftentimes therapy, coupled with the right educational environment, will put your child on a path for success.
Taylor Nelson is an editorial intern at L.A. Parent and is a student at Scripps College.