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What My Son with Autism Taught Me About Parenting

June 7, 2021
Alberto Estrella
Community Voices
A father and his young pose for a picture. Son has brown skin with curly hair. Father has a light skin tone.

My six year old son Alessandro is on the autism spectrum and I’m in awe of his resilience during this difficult pandemic year. Online learning and tele-therapy, disruptive school schedules, and social isolation were all in the mix. I learned a lot about myself—and some new parenting strategies.

Embrace your inner advocate. Like many dads out there, I’m often speaking up for my child. This past year, I’ve opened my eyes to an entirely new level of parent advocacy, requiring more attention to detail, schedule coordination, and record keeping than ever before. My son receives occupational, physical, and speech therapy, for example, and like many parents working from home, I tried to help facilitate those sessions. At a certain point, however, I had to explain why certain sessions weren’t working and create an alternative plan with school staff. I can do physical therapy exercises with my son at home, but I certainly can’t replicate a sensory gym. My child deserves all the related services outlined in his Individualized Education Program (IEP) and I will advocate until he fully receives them.

Create new routines for your child. For those of you who parent children with disabilities, particularly on the spectrum, you know how difficult a break in routine can be. Several times, I received calls that my son’s school was closed due to possible COVID cases. For me, it was an inconvenience. For my son, it was very disruptive. Whenever we needed to quarantine, I made sure that I created a schedule and reviewed it with Alessandro. We had time for online learning through his school, as well as speech and ABA lessons at home in the evening. However, I also made time to reward positive behavior with activities he enjoys, like video games or story time. At the end of the day, finding and sticking to our routine helped us both.

Find moments of joy and hold onto them. With the daily grind of work and remote learning, our valued routine, at times, became a rut. To break the monotony, I got creative and leaned into what my son loves most—swimming. Due to travel restrictions and to stay safe, I planned some “staycations” throughout the New York tri-state area. Those quick getaways always revolved around the swimming pool. We’re also now in the habit of brainstorming fun, interesting, and new activities together like camping in a friend’s backyard. It makes all the difference.

Reflect on the past and plan for the future. This time of social isolation has been so hard on Alessandro, like many kids with disabilities. He lost his speech services at school and I’ve seen him regress in that area. Alessandro also was making stronger eye contact prior to the pandemic, but lost practice in the online learning environment. This regression has been hard to witness, but I forge forward knowing that we are going to have more and more opportunities to socialize and engage outdoors. I’ve been researching summer camps and other enrichment activities that Alessandro can participate in over the next few months. I’m hopeful that in-person programs where he is learning, building skills, and surrounded by his peers, my son will get right back to where he was.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This past year has created a huge grey area for parents, especially for those who might suspect their child has developmental delays. I’m from the Dominican Republic and I understand there can be a lot of stigma around disability in Latino communities. I’m grateful that Alessandro received a diagnosis when he was around 15 months old. The earlier I knew, the earlier I was able to obtain Early Intervention services, which had and continues to have a significant positive impact on his early development. I know that the evaluation process and obtaining services can be intimidating and overwhelming—I’ve been there—but I encourage you to ask questions and take the first step.