When you hear the word alternative therapy, the imagery you may conjure up is probably a holistic approach.
When I reference alternative therapy, I am talking about activities that neurotypical kids do year after year without even thinking about it.
For a family with an atypical learner doing regular activities like baseball, soccer, or little league is nothing more than a dream. With the myriad of issues that these children tackle daily, sometimes both physically and emotionally, these activities can seem out of reach or not a priority.
As a special needs parent, you are constantly deciding what I have to do versus the things that can wait for a later time. I am here to say that that is not necessarily the truth. While some activities your child may not be able to participate in, it doesn't mean that they can participate in anything at all. The objective must change to meet the child's strength and capabilities. If you can modify what you want to obtain and see what your child will procure from experience, your acceptance will grow and have a more positive and meaningful experience.
The Early Years
The early years of autism can feel overwhelming with information and therapy; however, as your child grows up, the options become fewer. Therapy staples like Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Behavior Therapy & Physical Therapy become less frequent. Those options become fewer, and it can become limited with what therapies your child can still attend.
In these early forms of interventions, your child can make progress at a steady rate, and because of their progress, your child will naturally graduate from these therapies. Their speech will increase and start to become better communicators of their needs; sensory issues will decrease, and fine and gross motor skills will have become more developed. All these are great markers that you are headed in the right direction; however, therapy is still needed.
If your child is not making this progress, remember that each child develops at their own rate. Some kids naturally adapt to speech, while others do better with Occupational therapy. Do not burden yourself with comparison and miss out on all the progress that your child is actually making. Alternative therapy forms can be beneficial to children who are not making the intended progress in those setting because the different settings can help decrease their anxiety about performing one-on-one.
My son has autism and selective mutism, and these two diagnoses presented a huge problem when it came to speech. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that will only increase with the pressure to perform a communicative task. The one-on-one setting for him with speech only increased his anxiety about speaking, and he could not make the progress that his therapist outlined for him. It took me years of attending speech to recognize this barrier and truly discover how this approach was not the best. These alternative settings allowed the pressure to be removed from my son, making more speech progress than he was making in speech therapy. Using both alternative therapies in conjunction with his regular speech, I have seen an increase in communication and a decrease in anxiety about speaking. He still has speech deficits and selective mutism, but he is learning to manage them.
The alternative forms of therapy will greatly increase the needs of your child's social and emotional growth. Social and emotional growth can easily be neglected with your Atypical child. When your child is having difficulties with buttoning his shirt or cannot tie his shoes as a parent, your focus naturally will go towards functional living and neglect social needs.
Another barrier is the rejection that you know your child will face in settings that are not adaptable to their needs. Finding a place where your child is accepted and welcome is not an easy task. The overall fear of rejection alone can keep a parent from ever even starting to look.
The previous form of therapy tends to be one-on-one and has a great focus on the individual. Alternative therapy focuses more on the need for social growth and interacting with other children.
These activities will teach your child how to be engaged in a group setting and manage emotions in a different environment. It will also help them create and build new relationships. Knowing what to do in a large social setting will increase your child's self-confidence and decrease social anxiety.
Children do not outgrow Autism Spectrum Disorder; therefore, some type of therapy will always be needed. As children get older, it can become a task to find a therapy they currently need and respond well with.
Exposing younger children to social settings only raise their awareness and independence for future use. Try to see it as making small social-emotional deposits so that it is available to tap into at a later and needed time.
Alternative to Speech
If your child has outgrown speech and met all their goals yet still has difficulties with communication, look into social skills. The goal of speech therapy is to increase language skills and improve the child's communication skills. However, Pragmatic language may still be delayed.
Pragmatic language can help social skills groups because it will help the child learn how to say something when appropriate to share or keep information and know what to say. Social skills will also help a child with social communication and back and forth conversations.
If your child is limited verbal and has not improved with expressive language, speech and alternative can be putting your child in a setting where they can grow their receptive skills. Look into instructional classes with limited expressive feedback required but step-by-step receptive instructions. Classes like Art or Cooking can have a dual purpose, increasing your child's ability to follow verbal instructions and functional life skills.
Alternative Occupational Therapy (OT)
Occupational Therapy can be done throughout the lifespan because the needs changes as your child get to make progress. The occupational therapist's objective is to help your child increase their ability to live and function independently with tasks that may seem simple yet challenging for a neurological diverse child.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder put an incredible amount of effort into completing these tasks. The skills developed when your child is attending OT regularly and are instrumental to maintaining their overall success. Once sensory needs seem to decrease and your child has a better grasp of their senses, you can now introduce another form of activity that can function like therapy.
Activities like swimming can function as an alternative, and I must follow this up with an activity your child enjoys. ASD individuals sometimes are not aware of the dangers that are associated with water. Taking your child to a swim class can help them learn water safety. The deep pressure of being in water can provide relief from unmet sensory needs
ASD children often have issues with their Vestibular or Proprioception input being under-responsive or over-responsive.
- Vestibular input helps your body be aware of whether or not it's moving and maintains balance.
- Proprioception input helps you understand the proximity to others or things.
The water gives your proprioception and vestibular systems input.
Not a Replacement for Therapy
These activities cannot replace therapy, and they are suggestions to keep adding on the profound developed skills. A child that has been recommended to do Occupational or Speech therapy one-to-two times per week still needs to follow that recommendation and guideline. It's for the child's benefit to continue these therapies until they have been discharged. Once a child has been discharged, the recommendation is to continue improving upon these skills but in a different setting. The goal should be to do as much therapy as possible and then apply it to daily life.
Do Some Research
No matter what you decide or which direction to head into, it would be best if you did some research before exploring other methods.
Two things to consider in doing research are:
- Research what evidence-based data is already out about these activities and special needs children. Alternative or unconventional methods might not have journal review articles, but you may be able to find some articles or other parent experiences that have had past success. Reading forums on past parent experience may help you decide whether this avenue is something you are willing to take.
- Decide if this will be a good fit for your child and family. There are financial considerations to factor in; insurance may cover traditional forms of therapy; however, it will not cover swimming classes' costs. The time commitment that it will take away from the parent driving to and from these places. Do some research and consider whether your child would enjoy these activities. Research your surrounding area to see what is available and if they are willing to modify the activity to meet your child's needs. Some places offer alternative classes or special needs classes to accommodate children with atypical challenges.
Once you have done the research and considered the pros and cons, you are now ready to introduce alternative therapy to your child's routine.