How to tell if an autism aba therapy is harmful

This article was written by Luna Rose. Luna Rose is an autistic community member who specializes in writing and autism. She holds a degree in Informatics and has spoken at college events to improve understanding about disabilities. Luna Rose leads wikiHow’s Autism Project.

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ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is a subject of controversy in the autistic and autism communities. Some people say they or their children were abused. Others say it worked wonders. As someone who wants the best for your loved one, how can you tell the difference between a potential success story and horror story? The signs are there if you know how to look for them. This article is written with loved ones in mind, but autistic teens and adults are also welcome to use it.

Note: This article covers topics such as compliance therapy and abuse, and may be disturbing, especially for people with PTSD caused by therapy. If you feel uncomfortable with such topics, or if you are uncomfortable at any time with any content, we suggest that you stop reading this article.

How to tell if an autism aba therapy is harmful

ASC offers Applied Behavior Analysis, a scientific approach to understanding behavior, how it is affected by environment, and how learning takes place. Scientific studies have proven ABA techniques to be one of the most effective methods of treating the behaviors of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Unlike typically developing children whose learning process comes naturally, children diagnosed with autism frequently experience language, social, and/or behavioral difficulties. Regardless of their challenges, many of these individuals can make significant gains in each of these areas when participating in intensive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services.

Although individuals with autism have the potential to learn, it frequently takes a very structured and controlled environment to acquire the same skills as those of the typically developing child. ABA is a method of establishing the structured environment to provide that learning experience.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding behavior, how it is affected by the environment and how learning takes place. It is a mixture of psychological and educational techniques tailored to meet the needs of each individual. ABA methods are used to measure behavior, teach functional skills, and evaluate progress. Various techniques have been developed over the years for increasing constructive behaviors and reducing those that may be harmful or that interfere with learning. Applied Behavior Analysis encompasses using those techniques and principles to discourage socially inappropriate or problematic behaviors and replacing them with more acceptable ones.

Scientific studies have proven ABA techniques to be one of the most effective methods of treating the behaviors of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ABA uses a variety of approaches to find a way of motivating the child/individual and ensuring that the sessions are both enjoyable and productive.

Who can benefit from ABA programs?

ABA programs can prove extremely beneficial in teaching or improving an individual’s language, eye contact, social skills, peer interactions and behavioral issues. It has also been shown to improve the skills necessary to stay on task and encourages the desire to learn. Most individuals with autism can benefit from intensive ABA programs because even if an individual does not achieve the “best result,” it generally improves normal functioning levels in most areas.

Who is qualified to oversee ABA programs?

The ABA program at Autism Services Center is supervised by our on-staff Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and implemented by our Residential and Community Behavior Support Professionals (BSPs) who are trained in techniques that meet the national standard for positive behavior support. See for further information on the national standards and guidelines.

Behavior analysts are dedicated to the advancement of positive practices and the provision of non-aversive, person-centered services to support individuals with challenging behaviors. Candidates for certification as BCBA are professionals who hold a minimum of a master’s degree in psychology, education, or speech and hearing sciences or related fields from accredited universities.

Behavior analysts design, implement, and monitor programs that provide an abundance of positive reinforcement for useful skills and positive social interactions with an emphasis on socially appropriate behaviors. They objectively observe, analyze behaviors, and review the accumulated data to determine the effectiveness of programs and make adjustments to improve or adapt the programs as the child grows and changes.

Behavior analysts train parents and individuals who interact with children with autism and other severe handicaps so they can teach and support the necessary skills during family activities and daily routines. They can provide a detailed assessment of each child’s progress and fine tune a program to assist in meeting the designated goals that will enable the child to be independent and successful in both the short and long term.

ABA Services offered at Autism Services Center

ASC also offers a variety of services that are available to families, students, agencies and schools. They include workshops, seminars and presentations on topics including:

  • Principles of Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Developing Behavior Intervention Plans/Managing Disruptive Behaviors
  • Conducting functional behavior assessments and analyses
  • How to teach children with autism
  • Parenting skills
  • Follow-up monitoring and plan evaluations
  • Staff training
  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Self-Management Training

For additional information on ABA therapy, please contact Jimmie Beirne at (304) 525-8014, extension 232.

Autism Services Center is a private, 501(c)(3) non-profit agency providing quality services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln, Mason and Putnam counties in West Virginia. We presently serve approximately 250 individuals and employ a staff of almost 500.

To schedule an appointment, make a referral, request a call back, have information sent, or leave a comment, please complete the following:

No child is perfect all day every day. Place a child in a new or unusual situation, and difficulties will emerge. Add communication or developmental problems to the mix, and the chance for problems increases.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy helps a child build communication and coping skills. Kids emerge with tools they can use to advocate for themselves.

But during ABA therapy, maladaptive behaviors often appear. When they do, therapists and parents can band together to ensure that the therapy stays on course.

What Behaviors Will You See?

Each child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is different. Kids aren't mirror images of one another, and they don't share a checklist of behaviors. But experienced therapists find that some so-called "bad" behaviors are more likely to come up in ABA therapy.

These behaviors can include:

Kids with autism also engage in self-stimulating acts (stimming). That can involve rocking, hand flapping, snapping, or finger flicking.

At one point, researchers viewed stimming as a form of self-harm. After interviewing adults with ASD, some experts have a different view. They say these acts are sometimes used to soothe someone who is feeling overwhelmed or stressed. They are pleasant and a form of coping for the person.

But some behaviors are universally unacceptable. As researchers point out, kids that destroy property, harm themselves, hurt others, or engage in tantrums can face real consequences. They have fewer social opportunities, and they may be excluded from school and family activities. That further limits their growth.

Measure the Impact

How can you tell if a behavior is bad or helpful? It's not always easy.

Therapists explain that they intervene only when it seems necessary. That means stepping in when an activity is:

If a child is engaging in a harmful activity, something is amiss. A skilled ABA technician will shift the session when these things appear. Families will learn to do the same.

But these behaviors can’t be considered “bad.” Instead, families may come to think of them as early warning signs.

Find the Source

Behaviors don't spontaneously emerge. They stem from something very real happening in the moment. To intervene appropriately, families and therapists must identify the trigger.

A child acting up during an ABA session could be triggered by:

Communication skills are impaired in those with autism. The child may not have the ability to speak clearly and ask for a change during the therapy session. Bad behaviors are a form of communication.

If the child is verbal, ask for more information. Simply ask, "Why are you doing this?" or “How do you feel?” Sometimes, this can make the need clear.

If the child can’t speak, watch for physical cues. Covering ears, clutching their stomach, or closing their eyes can give clues to where the problem is.

To Add or Remove?

To deal with the behavior, you have one of two choices. You can add something to the equation, or you can remove something instead. Either option is valid, given the circumstance.

For example, a child is yelling during an ABA session in response to the instruction "Please sit in the chair," The team could:

These are very simple solutions to complex problems. It's likely therapists and families will do much more in response to difficult behavior during a session.

This therapy teaches a child a more effective way of communicating a want or a need. Instead of screaming, a child might learn to say, "I need a break."

That reformation won't happen immediately. ABA therapy is time-consuming, and kids with autism have a lot to learn.

But as therapy progresses, kids can learn how to replace negative behaviors with helpful substitutions. Their skills grow and grow. In time, they can put those skills to use at school and at home too.

Focus on the Child

It can be hard to watch a child with autism bite, thrash, and flap. For some families, it can feel embarrassing, particularly when in crowded places.

Autism Speaks recommends a subtle shift in thought. Think about the behavior through your child's eyes. It's common to focus on how the behavior affects us and the way people see us as parents and caregivers. Think of ways to make yourself into a detective.

Your child isn't trying to harm or embarrass you. Your child is trying to tell you something, and this is a problem you can solve. The more you solve that problem, the more likely you are to help your child replace maladaptive behaviors with important skills.

Behavior therapists and technicians can go home after challenging sessions. You can't. If you're feeling worried or upset after a particularly trying day, reach out to your support system. Ask for a small caregiving respite so you can go for a walk, sip a cup of tea, or just feel the sun on your face.

You're doing hard work, and you're doing the best you can. Taking a break might help you to see that clearly. Taking care of yourself enables you to be the best caregiver for your child. Don’t neglect your own needs.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA), long the go-to behavior modification option for autistic children, is used worldwide to mitigate other social and behavioral issues, as well—e.g., smoking, personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The method has even been used in relationship counseling. Despite the absence of side effects and the fact that a great deal of clinical and anecdotal evidence supports the model’s success, ABA is not without its risks.

The cost.

The fact that ABA is expensive and time consuming may make it seem undesirable to, or place it out of reach for, prospective clients. The time commitment involved—sometimes as much as 40 hours per week–can also seem daunting. Parents with children undergoing behavioral analysis may find the process stressful, especially given the need to keep up home and school participation.

On the other hand, thirty-one states have adopted ABA coverage as one of their benefits under the Affordable Healthcare Act, and it’s one of the few autism therapies covered by most state Medicaid programs.

One size doesn’t fit all.

The effectiveness of applied behavior analysis depends largely on the individual. Although ABA can be tailored to some extent, putting it into actual practice is the only way to determine if it will work for a specific client.

Autism, for example, is so complex, behavioral analysis doesn’t work for every child. There’s also the fact that while ABA for autistic children tends to focus on learning necessary skills, autistic adults have developed their own learning preferences, so the process must be adjusted accordingly.

Others may not reinforce, or may resist, behavioral changes.

If skills a patient learns in the therapeutic setting aren’t reinforced in other environments, they simply won’t take hold. Outside encouragement—e.g., from parents and teachers—is critical. It’s also important to note that changes in one individual can cause dramatic shifts in family and/or social dynamics, which may result in a breakdown of those systems. These issues should be dealt with at length before therapy begins.

The patient may become frustrated or upset during therapy.

Even positive change can cause stress.

Adults undergoing applied behavioral analysis may feel uncomfortable and resist sharing sensitive information or unpleasant emotions. Children may act out when they feel frustrated in their attempts to learn new tasks.

As behavior analysis begins, children can resist giving up undesirable behavior that was reinforced in the past. This can result in an “extinction burst,” or temporary escalation of the old behavior. If the parents and therapist maintain a consistent approach and agree on problem-solving strategies, these episodes can be limited or avoided.

Finally, it’s important to remember unexpected high-stimulus environments can’t be avoided completely. Behavorial analysis must teach individuals skills they can use to accept and/or cope with these environments, and with change in general, or risk losing ground.

Addressing behavior alone can mask something else.

Behavioral analysis focused only on changing challenging behaviors can be risky. It’s critical to pinpoint the stimulus for that behavior. Otherwise, the behavior may change, while other serious problems remain. In an interview in Psychology Today expert Adam Holstein makes this point about a child who acted out at school. Interventions designed to pinpoint the reasons for his behavior uncovered child abuse at home.

While the above-listed risks do exist, the Surgeon General of the United States has recognized applied behavior analysis as the most effective way to meet the learning needs of people with autism and related developmental disabilities. ABA has been endorsed by both the National Institutes of Health and The Association for Science in Autism Treatment.

How to tell if an autism aba therapy is harmfulPhoto by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

If you’ve been linked here, it’s because you have said something that has prompted us to give you some more education on ABA.

Let’s start with the obvious: The GREAT BIG ABA OPPOSITION RESOURCE LIST

To summarize the evils of ABA shortly and succinctly:

  • ABA is child abuse.
  • ABA uses aversives such as verbal disapproval, planned ignoring, spanking, withholding of toys/comfort items/food, slaps, restraints, and even electric shocks.
  • ABA ignores a child’s consent, which can lead to lifelong issues with comprehending consent- which can lead children to ignore another person’s bodily autonomy, and more importantly can lead them to become victims of sexual or other forms of abuse.
  • ABA is conversion therapy, founded on the same principles as gay conversion therapy but with more torturous methods.
  • Autistics who have been in ABA are 86% more likely to develop PTSD than their peers that never experienced ABA.
  • ABA is usually extremely intensive, most children are forced to participate 25-40 hrs per week, sometimes on top of school and sometimes in place of an education (meaning the child gets no actual education).
  • ABA is an expensive scam.
  • The creator of ABA intended for children to be afraid of the therapists and their parents, which he actually said in one of his published journal articles.
  • The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), who oversees the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) endorses torturing autistic children with electric shocks, which have been denounced and called torture tactics by the United Nations (UN) and the US Food Drug Administration (FDA).
  • ABA therapy worsens any possible volatility in children and makes them unable to handle stimuli, causing more and more unpredictable meltdowns.
  • Behavior Technicians/Analysts/Therapists certified by BACB do not have any training. They are typically hired with only a GED or diploma, no college, and get no formal training of any kind. They are then encouraged to directly harm children and lie to parents about it.

Your child’s ABA does not have to tick all of these boxes to be abusive. If even one of these applies to the care your children are getting (and if they are in ABA, at least one of them does) they are enrolled in an abusive program that will traumatize them.

All parents want to help their children succeed. But parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may face special challenges. What's the best way to help? What steps are harmful?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is one of the best ways to help your child. This therapy has been shown to improve the skills of autistic children and to decrease problematic behaviors, setting them up for success in life.

Parents play an important role in ABA therapy. In fact, when your therapist heads home for the day, you might continue the lessons and work with your child.

You'll get training before you get started, so don't worry. But you can learn some critical do’s and don’ts before the work begins, so you’ll know how to help without causing harm.

What’s Your Role?

ABA therapy isn't a set-it-and-forget-it approach to ASD care. You can't pass your child to a registered behavior technician (RBT), walk out of the room, and hope for the best. As a parent, you are involved in how therapy progresses and how well it works.

Autism Speaks explains that parents are part of an ABA caregiving team. You work with therapists and doctors to:

There are many steps here, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Remember that your work is critical, and you’ll have guidance throughout the entire process.

Researchers say that when parents get involved, kids learn faster. They generalize lessons from one environment to another. And parents extend the amount of learning time a child has access to.

All of these points matter. With parental help, kids benefit more.

Home Practice Sessions

Your child is always learning and always growing. Take advantage of that fact and apply ABA lessons at home, even when your RBT isn't there.

Experts say parents can be the best teachers, especially if kids need to pick up ABA concepts. But parents often need to learn too. Watch your child's sessions with the treatment team and consider:

Your child's RBT will train you on ABA concepts. You'll know what behavior is the target of therapy, and you'll have a step-by-step plan you can follow to reinforce that behavior. To an outsider, your work can look like a game or a simple conversation.

For example, you might reinforce ABA concepts through:

Sprinkle the work throughout the day, and keep track of your child's responses. You may find that it's easy to finish a task at home, but the child may struggle elsewhere. Feedback like this is critical for the team as you plot next steps.

If things don't go as planned, talk it over with your team. You're all learning and growing together, and roadblocks are expected. You can find solutions together.

ABA Therapy Do’s and Don’ts for Parents

ABA therapy is built on the concept of rewards. Good decisions lead to positive reinforcements. No punishments are required.

Parents can sometimes make poor choices during therapy that can make learning hard. Everyone makes some mistakes, but the more you know about bad choices, the less often you'll make them.

Poor ABA choices parents can make include:

There are plenty of good choices you can make as you participate in ABA therapy. You can support your child by:

This list of do’s and don’ts isn't exhaustive. Your child's treatment team may have specific feedback on your choices and your options. But this list can get you started on the ways you can be the most helpful member of your child's team that you can possibly be.

How to tell if an autism aba therapy is harmful

Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, is an effective treatment for children with autism. Offered in a variety of settings, ABA therapy for autism uses a system of positive reinforcement that helps children decrease maladaptive behaviors and learn functional skills.

Here’s everything you need to know about the beneficial therapy that equips your child to cope with autism and thrive at school, at home, and in the community.

What is ABA Therapy for Autism?

ABA is a proven and individualized therapy for children with autism. Behavior specialists observe your child, gather data, create behavior goals, and measure results.

Data-driven and evidence-based, ABA therapy is flexible and adapted to your child’s age, skills, needs, interests, and preferences. It utilizes positive reinforcement and rewards that motivate change.

Through ABA, children can learn communication, language, and social skills and improve their memory, focus, and attention. ABA therapy may also decrease problematic, self-harming, aggressive, or violent behaviors that affect learning and everyday life.

Behavior specialists can provide ABA therapy in the therapist’s office, your home, the community, or school. Your child can receive ABA therapy in a group or one-on-one setting.

Ultimately, ABA therapy for autism can help children successfully move to a mainstream educational environment. Children also learn to cope in a variety of real-world settings and incorporate ABA principles in everyday social and life situations.

How Does ABA Therapy For Autism Work?

ABA therapy is provided by a qualified and trained therapist. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) oversees the process.

The ABA process starts with observation during a functional behavior assessment. A BCBA will observe your child performing regular activities at school, at home, and in the community. This observation allows the trained professional to collect data and identify three ABCs that form the backbone of ABA therapy.

A–Antecedent describes what happens before the target behavior. This ABA aspect can be a verbal request or command, an environmental factor like light or sound, a physical object or toy, or an internal thought or feeling.

B–Behavior is your child’s response to the antecedent. Your child may exhibit an action, verbal response, or no response at all.

C–Consequences follow the behavior. A consequence might be positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, high five, electronic device access, or playground time if your child performs the desired behavior. The consequence of inappropriate or incorrect behavior would be no action or no acknowledgment.

After observing and collecting data for several weeks and talking with you, the BCBA will create a customized ABA program. The treatment plan addresses your child’s unique needs, skills, interests, and preferences and is based on your child’s age and ability level.

The program includes a target or goal behavior or skill. This target behavior will be broken into small, measurable, and objective units that are easy for ABA staff to observe and monitor. The target behavior can become more complex as your child learns, grows and progresses.

The program could also be adjusted or changed based on the antecedent. An antecedent change may make it easier for your child to use the target behavior. The adjustment could be the removal of a trigger or a change in how the therapist, teacher, or parent makes a request of the child.

Next, a trained ABA therapist meets regularly with your child. During each session, the therapist works on the target behavior and collects data that measures and monitors your child’s progress and the therapy’s effectiveness. ABA therapy uses three training modes.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

This occurs in clinical or 1:1 sessions. The therapist breaks down a task into small steps, such as “pick up the spoon” instead of “use your silverware to eat.” Your child receives a positive reinforcer or reward for compliance. Tasks become more challenging as your child masters each small behavioral, social or life task.

Incidental Training

Incidental training is DDT that occurs outside of the clinic. Your child could receive 1:1 or group ABA therapy at school or home.

Pivotal Response Training

This happens in natural settings, such as your child’s school, playground, or home. Less structured, pivotal response training focuses more on your child’s interests and relies on your child’s motivation, self-initiation, self-management, and responsiveness. With this approach, your child learns how to implement behaviors in numerous real-world situations.

The entire ABA team will meet regularly together and with you. These meetings assess your child’s progress and identify skills that need to be developed. This information is then used to adjust the goals, teaching plan, and other details of the ABA program.

What Can Children Learn Through ABA?

For children with autism, ABA therapy provides numerous academic and real-life, everyday benefits.

  • Teaches vital communication skills
  • Advances social and adaptive living skills
  • Increases cognitive function
  • Enhances academic focus, attentiveness, and ability
  • Reduces self-injurious, aggressive, and harmful behaviors
  • Lessens tantrums
  • Improves self-care skills
  • Promotes independence

For instance, your child with autism may learn how to sit quietly in class, wait their turn on the playground, stop hitting their body when they’re upset, and wash their hands appropriately. These skills equip your child for success in school and real life.

Where Can You Find ABA Services?

You may ask your pediatrician or medical professional for a referral to an ABA therapist. Your child’s teacher, another parent, or an online search can also direct you to local ABA providers.

Specialty schools like the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism also offer ABA therapy for each student. Every child has a behavior plan with positive attention, non-contingent breaks, errorless teaching procedures, and access to preferred items. We conduct 1:1 and group therapy sessions in various school and community settings as we help your child with autism learn and grow.

ABA therapy for autism can help your child thrive in school and everyday life situations. Consider the benefits of ABA through your child’s school and/or in a clinical, community, or home setting as you decide if this therapy is right for your child.

Understanding how to treat Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be as overwhelming as understanding the condition itself. The fact is, no two cases of ASD are the same, so no two treatment plans will be the same, either.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is commonly used to treat ASD. ABA for autism gives therapists and caregivers numerous avenues to help children learn to function healthily and responsibly in real-life situations.

Recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association, ABA applies theories of behavior and learning to the treatment environment, helping children with ASD learn how to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease harmful behaviors. As a result, these children are better equipped to learn, communicate and grow.

Understanding ABA For Autism

If you’re a parent who’s just beginning to learn about ABA, it might seem a bit confusing. Here are five things you need to know.

1. ABA for Autism Isn’t “One Size Fits All”

Several different therapies are rooted in ABA principles. Therapies include discrete trial training, natural environment training, pivotal response training and more. Regardless of the type of therapy used, when therapists use ABA for autism, they can measure children’s progress with hard data and see clearly what therapies are working and what therapies are not.

ABA can help improve children’s communication skills, sharpen focus and attention, develop social skills and more. Its multifaceted, fully customizable approach allows therapists to be creative and adjust to the needs of the child, which increases the possibility of bringing about meaningful and positive change.

2. Progress Is Measured Over Time

When a child with ASD first begins an ABA treatment plan, his or her therapist will identify individual goals. Therapists typically begin with simple, manageable goals, and then move onto more complex goals.

As the treatment plan progresses, therapists record specific data, which they share with other staff as well as with caregivers.

At Sarah Dooley Center for Autism, for example, therapists meet multiple times each week to discuss children’s progress. This data shows them how well the child is progressing, and how and when adjustments need to be made to the treatment plan.

Consistently monitoring children’s progress is a key factor in ABA’s success. As their needs fluctuate, so too must their treatment.

3. Learning Happens Outside The Classroom, Too

Although caregivers may bring their children to a special school for autism, it’s important to know that a lot of learning occurs outside of the classroom as well. This is a crucial part of the ABA philosophy.

Going out into the “real world,” like the library, the playground or a restaurant gives children the chance to transfer skills learned in the classroom to real life. This is what’s known as “generalization.” Children can perform a task or engage in an activity, with the support of their therapist, and practice succeeding in their newly acquired skills.

Parents will also be aware of the skills children are learning in the classroom, and they should help children generalize those skills at home, too. With time and practice, children will be able to generalize these skills independently.

4. ABA Isn’t About Punishment

Boiled down, ABA rewards desired behaviors and gives consequences for undesired behaviors. Some people misunderstand what “consequences” means in this context.

It’s especially important to understand that ABA for autism is not about punishing children with autism when they demonstrate undesired behavior. This system of rewards and consequences aims to promote appropriate and cooperative behaviors and decrease harmful and detrimental behaviors.

ABA therapists often use positive reinforcement to reward desired behaviors, but consequences might simply be the withholding of that positive reinforcement or reward. Learning within the ABA environment is characteristically positive and enjoyable, helping children want to learn and grow.

5. Parents Drive ABA Home

Parental involvement in ABA therapy is critical to its success. Sharing insight on behaviors, triggers, responses, preferences, and tendencies will enable your child’s therapist to make a sound initial assessment and guide adjustments to the treatment plan thereafter.

Parents have a great opportunity to help their kids generalize skills learned in the classroom at home, too. Although therapists expose children to real-world situations in which they must apply their skills, parents should also take the chance to give their children the same opportunities.

Many ABA therapy programs will offer regular sessions for parents, during which they train parents to support their children’s learning and skills maintenance at home.

Learning About ABA For Autism

When it comes to ABA for autism, there’s a lot to learn. Thankfully, there is a wealth of information out there to support caregivers’ endeavors to help their children.

If you are searching for support for your child’s experience with autism, consider these useful resources: