Updated: Dec 4, 2019
When a child is diagnosed with autism, ADHD, or anxiety, parents can be both overwhelmed by the reality of the diagnosis and relieved to have a plan. Yet sometimes the plan is overwhelming. Professionals might be recommending play therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, physical therapy, medication management, vision therapy, social skills group, tutoring, or a combination of any of these. Just like children without disabilities, children with special needs can be overscheduled, too.
Many parents I work with feel they are failing their children by doing fewer therapies than recommended. Let me reassure you: There is a zone of learning for all of us, and our children are no exception. Yes, too few therapies may lead to a child not progressing as fast as they could; however, too many therapies can cause children to shut down, resist appointments, and not be available for learning. There is a middle ground where optimal learning takes place. So, if you’re concerned that you might be asking too much of your child, consider these questions:
1. Is my child’s progress in therapy stalling?
Of course we want our children to make progress quickly, but more therapy isn’t always better. Too many therapies is similar to overscheduling children without disabilities with too many sports practices, music lessons, and scout meetings. Having a child in extra-curriculars every day after school in addition to homework, friends, and family events can be exhausting. We all reach a point where we are too overwhelmed to make progress. For children with special needs this is even more compounded by anxiety surrounding sensory needs, fatigue, and hunger.
2. Is my child resisting going to one or more therapies?
If your child won’t join the therapist or won’t even get out of the car after they have enjoyed therapy before, they may be experiencing high anxiety for some reason, be very tired at that time of day, or the skills they are working on are too hard for them. Your therapist can guide you in figuring out what’s going on and adapting to help your child feel less anxious and more available for learning.
We also need to be careful about forcing children to go to therapy. While young children may not remember their experiences playing in a OT gym as “therapy,” school-age children on up will likely remember their experiences. We don’t want them to form negative memories of being “forced” to go to therapy only to grow up not liking the idea of therapy and as a result not reach out for help when needed. We can all benefit from therapy at some point in our life.
3. Are you or other family members overly-stressed due to the therapy schedule?
This is a tough one to define because the entire experience of having a child with special needs is a stressful one. Yet, there could come a time when the logistics of therapy appointments are stressing a parent beyond the point of being available to nurture their relationship with their child. Always prioritize relationships, because without them, no learning is possible. So we have to find a balance between making progress in therapy and maintaining a trusting parent-child connection, because that is part of your child’s progress, too!
4. Do you notice a decrease in anxiety over summer and holiday breaks?
Every summer, when school is out, many parents I work with begin to see their child’s anxiety lift. School is very stressful for many children with autism, ADHD, and/or anxiety. The sensory overload, the task demands, and the social expectations keep children’s stress level high most days during the school year. Summer is a reprieve, like someone has loosened the pressure valve and kids can have fun, without long days of expectations to keep up and without homework.
If you see your child make developmental gains over the summer due to fewer activities, take notice. Prioritize which therapies your child is making the most progress in and stick with those. Some families even add a therapy in the summer because their child can handle more without the demands of school.
It's OK to Take a Break!
Talk to your child’s therapist about the goals they are currently working on and your child’s progress. Your child’s therapist will have an opinion about this and help you make this decision.
On occasion, a child takes a break from seeing me in DIR/Floortime therapy to focus on body regulation and attention span in occupational therapy. Once these skills improve, we continue play therapy to greater success. There are also times I see a child reach social goals in play therapy with me and it is time to move on to a social skills group to practice their skills with other children. Doing both play therapy and social skills group, in addition to occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, is often too much for families logistically and financially, so we prioritize.
Many families I work with continue parent consultation sessions with me even if their child is taking a break from child sessions. We monitor their child’s progress and consult on behavior and independence goals at home all without stressing the child with one more appointment that week.
Therapy is hard work for your child (and for you), so paying attention to the stress level within different seasons of life can be helpful. Ultimately, your child’s stamina, happiness, and forward-moving progress are the markers for making these decisions. You’ve got this!
**All content provided is protected under applicable copyright, patent, trademark, and other proprietary rights. All content is provided for informational and education purposes only. No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological diagnosis, advice or treatment. Information provided does not create an agreement for service between Dr. Emily W. King and the recipient. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to you or your child's symptoms or medical condition. Children or adults who show signs of dangerous behavior toward themselves and/or others, should be placed immediately under the care of a qualified professional.**