Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Montessori Book Review: One Mom's Journey to Her Son's Autism Diagnosis and Treatment

As a Doctor, She Saw the Signs but Nobody Would Listen

At First Her Baby Boy Was Developing Normally

From Feeling Helpless to Recognizing a Special Connection and Later a Miracle

Children with special needs can benefit from therapeutic horseback riding.

Years before opening her first school in San Lorenzo, Dr. Maria Montessori studied and worked with children with special needs.  She spent two years training teachers in her unique way of observing and educating, always experimenting with what methods were the best at helping the children develop.

Today careful observation and a thorough knowledge of child development are foundational to the Montessori method.  That's one reason why trained teachers will often spot atypical development very early on--long before others will pick up on it.

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a great example of a condition that a keen observer may suspect at an early age.  A person with ASD has challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, all of which may be observed while a child is a baby or toddler.  That's what mother and author Suzanne S. Cleland-Zamudio, M.D., described in her book, Evolution of a Miracle:  A Medical Family's Journey Through Autism.  

In it, Cleland-Zamudio described her son Antonio, who went from hitting all of his neurological milestones at 1 year old to regressing by 18 months.  Her concerns grew and grew as he developed, but the specialists she took him to reassured her that he was fine.  The fact that he was non-verbal, had big tantrums, and rocked back and forth worried her, so she persisted in getting a diagnosis.  He was extremely sensitive to any change in his routine, he screamed when she washed his hair, he insisted on wearing the same clothes.....the list went on and on.  As a doctor, she knew this wasn't normal development.

Luckily, Antonio was finally diagnosed, getting the therapy and interventions he needed to improve his chances of progress.  Eventually the horseback riding his mother did as a hobby became a wonderful outlet for him, too, and Cleland-Zamudio and her husband founded a therapeutic riding center for people of all sorts of abilities.

I am not a doctor, but as a mom and a 
part-time teacher I can count several families I know of whose child has been diagnosed with ASD and other families on the journey to diagnosis.  That doesn't include acquaintances who have been diagnosed as adults (which is more common in women), families whose child has a developmental disorder which share some overlapping traits with autism, or those families who, I suspect, have at least one child on the spectrum but who are not seeking diagnosis.  That's a lot. 

It's important to add that some individuals with ASD are diagnosed later, either because their symptoms are less obvious and/or intrusive, or because they are very good at mimicking their typically developing peers in order to blend in (this is called masking).  If they make eye contact, have acquired typical language skills and don't have any outwards behaviors like hand flapping or spinning, their neurological differences may not be as apparent.  They also may not regress.  But they can still struggle to fit in at school, work, and with peers, and are at risk of much higher rates of anxiety and depression than their typically developing peers.  Sometimes their sensory sensitivities make everyday background noise distractingly loud or irritating, or the gentle breeze on an uncovered arm excruciatingly painful.  You can imagine how activities we take for granted--relaxed chitchat in a restaurant, playful wrestling on the playground--may be draining and overwhelming.

I think this topic is important for Montessorians three reasons:

  1. Montessori preschools begin at age 2.5, a good age for observing a child's development and assessing critical areas, such as language, social skills, and self-regulation.
  2. There is a growing interest in Montessori homeschooling.  Parents need to recognize red flags when their child's development is atypical so that diagnosis and early intervention can help the child early on.  Resources such as this one are important to share.
  3. Parents oftentimes cannot see their own child's development objectively and may need to hear concerns from an outside source.  Among teachers, Montessorians are particularly well-trained in observation and in child development, making us important people in a child's life.
In some ways a Montessori classroom can be a very supportive environment for those on the spectrum (for instance, there are lessons in Grace and Courtesy similar to social stories and scripting they may otherwise be practicing in therapy); in other ways the Montessori approach may not provide some of the supports some children thrive with, such as behavior charts and rewards or a highly-structured schedule.  How to best accommodate special needs students is definitely a hot topic on professional discussion groups and public forums right now.

Thanks to the internet and social media:
  • there are TONS of Youtube channels now produced by families with children on the Autism Spectrum, many of which share early videos of their child's behaviors--the very ones that lead to diagnosis.  
  • even though the pandemic has kept some concerned families home instead of seeking an evaluation in person, there are Telehealth sessions in many places.  Both evaluations and therapies may be available right from your own living room.
If you are concerned your child may be on the spectrum, this guide gives suggestions about what you can do about it.  Careful observation and sticking to the facts of typical development will be your best guides.

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