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An Introduction to Autism for Adoptive and Foster Families: Book Review

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From the Cover of An Introduction to Autism for Adoptive and Foster Families: How to Understand and Help Your Child by Katie Hunt and Helen Rodwell:

“Written for busy foster carers and adoptive parents, this book provides a concise introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and how to support a child with a diagnosis. It emphasizes the common strengths children with ASD have, as well as offering strategies for any behavioral issues that are likely to arise, highlighting how these can be exacerbated by the care system and adoption process. The strategies include social scripts, reduction of sensory input in a child’s environment and encouraging parents to think about self-care.”


Grade:

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Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 4 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]


What Our Family Thought:

The target audience for this book is foster and adoptive families with children who are autistic, who may be receiving placement of a child with autism, or who have a reason to suspect a child in their home may be autistic. As the title suggests, this book provides an introduction to what autism is, how it is assessed, and challenges in assessing foster and adopted children. The book also provides a primer in attachment and belonging, how attachment and belonging can be damaged in foster and adopted children, and how attachment and belonging look different in autistic children. They discuss managing everyday transitions, placement transitions, and visits with birth family and how to minimize negative impacts of these transitions on autistic children. Furthermore, they provide insight into doing life story work with children who have autism and helping them with their loss and trauma. The authors share ways for caregivers to look after themselves while parenting a child with autism.

Chapter 9 in the book lists many resources for seeking information or finding professionals best suited to help. The appendix, entitled “Getting to Know my Child,” provides a detailed checklist about a child’s social communication; anxiety and feelings; social interaction; rigid and inflexible interests, behavior, and routines; everyday transitions; and sensory needs. It is really quite applicable to any child and can help caregivers in multiple ways. A prospective parent can ask current caregivers or professionals to fill it out before the child moves in so they can better prepare. A current caregiver can pass it on to a new caregiver if the child moves or to a birthparent with whom the child is reunifying. It can also be useful for a caregiver to give to teachers or other professionals who work with their child to enable them to better understand and work with the child.

The strategies and principles in this book will help any foster or adoptive parent who is parenting an autistic child, and they really apply as well to parenting any child through foster care or adoption. The book does not list a lot of specific actions to take, as the authors emphasize the fact that every child and family is different, but rather they outline seven overriding principles to guide caregivers of children with autism.

Overall, this is an insightful and informative book for caregivers who do not have a good understanding of the aforementioned topics. For those well-versed in autism and parenting children who have experienced trauma, it may provide good reminders to return to as needed over time.

*Note: The authors are from the UK, so certain foster and adoption processes or health or governmental agencies will vary for readers in other countries, but the overall principles and strategies are applicable anywhere.


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It’s Your Turn:

  1. What did you find most helpful or eye opening in this book?
  2. What changes will you make as a result of reading this book?

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What Foster and Adoptive Parenting Does to Your Body

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For six months out of 2017, Darren and I, Margie, had a total of six kids we were parenting who, between them, had multiple needs which required us to be in a stage of constant high alert. We were never able to fully relax when children were around, which was pretty much always. In December, two of them moved on to a different home, and we realized just what a toll those six months had taken on our body. For almost two weeks, we felt a constant desire to sleep. As we were able to let our guard down just slightly, our bodies let us know that they did not appreciate the beating they had taken over those six months.


What Happened to Us?!

Parenting is stressful, but parenting children who have experienced complex trauma, and who need high levels of supervision as a result, leads to parents being in a constant state of high alert. If this goes on for an extended period of time, the caregivers begin to have some of the same physical and emotional responses that have occurred in their children.

What are some physical and emotional issues seen in caregivers?

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Secondary PTSD
    Foster children are nearly twice as likely to develop PTSD than active combat veterans. Caregivers can experience prolonged exposure to the traumas their children have endured, or experience several traumas themselves related to fostering or adopting, and begin to show symptoms of PTSD such as intrusive thoughts, negative thoughts and feelings, avoiding reminders of trauma, and symptoms of being on high alert.
  • Compassion Fatigue
    Caring for a child who has experienced trauma over a long period of time can be very heartbreaking and emotionally challenging. If you have started to lose compassion for your child’s history, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue symptoms include chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship, irritability, feelings of self-contempt, difficulty sleeping, weight loss, headaches, and of course, decreased compassion.
  • Depression
    Caregivers can begin to feel hopeless and helpless about their child’s situation, healing, behavior, or growth.
  • Anxiety
    Parenting comes with an endless list of things to worry over, and fostering or adopting can add more weight or items to that list.
  • Irritability
    Ongoing stress, continuous sensory input (nonsense chatter, constant loud noise, etc.) coming from a traumatized child, constant battles with health, education, or government systems to advocate for a child, and so much more start to wear on foster and adoptive parents leaving them irritable, overly emotional, or short-tempered.
  • Health problems
    Higher, sustained levels of stress lower the body’s immune system, resulting in more frequent illness. It can cause weight gain, heart disease, body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, and other physical issues.
  • Withdrawal
    Withdrawal is common among caregivers. It could be due to a lack of energy, lack of time, or an inability to relate any longer to others in their social circles. Sometimes it’s because it is too difficult to go anywhere with children who are triggered by situations outside of the home environment. Caregivers at times will withdraw themselves emotionally in their home as well due to a lack of reciprocity from the child, and they begin to feel more like they are just fulfilling job duties instead of being a nurturing parent figure.
  • Isolation
    While withdrawal is often a choice of an individual, isolation results from those around someone removing themselves from the individual’s life. It may be that friends with children begin to stay away as fears creep in that being around your child will negatively impact their children. Maybe folks stop hanging around because there is sometimes a lot of drama involved with fostering and adopting. Yet others begin to question caregivers because they don’t see the same behaviors that the parents see at home, and out of lack of knowledge about trauma and attachment, they begin to suspect the caregivers are the problem.
  • Hypervigilance
    Do you seem to constantly be at a heightened state of alert? Do you jump at every sound and run to investigate? Does any movement out of the corner of your eye cause you to twirl around to check for safety? This is all very common in traumatized children, but caregivers often start to respond the same way, even when the children aren’t around.

Many of these conditions overlap, some are symptoms of others, and they are all on a spectrum from mild to severe. Will all foster and adoptive parents develop these symptoms? No, but many will have some degree of some of the aforementioned physical and emotional responses. It depends greatly on the needs of the children in a home, the intensity of the needs, and the number and ages of the children.

What reduces these impacts?

When caregivers experience these negative impacts on their well-being, their parenting and relationships with children and others are adversely affected. What can caregivers do to minimize negative effects on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing?

  1. Seek therapeutic help.
    Caregivers of children who have experienced trauma often find that traumas they experienced and thought they had dealt with are triggered by their interactions with their children. Finding a therapist who is well-versed in trauma can be helpful in processing past trauma in order to find healing and be available to parent better. Other times it is necessary to find a therapist to help talk through difficulties in parenting a child and gain insight into the child’s behavior and how to parent more effectively.
  2. Find support groups locally or online or find an experienced mentor to walk alongside you on your journey of parenting.
    While talking to friends and family can sometimes be encouraging, finding others who are experiencing similar triumphs and challenges through fostering or adopting provides the validation and information needed for success.
  3. Develop a stronger support system.
    Think about areas in your life in which you could use help in order to free up your mind, time, and energy for caring for your children. Is there a volunteer (or paid if budget allows) tutor who could take the added pressure of helping your child academically off your shoulders so you can focus on relationships? Is there someone who can pitch in with carpooling? Can a friend help you prepare food in bulk and freeze it for easy dinners? Many churches and communities are developing ‘wrap-around services’ where they find and train folks to do these types of things for foster and adoptive families. Each family has a team around them, and each team member is responsible for a different area of the family’s life (childcare, food, housework, encouragement or prayer, carpooling, etc.) Reach out if you need help!
  4. Practice self-care.
    I have yet to find a caregiver who has nailed this well consistently. It helps to be creative. It’s not always chocolate, wine, or a bubble bath. What “fills your cup” so to speak and energizes and revitalizes you? The tendency for caregivers is to neglect themselves to the point that nothing fills them up any longer, and they become less and less effective or therapeutic in their parenting, resulting in a damaged, resentful relationship with the child(ren).
  5. Celebrate and recognize small victories and changes with your child to combat depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions.

Often caregivers wait until they have reached their limit before seeking help or taking a new course of action. Being proactive at the first signs of trouble will help reduce chances of consequences like placement disruption or other major impacts to the family’s wellbeing.

We are here for you! Join other parents in the trenches during our [Monday Caregiver CheckIn] live each week on Facebook at 8pm EST!

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Now It’s Your Turn:

Think about these questions and possibly discuss them with a co-caregiver, trusted friend, or a professional, OR begin a discussion here with other caregivers.

  1. Have you experienced any of the negative impacts listed above through foster or adoptive parenting?
  2. Is there any negative impacts we failed to mention?
  3. What have you found helpful in reducing negative effects on your wellbeing?
  4. What steps can you take increase your wellbeing and your relationship with your child?

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Creatures of Habit: The Importance of Routine in Foster and Adoptive Homes

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A Lesson From the Birds

Last summer, my daughter, Jasmine, and I had the privilege of running an exhibitor table at the National Foster Parent Association’s annual conference. Each day for three days, we got up, packed up the car, and left the house around the same time for our drive across the city. Each of those mornings, as we drove by a nearby pond, the same bird stood atop the same bench in the exact same position, with wings extended. At different times of the day, the bird is either absent from the area or is in another area nearby. At certain times of the day, we know to look for the bird to be standing atop the back of a fake, floating goose in the pond. Why? I do not know, but I recognize that members of most species, including humans, are “creatures of habit.”

People Are Creatures of Habit, Too

Doctors encourage parents to put their children to bed at the same time each night, to wake them at the same time, to provide meals at roughly the same time daily, and so on. And we are told we should do the same for ourselves as adults. All kids seem to thrive with established routines, but foster and adopted children even more so.

Over the years, there have been so many times when we opted out of an activity because we knew it would greatly upset the routines of children in our home, and the fallout would not be worth it. Friends would question us or comment that their children would be staying up late or missing nap or [insert other routine break] as well, so what was the big deal?

Envision a lake with a dam which prevents it from overflowing onto the town below. Heavy rainstorms come and fill the lake. Think of the rainstorms as stressors and the height and strength of the dam as your tolerance for stress. The typical person has coping mechanisms as stressors come. Their tolerance to the stress, the height and strength of the dam, is quite high. These coping mechanisms let little bits of the rainwater through the dam, preventing a catastrophic flood. It takes immense storms to bring them to the breaking point. Children who have experienced trauma have a high need for predictability in their daily life. Trauma results in a very low stress tolerance. The height of the dams on their lakes is very low. Typical, daily stressors in these children’s lives cause overflows. A break in routine can cause breaks in the dam from the smallest of storms.

So what can you do to prevent catastrophic breaks?

Make the child’s life as predictable as possible. Simple, visual schedules of routines, menus, chore charts, and so on increase a child’s sense of control and felt safety.” Let foster and adoptive kids know what plans are as much as possible. For a period of time, especially early on in a foster or adoptive placement, you may have to simplify life to help children settle into simple, daily routines.

Inevitably, breaks in routine will come. What can you to prepare yourself and your child for those breaks?

  • Insert “wild cards” into visual schedules to allow for unexpected interruptions in routine.
    Write down coping skills on the wild cards and practice them with children during calm moments (not during a meltdown!).
  • Expect and prepare yourself for negative behaviors.
    Brainstorm potential behaviors, and plan for how you will respond.
  • Give less notice about a preplanned break in routine.
    Many children do better WITHOUT a long period of anticipation of a break in routine, such as a vacation. Knowing weeks or months in advance that a trip is coming can create anxiety and negative behaviors.
  • Talk about the kids’ expectations of what is to come.
    This allows you to hear if the child has any incorrect or unrealistic expectations and discuss them.
  • Practice and discuss beforehand how to appropriately handle changes in plans.
    Help the child learn ways to cope with disappointment, anxiety, and other negative emotions.
  • Create early exit strategies for those moments when you realize you or your child is absolutely done with an activity.
  • Also, prioritize which activities you and your child absolutely want to do most, and do those first to help quell disappointment when you aren’t able to do everything you had planned.
  • Take frequent sensory, hydration and snack (with protein) breaks to physically and mentally refuel your child.
    This should happen ideally every two hours. Water bottles and snack bags are handy and are great at calming melt-downs.
  • Keep coping tools on hand.
    Keep items such as fidgets, calm-down boxes, or noise-reducing headphones to help children cope.

We can help children feel safe and secure by making their lives predictable. With forethought and preparation, we can model for our children how to handle breaks in routine. Remember, the best way to handle negative behavior is to prevent it! You may have to sacrifice certain activities and events in order to help your child. Remember, as your child grows and develops coping skills, you will likely be able to enjoy those events and activities again, and it is important to manage your own disappointment so that you do not feel resentment that eeks out in negative ways toward your child.


Now it’s your Turn:

  1. What types of breaks in routine are most upsetting to your child?
  2. What have you found helps your child to handle changes in their schedules?
  3. What have you found helpful in terms of keeping your family on a predictable schedule?
  4. What types of activities have you had to put on hold in your life in order to give your child predictability? What do you do to keep yourself from feeling disappointed or resentful if you have had to give up things like large family gatherings or late night activities?

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