Tanya Paparella: Psychologist’s Book Encourages Parents of Young Children with Autism

Parents need to find interventions whose results are significant to a child's early development, with positive, long-term effects.

As a clinical psychologist and director of the Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program, an internationally recognized treatment program for young children with autism at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at UCLA, Tanya Paparella (’00, Ph.D., Psychological Studies in Education) regularly meets with parents whose children have been diagnosed with autism.

“Parents are overwhelmed,” she says of their first reactions to a diagnosis. “They have to grapple with their own emotions, their hopes and dreams for their child, and the knowledge that for young children on the autism spectrum, there is the possibility that with the right intervention, their child could change significantly.”

Paparella says that she is often struck by “how much parents want to help their children, how much they want to find the right intervention, and how much they want to do themselves.” She says, however, that they do not always know where to begin or what the most important priorities are for their child’s development. This challenge was the inspiration for her recent book, “More Than Hope: For Young Children On The Autism Spectrum” with Laurence Lavelle (Los Angeles, Quick Link Learning, 2012).

“There is so much information on the Web and with social media,” says Paparella, who is an associate clinical professor in UCLA’s Division of Child Psychiatry. “It’s difficult for parents to figure out what is important, what is not; what has evidence behind it, what does not. It’s an enormous task… to sift through a vast amount of information, decide what is relevant, and then figure out how to make that happen for their child very quickly, and get it right.”

Paparella says that although parents want to find help for their child with autism immediately, the reality of a waiting period before clinical intervention leaves them with the need to find interim solutions.

“This book gives them immediate tools to change critical areas of development,” she says. “When I ask a parent, ‘What goals do you have for your child?’ usually the first thing they tell me is, ‘I want my child to talk.’

“One of the primary goals is to develop language,” says Paparella. “Non-verbal communication can be a powerful pathway to verbal communication. One of the beginning steps a parent can [take] is to teach their child how to first communicate with gestures, such as pointing to get help, or showing dad a new toy. It teaches the child the power of communication; spoken language is a natural progression. “

Paparella underscores the importance of a supportive family for the child with autism, for their parents, and for the child’s siblings. While the challenges of raising a child with autism can make for what she calls, ‘parenting with a difference,’ she says that collaboration and cooperation among family members can make it easier.

“Finding what works for any one child, getting therapies in place, and [figuring] out how best to help [a child with autism] while providing a healthy family environment for everyone else in the family is not to be underestimated,” says Paparella. “Parents need support from other family members, not only with their child who has autism, but also in terms of being able to find time for themselves as a couple and for their other children. Children on the autism spectrum are demanding in terms of time, energy, and resources, and it is challenging for parents to find the balance to make it all work.”

Paparella says that there is a wide range of variation in the way that young children present symptoms of autism.

“One child may not respond to his name being called,” she says, “Nor give eye contact. He may be difficult to engage in social baby games like peek-a-boo, and he is not developing language or using gestures like pointing and showing. A different child of the same age could be verbal and engage socially with others; yet still have the characteristics of a child on the autism spectrum.

Paparella notes that while children with autism do not react and learn from their natural environment in the way that typical children do, “It does not mean they don’t have the potential to learn; rather we have to teach them differently.” She says that while there are no guarantees, “With effective early intervention, some children can make significant change to the extent that they appear indistinguishable from their typical peers.”

Paparella says that with “More Than Hope,” she provides parents with tools “to maximize their child’s success and learning in the long run.”

“Parents have to rethink their idea of what parenting will be like” she says of the unexpected difficulty that parents face in raising a child with autism. “Our book offers easy intervention strategies for parents with young children on the autism spectrum, and hope that their child can change significantly. Parents can contribute to changing their child’s development. But they need to know how to intervene, the areas in which to intervene, and critical strategies to make change in the areas that matter most, both for their child and their entire family.”