Autism Awareness Month: Devereux’s Rayni Brindley shares perspective on raising a child with autism
With more than 20 years of behavioral healthcare experience, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Senior Vice President of Organizational Development Rayni Brindley, M.Ed., BCBA, is trained to recognize the early warning signs and symptoms of autism, including avoiding eye contact; delayed speech and communication skills; not sharing interests; not responding to sounds, voices or names; repetitive behaviors; and difficulty understanding other people’s emotions.
When her son began to exhibit some of these behaviors, Brindley took notice.
“When my son was 9 months old, he began to squint and blink in an atypical way. Over time, that went away,” Brindley explained. “Then, around the age of 1 1/2, he started to bite other children at day care. Although developmentally appropriate for his age, the aggressive behavior did not reduce or stop with standard interventions. One of the most defining moments for me was when my son memorized colors, letters and numbers – without being taught. I distinctly remember when I heard him count independently to 10. He was 20 months old at the time. My first thought was, ‘Wow! My child is brilliant.’ My second thought was, ‘He has Asperger’s.’”
Road to diagnosis
Brindley reached out to a former colleague, who told her that, while her son displayed some characteristics of autism, it was not enough to diagnose him with the developmental disorder.
Months later, when her son’s aggressive behaviors continued, causing disruptions in the day care setting, Brindley scheduled an evaluation with a developmental pediatrician.
“Even though I knew at the core of my being that my child had autism, the official diagnosis was still difficult to hear,” Brindley said. “I was hoping the pediatrician was going to tell me I was wrong, but instead, she confirmed my suspicions. Thankfully, it was detected early – my son was 2 ½ years old. I dealt with the diagnosis by trying to find the best possible services to meet his unique needs.”
Exploring interests and passions
Brindley’s son, who is now 8, receives Applied Behavior Analysis services, as well as social skills and emotional regulation training to help him better understand and manage his emotions. While he still faces challenges, Brindley says he is growing – and thriving. She describes him as dynamic, smart and friendly, with a wonderful sense of humor and varied interests.
“Some individuals with an autism spectrum disorder have restricted interests – my son will become completely obsessed with one thing for a period of time, but then move on to something else,” Brindley shared. “Over the years, his interests have included TV and movie credits; the continental drift and geological periods; roads and maps; and most recently – Legos and rare video games and consoles. He’s a fun, cool kid with an incredible memory. I call him a human GPS. I know if we ever got lost, he’d be able to guide us back home – his memory is that good!”
Advice for other parents
While Brindley admits navigating the world of autism can be challenging – even with her background and experience – she urges parents to never give up, noting “If you don’t advocate for your child, no one else will.”
“These groups offer a place for families to share experiences and advice, which is extremely liberating,” Brindley said. “If you don’t have a child with special needs, it’s difficult to fully understand some of the behaviors of that child and how they can impact the whole family. I encourage other parents to withhold their judgements and always be kind. When you see a child acting out in a public, just remember, you might not know the full story behind those behaviors.”
Brindley also shares the importance of practicing self-care. “Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. Find a trusted child care provider – even if it’s only for an hour or two every so often. I worked with a local university to find a special education student who could periodically watch my son, giving me time to recharge, even if I was still in the house! Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We spend so much time accessing services for our children, but we don’t often do the same for ourselves Remember what the airlines say – put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. You need to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of anyone else.”
Advice for professionals
As a parent of a child with autism, Brindley encourages her colleagues in the behavioral healthcare field to try to put themselves in the shoes of the families they serve.
“Think about whether you would be OK with whatever service or intervention you are suggesting if it were your own child or loved one,” Brindley explained. “Think about what challenges families may face, and help them to break down barriers. For example, parents want to do the things you, as the professional, suggest, but sometimes it’s very hard to implement a complicated intervention to fidelity when you are working full-time, have two other children to take care of, or need to get out the door so as to not miss an appointment (that you waited months to get) for your child. Think about ways to make it more manageable for families, and we will be forever grateful!”
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