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Building Better Bridges with Parents and Caregivers


Golden Gate Bridge

This article was contributed by Louise Southern of ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department.

I have worked in the field of autism intervention for 16 years in a variety of clinical and educational contexts. My current role within the Autism Society of North Carolina is centered on delivering workshops to parents and professionals and providing individualized consultation to parents, caregivers, professionals, and self-advocates.

As I reflect upon my experiences and as I consider what I must continue to aim to do going forward, here are a few things that I “know”:

1) A growing body of research has yielded identification of certain evidence-based practices in the field of autism intervention. For my entire career, I will be working to know more, to become more precise and fluent in the application of and training on best practices.

2) Parent-mediated interventions and parent involvement are identified as an “evidence-based” practice within the field. Within some intervention models, the parents are positioned as the primary interventionist, and the results of such interventions are quite promising. In my experience, I believe that parents and caregivers must be empowered to take the lead role within the intervention team. Truly partnering with parents to produce relevant and significant intervention outcomes means hearing their voices within a fluid exchange (“we teach each other,” not “I teach you”), and it means that they understand and “own” the intervention because it reflects their values, priorities, activities, and family structure and interaction patterns. As professionals, we must be so careful not to allow our own position and agenda as “consultant” or “expert” to overshadow the parent’s voice and perspective.

Further (and certainly), we must not eclipse the voice and values of the individual with autism. We may come into a situation “knowing” our stuff, but we also must enter the relationship ready to listen and to learn from the families we serve. Our approach cannot be to impose priorities and information onto families. I cannot start with what I know, but rather, must start with the individual with autism and his/her family – what they know and share. We build a more authentic and equal partnership and thereby a more solid “bridge” (i.e., the home-based intervention program, the behavior support plan, the Individualized Education Program, etc.) when we start there. I know for certain that I will be refining my own “bridge-building” skills for my entire career.

As professionals, we identify goals and collect data that drives decision-making. Our goals are often framed in measurable and observable terms. While certainly important features of an intervention program, there are also other, less tangible objectives that we should also aim to achieve as we serve individuals with autism and their families. Here are but a few of those:

  • The strategies and activities that I recommended naturally fit with what my clients do in their home and community, and what they value as a family.
  • The challenging behaviors that we addressed were the behaviors of most concern to the family.
  • The skills we worked to strengthen were the skills that were most important to the individual with autism and his or her family.
  • The strategies that I recommended can be maintained by the family in the long term.
  • The activities and strategies that I presented built upon the individual’s strengths, more so than weaknesses.
  • I treated the parents or caregivers as equal partners in the intervention process.
  • The goals we identified reflected the goals of the individual with autism and his or her family.

Louise Southern M.Ed., BCBA, a member of ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department, can be reached at or 919-743-0204. ASNC’s Clinical and Training Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential, and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to parents and professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and instructional strategies to support students with autism in special and general education contexts.


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