How journaling has helped my son.

Typical kids go to school and they share pieces of their lives with peers and teachers with ease. Classrooms and hallways are abuzz with news like:

“We got a new puppy.”

“My brother is home sick.”

“I went to the aquarium this weekend. The otters are my favorite!”

Sharing these tidbits helps kids connect to the people around them and helps others find connections with them. So, how can we help our kids connect socially when they struggle to communicate?

A daily journal, when brought to school and shared, can be a powerful tool to facilitate conversation and let others in.

As with so many things we have learned in our family’s autism journey, Michael’s daily journal started as an experiment. His second grade teacher gave all of the typical kids summer journals to write about their experiences. Even though this task would have been impossible for Michael to do independently, his classroom teacher included him and gave him a blank journal just like all of the other kids (don’t we love the teachers who GET IT and let our kids try?). Sometimes a simple gesture of inclusion can open up a whole new world! We began, and as always made modifications along the way, and SEVEN YEARS LATER, we have never missed a week. THAT is how fun and powerful keeping a journal has been for Michael!

When we began creating a daily journal with Michael, he could hardly speak at all on his own. He now uses an iPad with a communication app (Proloquo2Go) which has increased his ability to speak (or use his device) to share his own thoughts and ideas. Requests come easily to him now, but he still struggles to speak in a conversational manner. It is much easier for him to speak about his immediate needs than to share ideas or memories.

Michael’s journal allowed him to sit with a peer in school and share one small bit of himself each day. In longer breaks, like an indoor recess, he might be able to sit with a friend and go back through some of the older entries. His classmates became excited about his journal and took opportunities to share things about themselves with Michael. This allowed his teachers, aides and therapists to help bridge the gap in Michael’s social skills left by deficits in communication.

The before and after pictures of the car are labeled ‘dirty car’ and ‘clean car’

You can begin by showing your child pictures of their day.  If they can generate words related to these pictures, use those words to help create a sentence.  In the beginning, I would write Michael’s sentences for him on a post-it note and he would copy them into his journal. Remember that you are helping to build their voice so try to be as true to their ideas as possible.  You are just expanding their language to help them learn.

The photos and simple sentences provide Michael with a reference when sharing with his peers. They can sit together and share a minute or two. Stop for a second and think about the difference that can make.  It means that even on the toughest days, Michael had a positive social interaction to hold on to. Instead of coming home feeling as if school was an isolating experience, we began to give Michael simple, small examples of connecting with peers in an autonomous way.  The journal allowed his peers to see Michael’s home life.  By sharing how he dances to the beat of his own drum, he was able to find his tribe.

“I did animal sticker puzzles.”

“I played outside with my dogs. I like to be outside.”

Helping your child choose positive points in the day to write about is very important. We all have tough parts of our day, but keeping the journal positive will create a resource that can always be shared comfortably with others. When your child has the absolute worst day ever (let’s face it – they happen), it’s totally fine to skip a day or use an old photo and write about a general personality trait. For example, ‘I like to be outside.’ or ‘I love music.’

Over the years, we have learned that Michael also enjoys re-reading old journal entries on his own or with family members and teachers. This practice seems to solidify memories and put words to the experiences that are most salient for Michael. He often looks back at old entries and he definitely has favorite memories he loves to revisit again and again.

One of the most beautiful lessons we have learned through Michael’s journal is that we can record the moments of connection and love that are so powerful in family life. When your child gets a diagnosis of Autism, you can feel a lot of pressure to shuffle them to and from and endless string of therapies. These therapies can be very valuable. Just as important, however, is learning to connect with others and share a sense of comfort and trust – there’s just no better place than home to get those invaluable experiences.

Michael’s journal has also helped family members who don’t see Michael from week-to-week. They can sit with him and his journal. In looking through together, Michael is able to share what he has been doing since they were last together. Adults naturally read the entries, look at the photos and ask questions or make comments. The journal provides an ‘activity’ to do together, which takes away the awkwardness that can make social interactions feel challenging for Michael and pressure-filled for me.

Note: This entry captures a moment of independent sharing between Michael and his grandma, brought to us by our now beloved journal.

Finally, and maybe most beautifully of all, I believe Michael’s journal has been a way to help shape a positive self-image for him. Typical kids can hold the memory of a feeling of pride, an individual accomplishment, or a formative moment that taught them who they are. For kids with cognitive delays, the journal can be the scaffolding around the building of their sense of self. It can help them remember that they are silly and strong and loved and independent. Who couldn’t use a little of that in their lives?

‘I love my brother Will’

A summary of Michael’s afternoon followed by the sentence: ‘I did it by myself.’

Note: These entries reinforce that Michael is loved and supported, AND that he has his own personal strengths which enable him to do a lot on his own. Growing up, captured on paper.

Author, Erica Mauro

Erica Mauro is a mom to two teenage boys, one neurotypical and one with Autism and cognitive delays. She holds a BA in Psychology from Colgate University and a Masters of Psychology in Education from Columbia Teacher’s College.Before staying home with her children, Will and Michael, she worked as an elementary school teacher. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Molly Ann Tango Memorial Foundation, a charity dedicated to enriching the lives of children with special needs. In partnership with her husband Dave, she aspires to use daily life as an opportunity for therapeutic intervention, seizing on daily experiences as opportunities to build skills and strategies for Michael in a joyful, loving home environment. On the tougher days, she just tries to get everyone safely to bedtime and start fresh in the morning;)