Supporting Children with Developmental Delays and Autism

HiMama recently chatted with Dr. Cara Goodwin, Clinical Psychologist and owner of Parenting Translator, on the different ways educators and parents can not only support children with developmental delays and autism but how to recognize the signs early.

Dr. Goodwin mentions that early intervention is the most effective thing we can do to help children reach their highest potential. Early identification is super important and if you start seeing subtle differences in social interactions, lack of eye contact, lack of smiling in response to your smile etc. and by taking action quickly to help support these children, they’ll fare better than if you were to wait.

Dr. Goodwin says at first, a parent or educator may notice subtle in infancy in their communication and gestures such as nodding and pointing. Later on in young childhood, a parent or educator may notice differences in words and communication. “When you start seeing differences, sooner they can be identified and sooner we can start an intervention.”

She lists out some strategies that families and educators can use with children who have been diagnosed or may have developmental delays:

  • Get down on their level when they’re playing. This is how young children learn. She suggests staying in the “spotlight” (where children’s eyes and face meet yours) where children can easily see you.
  • Present toys that may interest them. Pull at their natural motivation (cars, music, etc) use their interests to bring attention to your face.
  • Introduce gestures and communication. Children love to imitate, introduce gestures, and clear communication with them.
  • Imitate what they’re doing. Vocalizations and gestures are a great way to gain a child’s attention, it’ll pull in their attention and reinforces what they’re doing.

Getting back to a normal life may not be the best experience, some children have preferred being in virtual and being at school, being aware and sensitive that all these changes might be difficult for this group of children.

Dr. Cara Goodwin

Educators who are currently working in a classroom (in-person or virtual) may be overwhelmed trying to support the children’s needs and take into consideration the children who have developmental delays. Dr. Goodwin lists out tips for educators who are trying to find the right balance when supporting all of their children and their needs:

  • Remember: Peer interactions are just as important as educator ones. Scaffolding interactions for children to help them enter and sustain play is a super crucial role educators can play in the classroom.
  • Consider pairing typically developing children with children with delays. Children love to imitate and children with autism and developmental delays may imitate the behaviours of those peers- a win-win!
  • Create visual aids. Clearly displaying the daily schedule (in the class and at home) can help children understand the routine and know what to expect during their day.
  • Stick to Routine. Children thrive on routine, by having a daily schedule and sticking to it as much as possible will help children with different abilities and needs. Now more than ever we’re in need of a consistent routine!
  • Take breaks. Educators, children and families need breaks through out the day when learning. Move your body, focus your eyes on something besides and screen and, get some fresh air! This will help you and your children focus and perform better through out the day.

Curious to connect with Dr. Cara Goodwin? Check out her website and Instagram. In her podcast she mentions a 100 Day Tool Kit from Autism Speaks and the CDC website for Childhood Milestones.

Curious how as an educator we can help you document children’s learning and development in the classroom? Let us help you out and get a quote for your classroom today!

Episode 244- Transcripts:


When your child is playing – and this will work for educators or parents – to get down into what we call the “spotlight” of their attention. So, if you imagine where their eyes are looking and when their face is looking as a spotlight, you want to try to stay in that spotlight, which can be difficult sometimes with children with autism.


Cara, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you, I’m so happy to be here!


We’re delighted to have on the show today Dr. Cara Goodwin. She’s a licensed clinical psychologist and we’re going to be talking to her today about autism and developmental disabilities. Wonderful having you on the show. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Cara. Who are you and why are we talking to you about these important subject matters today?


So, as you said, I am a licensed psychologist. And I am also a mother to three young children, which has given me a different kind of training than my professional training. And I have spent years doing therapy and assessments with children, particularly children with autism and developmental disabilities. And I’ve done a lot of research, as well. So, some neuroscience research and psychology research with children with autism and developmental disabilities.

And since having my second child, I decided to take some time off from my clinical practice and very quickly realized that I needed an intellectual outlet. And at the same time [I] realized there was a really [a] lack of resources, particularly about children’s mental health, that is evidence-based.

So, during the pandemic, actually, I started a Instagram account that I called @ParentingTranslator and a website with the idea that I would have evidence-based resources for parents. I’ve registered it as a nonprofit so that in the process of that, of making sure that these resources can continue to be free to all parents and accessible because I think this is such an important resource that parents need now more than ever.


Yeah, that’s cool. And I know that’s something we talk about a lot on the Preschool Podcast, which is just the importance of using science and research to connect to what we’re doing practically and pragmatically in the classroom and in our homes working with children. And I saw on your Parenting Translator website that research shows it can take 17 years for scientific findings to be put into practice. And so that’s kind of cool. So, I guess you’re kind of trying to, like, accelerate that time lag from research to practice?


Yes, exactly. As a researcher, we were working so hard to put out all these articles. And then when I became a parent and I talked to other parents, I realized that a lot of this information that researchers are working so hard to get out there is not really reaching the people who need it the most, which are the parents and the educators. So, really that’s my mission of this project, is to bring that information to parents because if we waited 17 years, the job would be over. So, it needs to be a little bit quicker.


Totally. And another thing that has come up a lot in the Preschool Podcast – and also in some of my personal conversations with my friends and peers – is the idea of early identification. And I know that’s something that you’ve looked at and studied a bit and is one of the challenges I think a lot of parents struggle with, with something like autism and different developmental disabilities. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And what are different things that we can do, whether that be in the classroom or at home, if we might have some concerns or if we feel like we are maybe seeing some signals? What can we do?


So, if you do start seeing… so, are you asking about autism specifically? Or developmental disabilities more generally?


Let’s start with autism specifically.


Okay. Yes, so we know that early intervention is really the most effective thing we can do to help children to really reach their potential. So, early identification is really important to make sure we can get those interventions going as soon as possible.

So, if you do start seeing… with autism, you’ll start seeing – and every child is different – but you’ll usually start seeing some very subtle differences in social interaction. So, a lack of eye contact or not as much eye contact is as maybe you see with the children of the same age. You might see a lack of smiling in response to your smile. It’ll be very subtle things at infancy.

And then as your child reaches [ages] one and two, you’ll start seeing differences in communication. So, a lack of using gestures to communicate, like pointing or nodding their head Yes, shaking their head No. And then you’ll see a difference in words as they get to be the age where you would expect them to begin using words to communicate.

And so when you start seeing these subtle differences, the sooner they can be identified, the better because then we can start intervention. And there are a lot of great interventions that parents can be trained to do and educators can be trained to do. And they can have a real impact on the child’s outcome. So, the earlier you can get started with those interventions, the better.


So, let’s talk a little bit about those early interventions, then. What are some of the strategies that we can use with children who we have identified or diagnosed with autism or developmental disability?


Yes, so that’s simple. There’s a lot of different techniques you can use. But a simple thing you can do is to get down on their level when they’re playing. And we like, with really young kids, to embed learning and intervention into their play because that’s how young children learn.

So, when your child is playing – and this will work for educators or parents – to get down into what we call the “spotlight” of their attention. So, if you imagine where their eyes are looking and when their face is looking as a spotlight, you want to try to stay in that spotlight, which can be difficult sometimes with children with autism.

And you want to present your toys to them that might interest them. So, you want to pull at their natural motivations. So, if you know they’re really into cars, you’re going to be playing with cars and using cars to kind of bring their attention to your face and to the social interaction. And that’s when you can also introduce words and introduce other skills like gestures, like I talked about, like pointing and try to work on teaching them how to communicate.

Another way to grab their attention and their motivation is to imitate what they’re doing – any vocalizations or gestures that they make. So, when you imitate a child, that’s going to pull in their attention a little bit more and it also reinforces what they’re doing. So, those are just some quick strategies. But there’s a lot of different approaches you can use an early intervention.

And a great book that was written by one of my previous mentors is called An Early Start For Your Child With Autism [Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn, by Geraldine Dawson, Laurie A Vismara, PhD, and Sally J. Rogers, 2012]. And that can give you some easy strategies that you can use either as a parent or an educator to work with children who either are at risk for autism or have been diagnosed with autism.


Oh, great. Thanks for that recommendation. So, it sounds like it’s helpful to be able to be working with a child more one-on-one when you have some of these developmental disabilities in your classroom. But also as an early-childhood educator or a teacher, you might have a whole classroom of children. So, any tips for educators out there who are trying to find that balance of providing that individual care for all the children in their classroom, but also dealing with the reality that there is only so many teachers for the children in the classroom and trying to meet the needs of all of those children?


Yeah, that’s definitely a challenge. And in my therapy sessions, I’ve worked one-on-one with children. But I think in the classroom, it’s important to remember that the peer interactions are just as important as the interaction with the teacher, if not more important. So, to help scaffold some peer interactions for children so that really they can learn from those interactions, as well. And that’s why, particularly if you have some typically developing peers in the classroom, that can be really helpful to pair the typically developing peers with the child with autism to help develop their skills. And they may imitate the social behaviors that they see of the typically developing peers. They may be more likely to imitate those behaviors than they would be the teacher’s behavior.


Yeah, that makes sense. And we’re living in this world with COVID-19, which has resulted in a lot of folks having to use Zoom [online video conferencing] or different other softwares for digital learning, which just creates even more complexity on this issue. And it’s come up on the Podcast before, where we’re all thinking about how difficult this time is right now. And then we think about parents who have children with autism or developmental disabilities and it must be so much harder. So, any tips or thoughts for those parents out there that are dealing with this situation specifically?


Yes. I mean, this is such a challenging time. Parents have not been trained to provide services for children with autism or developmental disabilities. There are professions out there where you have to have years of training and licensure to be able to provide this. And so parents are being really put in an impossible situation.

I think, as much as possible what I would recommend to parents is to try to stick to a school routine as much as they can with virtual school. So, go through the same routine you would go through at school – getting dressed, have breakfast – and make it visual for your child.

So, if you have a white board or even just a big piece of paper, write out what the schedule is going to be every day. And don’t worry about if your child can’t read the words, you can draw little pictures. And even just having the different items on the schedule is helpful, even if you are not an artist and can’t really draw pictures. So, having some sort of visual schedule can be really helpful.

Having environmental supports at home that can help children to focus on the virtual school and to feel like it is a different environment than being at home. So, if you can have a place where your child only sits to do school work and that is their school place. And if you have to, you can use like a cardboard box or something to kind of set up a cubicle. But have a separate place that they know, “When I’m in this chair, this is my school time.”

You can also make sure you take a lot of breaks because I think children, in particular with virtual school, need even more breaks, especially for movement. And to even just give your eyes a break from the strain of trying to focus on a computer for that long, I think is really important.


Yeah, those all make a lot of sense. So, thinking about the environment and the schedules and the routines and the visual aspect, as well. I know somebody who’s actually created an app for helping parents with children with autism for the schedules and routines. And that is an important part of that.

This is a lot of great information for our listeners. Before we wrap up this conversation, what are sort of like the top tips or takeaways that you would like our listeners to walk away from this podcast with, based on your experience and learnings as a clinical psychologist and in the work that you’ve done and learnings you’ve had, I guess both as a psychologist and your professional work and also with your three kids at home where maybe you’ve been able to apply some of these things?


I think the most important thing I feel like right now with the pandemic going on, it’s just I have so much compassion for parents and educators that are helping children with autism and developmental disabilities because I think it’s such a challenging time. There’s so much going on within the family that could be adding additional stress. There’s so much going on. A lot of schools have gone in-person and gone out.

And it’s just so stressful, particularly children with autism have difficulty with uncertainty and with change. And we all know how uncertain these times have been. And it’s just been so hard for these children and these families.

So, I think the most important thing I would want to say as a psychologist is that parents give themselves a lot of self-compassion during this time and educators as well, that you may not get accomplished everything on your child’s IEP [individualized education plan]. And it may not be the most productive school year ever.

And I think it might be helpful for parents and educators to maybe choose three priorities that are really their top goals that they would like to achieve for the year and focus on those, rather than worrying about, “How are we going to meet all of these goals, given everything that’s going on?”

And connect with other parents and other educators who are in the same situation however you can, even though right now, it’s probably virtually. But if you can do like a Google Classroom [online video conferencing] with other parents that are in your same situation or other teachers and share strategies and try to form a community that way. Because we all still need that sense of community and that social interaction, even if we are in this situation that we’re in.


Yeah, those are great points and I couldn’t agree more. We’re also trying to think about 2021 on the Preschool Podcast with hope, optimism and positivity. What are you looking forward to in 2021, Cara?


Oh, I’m very much looking forward to life getting back to normal. And I hope that everybody can get vaccinated as soon as possible and everybody who wants to can. And that we can get back to a somewhat normal life.

And I think it will also be important, thinking about kids with autism and developmental disabilities, to remember that getting back to a normal life may not be entirely positive for them the way it is for some of us. So, making sure we are sensitive to that, that there may be some children with autism that have preferred being in virtual school and have preferred being home. And even if they do see the change as positive, change is difficult for this population. So, just being aware of that and sensitive to that, that all these changes might be might be difficult for this group of children.


Right, that’s a really good point and not something that I had thought of. Cara, before we wrap things up, if our listeners want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work, where can they go to get more information?


So, my website is And I have a lot of free resources on my website. I’m working on a few… I have two evidence-based guides on there right now and I’m working on a few more. And I’ve got a lot of blog posts that provide a lot of information on the science behind some hot topics in child development and child mental health. On my Instagram, I also do several posts a week providing some evidence-based information as it relates to children. And that’s @ParentingTranslater on Instagram.


Great. And any other resources that you might recommend to our listeners? I know you mentioned the book, An Early Start For Your Child With Autism. Anything else you might recommend for folks?


Yes. So, that the Autism Speaks [] website is an amazing resource. They have toolkits that you can download. In particular, the One Hundred Day tool kit is really useful. It’s what you can do in the first hundred days after you get a diagnosis of autism because it’s an extremely overwhelming time for all for parents. But they have a lot of a lot of different toolkits as it relates to autism.

That other resource I would recommend, if you are concerned that your child has to have a developmental disability, is the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] website, They have milestones that you would expect at each age. And that can be very useful. And you can go through and see which milestones your child may or may not have met and ask your pediatrician about any concerns that you have.


Those are great resources, thanks for sharing. And Cara, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. Been great having you as a guest. And thank you for sharing all this knowledge and these resources with our audience today!


Yes, yes, I’m so happy to. Thank you so much!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

One comment

  • Dilshad Khoja says:

    It’s very knowledgeable and interesting. Thank you so much for sharing the informative stuff