7 Practical Tips to Raising A Child With Autism

Finding out our son had autism was a major blow to the idealistic picture we held of what parenting might be like. Parenting, in general, is far from easy, but parenting a child with autism can be particularly demanding. In my last blog, I shared our journey about what extreme parenting sometimes feels like, and if you’re also a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I want you to know you’re not alone. Even as an equipped mental health therapist, receiving that diagnosis was life-changing. Here are a few strategies that are helping our family to cope:

1. Reframe acting-out behaviors.

When Brayden was four, there was one particularly intense scene at the mall that necessitated a change of direction on my part. I wanted so badly to be able to do “normal activities” with my child. Although most four-year-old’s can handle a brief trip to the department store, Brayden could not. He, like many children with ASD, suffers from sensory integration challenges and became unglued within minutes of entering the building. became weary attempting to calm him. Rather than dwell in a place of frustration over the chaotic scene, I reminded myself that he wasn’t purposefully trying to frustrate me, but was simply responding to the overly stimulating environment. Every child has a different threshold for sensory overload, and each child develops new skills at different ages. My child wasn’t yet ready for that experience. Visiting smaller retail stores with less sensory stimuli proved to be a much more successful endeavor.

Related PostFinding Out Your Child Has Autism

2. Use positive discipline.

For many children, positive feedback and encouragement can be a motivating and very effective form of discipline. The same is true for children on the spectrum. All too often, parents fall into the trap of monitoring and correcting behaviors without always acknowledging when their child is displaying positive actions. I get it. My husband and I decided that while we wanted to protect Brayden from harm and shield him from rejection, it was equally important for him to know how amazingly accomplished he is. Well-placed compliments and expressions of love went a long way in building his self-confidence and promoting constructive behaviors.

3. Celebrate quirks and talents.

Strengths typically represent your ASD child’s highest-functioning area. We now have a greater awareness of many famous and accomplished individuals in the arts and entertainment world who have ASD. Several of them areaward-winningg musicians and directors! Recognizing your child’s talents and reinforcing them is key. Rather than just attending to areas of deficit, focus on your child’s strengths. Bray loves music, numbers, and can put together a complex puzzle in record time. One helpful tip is to redirect repetitive play and interests into more socially acceptable behaviors. Who knows? That annoying quirk may be the one thing that transfers into the world of work, leading to a productive and fulfilling career.

4. Enhance peer relationships.

We’re all social beings and need continual interaction to develop. Depending on the stage of development, school offers children with ASD and their peers opportunities for building social networks and meaningful relationships. Having your child ride the bus or carpool with a classmate is a great start. Recess, which can be very difficult for children with ASD due to feelings of exclusion and loneliness, is an ideal time to have peers interact and support your child around shared interests. Remember, every relationship starts slowly, but even small interactions can be the beginning of a meaningful friendship.

5. Take advantage of resources.

A diagnosis of ASD, and its associated physical and mental health symptoms, can take a toll on family functioning and harmony. Forming connections with other parents who are raising children with ASD is critical for optimizing your own sense of well-being. An occasional encouraging text from an ASD mom helped me to feel less alone during high stress points. There are exciting new developments in behavioral therapies and social supports for ASD. Many non-profits are partnering with ASD advocacy groups to provide weekend and weeklong camps for the entire family as well as respite for parents. Myles-A-Part is a non-profit that sponsors a free weekend couple’s retreat that was a Godsend for my husband and I a few years ago. Additionally, books such as Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Sam Goldstein are full of unique parenting tools and became a fixture on my nightstand.

6. Prioritize self-care.

As parents, patience exits quickly when we’re stressed and overwhelmed. Most ASD kids are sensitive to their parents’ anxieties, which intensifies their own reactions. Keeping calm during meltdowns and practicing mindfulness helped me to develop self-compassion during high stress periods, rather than feeling defeated. Simple activities such as meeting friends for lunch, going to bed early, starting a new novel, or my husband volunteering to take the kids out for some time so that I can have a break does wonders for pushing that reset button!

7. Accept your child for who they are.

The first step in acceptance is acknowledging the difficulties in parenting a child with ASD. Acceptance applies to both ourselves as parents and to our kids. Yes, parenting was very challenging, particularly during the early years. However, we worked toward reducing judgment toward ourselves or toward our son and, instead, cultivating compassion. Indeed, life would be much easier without autism in it, but this IS our life. Finding ways to help our child, and ourselves, to adjust to our new normal was beneficial.

Interacting with a Child Who Has Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder. It affects how children interact and communicate with others. The disorder is called a spectrum disorder because children can be anywhere on the autism spectrum.

Children with ASD start to show symptoms at an early age. The symptoms continue during childhood and adulthood. Healthcare providers don’t know why some children develop ASD. It may be a combination of genes they are born with and something in their environment that triggers those genes.

Children with ASD have trouble relating to other people. They have trouble making eye contact. They often withdraw into themselves. They may seem uninterested in relating to family members.

But some children with ASD may love to keep talking with family members, friends, and even strangers about a topic they are obsessed with. The problem is that they may talk about it too long. Or they may talk only about that one subject. This can push other people away.

If you are a parent or grandparent of a child with ASD, it can be heartbreaking if you feel like you just can’t connect with him or her. But learning more about these disorders and what has helped others can help you and your relationship.

Breaking through the barriers of ASD

ASD has no cure. But there is hope through treatment. Many children can learn to communicate and interact. Healthcare providers and mental health experts have learned a lot about how to break through to these children.

Here are some things we know about children with an ASD:

  • They may not be able to understand your nonverbal communications. They may not react to your smile or frown.
  • They take things literally. You need to be careful to say exactly what you mean. If you hurry the child by saying “Step on it,” don’t be surprised if he or she asks what to step on.
  • They may only be able to handle one thought or idea at a time. Keep conversations focused and simple.
  • They may want to only talk about the one thing they are really interested in at a given time.
  • They may see things differently than you do. You may not even notice ordinary sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and sights. But these may be physically painful to the child.

Communication and interaction tips for ASD

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how to communicate with a child with ASD. But many family members have had success with these tips:

  • Be patient. It often takes a child with ASD longer to process information. You may need to slow down your conversation to his or her speed.
  • Teach the child how to express anger without being too aggressive. Children with ASD should know that they don’t have to hold their anger and frustration inside.
  • Be persistent but resilient. Don’t let your feelings get hurt if the child does not respond to you as you’d like. Children with ASD may have trouble both showing and controlling their emotions. They can be blunt in their responses. Don’t take this personally.
  • Always stay positive. Children with ASD respond best to positive reinforcement. Be sure to talk about or reward good behavior often.
  • Ignore irritating attention-getting behavior. A child with ASD may act badly at times to get you to focus on them. Ignoring this behavior is often the best way to prevent it. Also talk about and reward the child’s good behavior often.
  • Interact through physical activity. Children with ASD tend to have short attention spans. This is especially true when it comes to communicating. Running around and playing outside may be a better way of sharing time together. It will also let them relax and feel calmer.
  • Be affectionate and respectful. Children with ASD often need a hug, just like other children. Sometimes they need this much more than other children. But some children don’t like to be touched. Respect their personal space. Never force physical affection on an unwilling child.
  • Show your love and interest. Children with ASD may have trouble showing their feelings. But they still need to know that you love them. Go out of your way to express your interest, caring, and support.
  • Believe. A child with autism is first and foremost a child. He or she is a growing person with unknown possibilities. Believe in what the child can do. Don’t define the child by a diagnosis.  
  • Take care of yourself. It’s OK to take a break. Join parent support groups. Or ask understanding family and friends to care for your child so you can recharge. School psychologists and counselors can also provide resources to help you.

It can be challenging to interact with a child or grandchild with ASD. But it is one of the most important things you can do to help that child learn. Research shows that early, frequent, and loving involvement of family members is one of the best ways to help children with ASD

11 Tips for New Autism Parents

a pile of fries

Welcome to Club Spectrum! You didn’t want to be here. Don’t feel bad about that. No one signs up for this gig. Think of it this way — at least you now know what the Hell is going on.  Better than not knowing at all. Mama Fry ain’t no expert, but I do have some tips that help you from going crazy.

1) Pace yourself.

You are about to start a never-ending marathon. Know when to take a break. Embrace the couch and some bad TV. Or if you are one of those gym goers, do that.  Avid reader? Go fire up that Kindle or go old school and buy a few books. You’re going to have a lot of time in therapy waiting rooms. Might as well enjoy reading some check-your-brain-at-the-door novels.  Know it’s okay to get absolutely nothing done on some days. Or weeks.

2) Get off the Internet.

It can scare the crap out of you. Seriously, stop playing “Dr. Autism Google.” You’re looking for the autism cure needle in a Internet haystack. Step away from the search engine.

3) Get on the Internet.

I know, opposite advice. Here’s the twist. Get on social networking sites. Talk to other parents. Get to know them. Not just what they did to treat X, Y and Z. You’ll get a better understanding if those choices are right for you. Autism can make parents feel very isolated. Sometimes it is hard to get out and network. Facebook, Twitter and online groups are awesome. Mainly because when you are in the dark on your kid’s iPad hoping like heck the melatonin will kick in soon, you can chat away. (Don’t you go Googling “melatonin” yet. You read this all first, buddy!). Autism parents/caregivers are always awake somewhere on the planet.

4) Be prepared to hear a lot of advice you did not ask for.

Warning: it never ends. I find sarcasm and raising my eyebrows over my glasses helps a lot.

5) Respect your elders in the ASD world.

Now don’t go taking their world as gospel but recognize what they do works for them. You’ll see why as you earn your stripes. The kiddo is 8, and we’ve been dealing with all things autism since he was younger than 2. Trust me, newb, what you are telling me to try, we’ve done. Seriously, do you really want to be the type of person I just described in item number four? Don’t be that know-it-all parent out the gate. Remember they have been sleep deprived much longer than you. They will be quick to shut you down.

6) Accept the fact that you are going to try stuff that is totally not going to work. 

That miracle thingie you just read about in a chat group won’t do jack all for your kid.  Meanwhile every other kid who has, is thriving. It’s the luck of the draw with this, folks. You meet one kid with autism, you have only met one kid with autism. Some cures/therapy/meds will be duds.

7) Autism is effing expensive.

So when Grandma or Uncle Frank wants to know what your lovey wants for their birthday, CASH IS KING! Don’t be afraid to ask for therapy and/or lessons for something as gifts. These folks care about you and your kid. They’ll be happy to know what they bought is actually getting used, not sitting around collecting dust.

8) Accept that some folks who buy gifts for your kid won’t do the above.

You’re going to get a lot of gifts that your kid won’t even be remotely interested in. They meant well. They knew it was a hot toy. Save it. You never know. Maybe in a year or two, your kid might like it. Or donate it. Regift it. Return it for therapy cash.

9) Be open to doing stuff you think is ridiculous.

You really just don’t know what your kid is going to respond to. Give it an honest college try before you realize if it’s a hit or a miss.  This means diet, meds, etc.

10) Take your kid out everywhere.

I’m serious. It may be small trips at first but it is the best thing you can do. You’re teaching them coping skills. Life happens. People have to food shop, go to the bank, post office, etc. You would be doing it anyway if your kid didn’t have autism. Know their limits of course. Baby steps first. Today, it’s a trip to buy milk. Another time, maybe it’s a trip to the pet store and the library. Life from now on will take military-like planning. Warn them what’s coming, but go about your business. They smell fear. Seriously, the more panicked you are, they will turn that dial to “11.”

11) Allow yourself a pity party. 

Moan, cry, rant and rave and do it when you need to. More than once. Just remember you still have a kid that needs you. So don’t dwell in it too long. If you find yourself doing it too far too frequently, know when to ask for help. Be it from a partner, family member, friend or doctor. Yes, this isn’t what you planned, but it’s here. So now what? Exactly.

This isn’t about getting through it to an end point. This is your life now. This is your new normal. I can’t promise it will get easier. You will just get better at dealing with it. Be it through humor, prayer, yoga, crafting, blogging or a thousand other escapism activities. You will do this. You can do this. Remember for as hard as you are working, so is your child. So now and then, relax and just order another side of fries.

Five Types of Parenting Styles, Explained

types of parenting styles

While there’s no one right way to parent, researchers have been studying different parenting styles and the effects they have on kids for years. Many of these were first studied and described by psychologist Diana Baumrind, who observed preschoolers and found there were three types of parents: authoritativeauthoritarian, and permissive. (A fourth style, neglectful parenting, was added to address severely uninvolved parents, which we don’t discuss below.) Since then, though, others have come along and carved out their own parenting styles that have developed massive cult followings. Attachment parenting, which starts from birth, and free-range parenting, for older kids, each have vocal, devoted followers, even though their approaches may seem at first to be opposite. Here, take a look at the attributes of each style, and see which one describes you best.This content is imported from {embed-name}. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.https://riddler.hearstgames.com/dist/polls.iframe.html?adsfree=false&id=10e394b6-6caf-4667-9ffd-1d365b75e05b_5ec1e4a385db6&type=text&question=What%20best%20describes%20your%20situation%3F&answer1=I%27m%20a%20working%20parent.&answer2=I%20do%20childcare%20full-time.&brand=Good%20Housekeeping&siteId=8342522f-11a7-4c85-8c15-51f36ee1d53f&adCategory=family&section=Life&subSection=Parenting%20Tips%20%26%20Advice&editor=Marisa%20LaScala&authors=Marisa%20LaScala&site=Good%20Housekeeping&stylesheet=https%3A%2F%2Fassets.hearstapps.com%2Fsites%2Fgoodhousekeeping%2Fassets%2Fcss%2Fpolls.4603d26.css

Authoritative Parenting: A highly involved style that has great results for kids.

  • These parents set high standards for their kids, but also give them lots of guidance to help achieve those standards.
  • Parents are likely to use techniques like positive discipline instead of strict, my-way-or-the-higway rules.
  • Studies show that kids raised in this way often do well socially and academically.

 MORE ON THIS STYLEWhat Is Authoritative Parenting?Advertisement – Continue Reading Belowhttps://4a48d1b32b665391270dfc712183360d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The most successful of the parenting styles identified by Dr. Baumrind, authoritative parenting is characterized by “high demands” but also “high responsiveness.” That means parents have big (but still age-appropriate) expectations for their kids, and they stay attuned to their kids’ needs and help them meet those expectations. This way, kids know what’s required of them and feel confident they can comply. As a result, “Research consistently demonstrates that the children of authoritative parents are more likely to enjoy positive relationships with their peers, to do well in school, and to become independent and self-sufficient than children whose parents take an authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful approach,” says Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author of Under Pressure.

Permissive Parenting: Staying out of kids’ way does not help them figure things out on their own.

  • Permissive parents do not enforce rules for their kids. The stereotypical permissive parents are the ones who see themselves as their children’s friend, and not a figure of authority.
  • Kids of permissive parents are more likely to do poorly in school, and there are poor social and emotional consequences as well.
  • Permissive parents are not the same thing as neglectful parents. Permissive parents are still loving and responsive to their children’s needs. Neglectful parents also provide no structure ore rules, but they’re also totally uninvolved in other aspects of the child’s life. Permissive parents are involved, but not in a traditional way.

 MORE ON THIS STYLEWhat Is Permissive Parenting?

“Permissive parents have a hard time setting limits with their children,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “Therefore, parents are more likely to ignore bad behavior, and to ‘give in’ against their better judgment when their child gets upset. The result is that they don’t set or enforce age-appropriate expectations for behavior.” It may seem like this type of parenting style could foster independence, since children likely have to learn for themselves without the guidance of their parents. But studies show the opposite is true, and kids of permissive parents are more likely to show signs of anxiety and depressionbe aggressive, have bad social skills, and do poorly in school.


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Permissive parents are still warm and loving around their children. Neglectful parents shirk rules, but also are uninterested in their children’s lives. The outcome for these children are often very bad. Children “internalize the pain and loneliness,” Psychology Today reports. “Adults who were neglected can have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and significant trauma to resolve. If there was a lack of emotional attachment in childhood, this also affects relationships later in life and can make it difficult to trust others.”

Authoritarian Parenting: Strict rules are hard to follow if you don’t offer any guidance.

  • Like authoritative parenting, authoritarian parents have high expectations, but authoritative parents are less nurturing.
  • Authoritarian parents are also more likely to resort to harsh punishments.
  • Studies show authoritarian parenting can lead to behavior problems.

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The last of Dr. Baumrind’s parenting styles, authoritarian parenting, can be characterized by both “high demands” and “low responsiveness.” This means these parents focus on strict rules and harsh discipline. “Authoritarian parents believe that children are, by nature, strong-willed and self-indulgent,” Psychology Today notes. “They value obedience to higher authority as a virtue unto itself. Authoritarian parents see their primary job to be bending the will of the child to that of authority.” However, the lack of the guidance offered by authoritarian parents takes a toll. “The children of authoritarian parents, however, tend to be somewhat more depressed and have lower self-esteem than those of authoritative parents,” Psychology Today writes. There are also studies that show these kids are more likely to become bullies, too.

Attachment Parenting: Closeness fosters a strong family connection.

Attachment Parenting International (API) has identified eight principles, or parenting practices, that it believes will help the child develop secure bonds between children and their parents:

  • Preparing for pregnancy, birth, and parenthood
  • Feeding with love and respect
  • Responding with sensitivity (especially when a parent hears the baby cry)
  • Using nurturing touch and physical contact (including baby-wearing)
  • Ensuring safe sleep, physically and emotionally
  • Providing consistent love and care
  • Practicing positive discipline
  • Striving for balance between personal and family life

 MORE ON THIS STYLEWhat Is Attachment Parenting? Experts Explain

Not observed by Dr. Diana Baumrind, this parenting style was popularized by Bill Sears, M.D., and his wife Martha Sears, R.N. Dr. Sears, who found benefits of a close bond between parents and babies. They claim that babies of attachment parents cry less and have fewer behavior problems, freeing up more time to grow, learn, and develop. However, some experts believe the same results can be achieved without adhering so strictly to API’s principles. “A large body of research has shown over many decades that most parents — 70% to 80% of them — are forming secure attachments with their children, regardless of factors like breastfeeding or baby-wearing,” says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.

Free-range Parenting: Encourage independence, so long as you follow the law.

  • Free-range parenting encourages kids to become independent by letting them have greater autonomy and less supervision in other areas of life.
  • It is different from permissive parenting, because rules and expectations are still enforced in general.
  • Free-range parents have to be aware of the laws that govern their state.

 MORE ON THIS STYLEWhat Is Free-Range Parenting?

The term “free-range parenting” was coined by Lenore Skenazy, who famously let her 9-year-old son find his way home on the New York City subway system alone. The important thing here is that, like in the Skenazy family’s mass-transit outing, greater autonomy is allowed in certain situations — it’s not a total abdication of oversight. “Free-range parenting emphasizes the child’s functioning independently with judicious parental supervision,” says says Dr. Kyle Pruett, M.D., Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and member of the Educational Advisory Board at the Goddard School. “It permits enough exploration for kids to come up against limits naturally.” In that way, it is closer to authoritative parenting than permissive parenting, since parents help guide their children through their independent experiences (like sitting down beforehand talking about what to do if the subway system becomes too confusing, in Skenazy’s case). One big caveat for free-range parents, though, is that states have widely different laws and statutes about the ages kids have to be before they’re allowed to be unsupervised, at home or in a car. The website FreeRangeKids.com, founded by Skenazy, helps keep track of these laws.

Impact on Families of Autistic Children

financial impact
From the emotional stress of the initial diagnosis to the ongoing financial stress of expensive treatments and therapies, autism affects families in many ways. Coping with these stressors can create stronger marriages and families, but it takes a great deal of work and an excellent support system.
How Autism Affects Families
From the moment they begin to suspect that their child isn’t developing in a neuro-typical way, families of children with autism spectrum disorders begin to face challenges that set them apart from other family groups. This disorder can be emotionally devastating for parents, especially just before and after the child is diagnosed. Additionally, there’s the stress of navigating complicated therapy schedules, following through on treatment at home, juggling family commitments with job responsibilities, and many other issues. While these difficulties may feel insurmountable, most families learn to cope and adjust with time.

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Emotional Impact
Autism is an emotional roller coaster ride that begins before diagnosis and continues throughout life. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, mothers of children on the autism spectrum frequently rated their mental health status as “poor” or “fair.” They had a much higher stress level than the general population.
In addition to the higher stress level, many parents of children with autism experience the following emotions:
Feelings of being overwhelmed
Relief at having a name for the challenges their child faces
Anger at their spouse, the doctors, or themselves
Resentment of the child and guilt for that resentment
Despair at the incurable nature of the disorder
Guilt that something they did may have caused their child’s challenges
Frustration that the parenting experience they have is not what they envisioned
Feelings of social isolation
Embarrassment at child’s behavior in public
Physical Impact
Autism also has an indirect impact on the physical health of family members. Anxiety, depression, and exhaustion all take a toll on the physical health of families with children on the autism spectrum. Stress can lead to lowered immunity, and sleep deprivation may result in difficulty concentrating, memory impairment, and other health complications.
Financial Impact
The financial impact on families of autistic children is enormous. Most private health insurance plans do not cover all expenses related to therapy and treatment for autistic children, and the co-pays for office visits and medications often results in huge financial debt. In addition to therapy and medical expenses, there are added financial burdens like specialized educational toys, equipment like weighted blankets and vests, and much more.
According to a study in Pediatrics, having a child with autism resulted in an average of a 14% loss in total family income. It is often extremely difficult for both parents to continue working full-time, which means a reduction in household income to go along with the increased expenses. Since many parents need a full-time job in order to provide health insurance, loss of full-time employment can have a dramatic and negative impact on the family’s finances.
Impact on Marriages
One of the biggest ways that autism impacts families is by placing additional stress on the parents’ marriage. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, parents of children with autism were 9.7% more likely to get divorced than their peers. There are several ways that autism stresses the marriage:
Often, parents accept the child’s diagnosis in different ways and at different rates, leading to conflict.
Inconsistent schedules and numerous commitments make it difficult for parents to spend time together.
It can be challenging to find child care for children with autism, which also makes it hard for parents to go out as a couple.
Financial stresses can cause additional conflict between parents.
Impact on Siblings
Autism also affects neuro-typical siblings. These children face many of the same pressures as the rest of the family, and they may not have the full support of parents who are overwhelmed with the needs of their child with autism. Sibling rivalry can become more intense in a family with a mixture of typically developing siblings and children with autism. If the ASD child’s need for extra time and attention becomes a permanent issue, as often happens with autism, siblings can feel left out, and resentment can build. However, many families are able to sort out these challenges as long as they can control other stress factors.
A study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that the biggest predictor of sibling emotional adjustment was the presence or absence of other risk factors like low socio-economic status. If these factors were controlled, the experience of being a sibling to a child with autism actually enhanced the emotional and psychosocial health of the sibling.
Reducing the Negative Impact
There are several ways that families can reduce the negative impact of autism:
Therapy or counseling: Psychotherapy is a valuable tool for dealing with the emotional impact of autism, and family counseling is helpful for dealing with marital and communication problems. In cases of depression or anxiety, medication is an effective short-term remedy. To find a therapist, contact your family doctor for a recommendation.
Support groups: For many parents and family members, autism support groups can be life saving. Contact with other parents of autistic children eases isolation, improves mood, and increases acceptance and understanding of the disorder. Often, just knowing that others are going through a similar experience can bring much needed relief and help parents cope with the physical and emotional challenges of raising an autistic child. Your school district will be able to recommend a local support group.
Accepting help: Parents and family members should seek help and support from every source possible. There is nothing wrong with relying on extended family to babysit, or with accepting donations to help pay for therapy and medical expenses. Parents must remember to take a break and spend some time caring for their own needs. An extra nap, a trip to the salon, or an afternoon at the bookstore can recharge the mind and body and alleviate a considerable amount of accumulated stress. Taking care of yourself, helps make you a better caregiver.
Embracing the Positive Impact
Although there are a variety of challenges associated with parenting a child with autism, the disorder can also have many positive affects on your family. Through successfully facing challenges and seeing progress in their child, parents can become more confident and emotionally secure. Facing these challenges as a team can strengthen the marriage as well. The key to keeping things positive is taking care of yourself as well as your special needs child.

Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive

There are many things you can do to help a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) overcome their challenges. These parenting tips, treatments, and services can help.

Closeup of boy wearing headphones

A parent’s guide to autism treatment and support

If you’ve recently learned that your child has or might have autism spectrum disorder, you’re probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy, and an ASD diagnosis can be particularly frightening. You may be unsure about how to best help your child, or confused by conflicting treatment advice. Or you may have been told that ASD is an incurable, lifelong condition, leaving you concerned that nothing you do will make a difference.

While it is true that ASD is not something a person simply “grows out of,” there are many treatments that can help children acquire new skills and overcome a wide variety of developmental challenges. From free government services to in-home behavioral therapy and school-based programs, assistance is available to meet your child’s special needs and help them learn, grow, and thrive in life.

When you’re looking after a child with ASD, it’s also important to take care of yourself. Being emotionally strong allows you to be the best parent you can be to your child in need. These parenting tips can help by making life with an autistic child easier.

Don’t wait for a diagnosis

As the parent of a child with ASD or related developmental delays, the best thing you can do is to start treatment right away. Seek help as soon as you suspect something’s wrong. Don’t wait to see if your child will catch up later or outgrow the problem. Don’t even wait for an official diagnosis. The earlier children with autism spectrum disorder get help, the greater their chance of treatment success. Early intervention is the most effective way to speed up your child’s development and reduce the symptoms of autism over the lifespan

When your child has autism

Learn about autism. The more you know about autism spectrum disorder, the better equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions for your child. Educate yourself about the treatment options, ask questions, and participate in all treatment decisions.

Become an expert on your child. Figure out what triggers your kid’s challenging or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your child find stressful or frightening? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems and preventing or modifying situations that cause difficulties.

Accept your child, quirks and all. Rather than focusing on how your autistic child is different from other children and what he or she is “missing,” practice acceptance. Enjoy your kid’s special quirks, celebrate small successes, and stop comparing your child to others. Feeling unconditionally loved and accepted will help your child more than anything else.

Don’t give up. It’s impossible to predict the course of autism spectrum disorder. Don’t jump to conclusions about what life is going to be like for your child. Like everyone else, people with autism have an entire lifetime to grow and develop their abilities.

Helping your child with autism thrive tip 1: Provide structure and safety

Learning all you can about autism and getting involved in treatment will go a long way toward helping your child. Additionally, the following tips will make daily home life easier for both you and your child with ASD:

Be consistent. Children with ASD have a hard time applying what they’ve learned in one setting (such as the therapist’s office or school) to others, including the home. For example, your child may use sign language at school to communicate, but never think to do so at home. Creating consistency in your child’s environment is the best way to reinforce learning. Find out what your child’s therapists are doing and continue their techniques at home. Explore the possibility of having therapy take place in more than one place in order to encourage your child to transfer what he or she has learned from one environment to another. It’s also important to be consistent in the way you interact with your child and deal with challenging behaviors.

Stick to a schedule. Children with ASD tend to do best when they have a highly-structured schedule or routine. Again, this goes back to the consistency they both need and crave. Set up a schedule for your child, with regular times for meals, therapy, school, and bedtime. Try to keep disruptions to this routine to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable schedule change, prepare your child for it in advance.

Reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement can go a long way with children with ASD, so make an effort to “catch them doing something good.” Praise them when they act appropriately or learn a new skill, being very specific about what behavior they’re being praised for. Also look for other ways to reward them for good behavior, such as giving them a sticker or letting them play with a favorite toy.

Create a home safety zone. Carve out a private space in your home where your child can relax, feel secure, and be safe. This will involve organizing and setting boundaries in ways your child can understand. Visual cues can be helpful (colored tape marking areas that are off limits, labeling items in the house with pictures). You may also need to safety proof the house, particularly if your child is prone to tantrums or other self-injurious behaviors.

Tip 2: Find nonverbal ways to connect

Connecting with a child with ASD can be challenging, but you don’t need to talk—or even touch—in order to communicate and bond. You communicate by the way you look at your child, by the tone of your voice, your body language – and possibly the way you touch your child. Your child is also communicating with you, even if he or she never speaks. You just need to learn the language.

Look for nonverbal cues. If you are observant and aware, you can learn to pick up on the nonverbal cues that children with ASD use to communicate. Pay attention to the kinds of sounds they make, their facial expressions, and the gestures they use when they’re tired, hungry, or want something.

Figure out the motivation behind the tantrumIt’s only natural to feel upset when you are misunderstood or ignored, and it’s no different for children with ASD. When children with ASD act out, it’s often because you’re not picking up on their nonverbal cues. Throwing a tantrum is their way of communicating their frustration and getting your attention.

[Read: Autism Behavior Problems]

Make time for fun. A child coping with ASD is still a child. For both children with ASD and their parents, there needs to be more to life than therapy. Schedule playtime when your child is most alert and awake. Figure out ways to have fun together by thinking about the things that make your child smile, laugh, and come out of her/his shell. Your child is likely to enjoy these activities most if they don’t seem therapeutic or educational. There are tremendous benefits that result from your enjoyment of your child’s company and from your child’s enjoyment of spending unpressured time with you. Play is an essential part of learning for all children and shouldn’t feel like work.

Pay attention to your child’s sensory sensitivities. Many children with ASD are hypersensitive to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Some children with autism are “under-sensitive” to sensory stimuli. Figure out what sights, sounds, smells, movements, and tactile sensations trigger your kid’s “bad” or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your child find stressful? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems, preventing situations that cause difficulties, and creating successful experiences.

Tip 3: Create a personalized autism treatment plan

With so many different treatments available, it can be tough to figure out which approach is right for your child. Making things more complicated, you may hear different or even conflicting recommendations from parents, teachers, and doctors.

When putting together a treatment plan for your child, keep in mind that there is no single treatment that works for everyone. Each person on the autism spectrum is unique, with different strengths and weaknesses.

Your child’s treatment should be tailored according to their individual needs. You know your child best, so it’s up to you to make sure those needs are being met. You can do that by asking yourself the following questions:

What are my child’s strengths – and their weaknesses?

What behaviors are causing the most problems? What important skills is my child lacking?

How does my child learn best – through seeing, listening, or doing?

What does my child enjoy – and how can those activities be used in treatment and to bolster learning?

Finally, keep in mind that no matter what treatment plan is chosen, your involvement is vital to success. You can help your child get the most out of treatment by working hand-in-hand with the treatment team and following through with the therapy at home.  (This is why your well-being is essential!)

A good treatment plan will:

  • Build on your child’s interests.
  • Offer a predictable schedule.
  • Teach tasks as a series of simple steps.
  • Actively engage your child’s attention in highly structured activities.
  • Provide regular reinforcement of behavior.
  • Involve the parents.

Choosing autism treatments

There are many different options and approaches to ASD treatment, including behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutritional therapy.

While you don’t have to limit your child to just one treatment at a time, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to address everything at once. Instead, start by focusing on your child’s most severe symptoms and pressing needs.

[Read: Autism Treatments, Therapies, and Interventions].

Tip 4: Find help and support

Caring for a child with ASD can demand a lot of energy and time. There may be days when you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or discouraged. Parenting isn’t ever easy, and raising a child with special needs is even more challenging. In order to be the best parent you can be, it’s essential that you take care of yourself.

Don’t try to do everything on your own. You don’t have to! There are many places that families of children with ASD can turn to for advice, a helping hand, advocacy, and support:

ADS support groups – Joining an ASD support group is a great way to meet other families dealing with the same challenges you are. Parents can share information, get advice, and lean on each other for emotional support. Just being around others in the same boat and sharing their experience can go a long way toward reducing the isolation many parents feel after receiving a child’s diagnosis.

Respite care – Every parent needs a break now and again. And for parents coping with the added stress of ASD, this is especially true. In respite care, another caregiver takes over temporarily, giving you a break for a few hours, days, or even weeks.

[Read: Respite Care]

Individual, marital, or family counseling – If stress, anxiety, or depression is getting to you, you may want to see a therapist of your own. Therapy is a safe place where you can talk honestly about everything you’re feeling—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Marriage or family therapy can also help you work out problems that the challenges of life with an autistic child are causing in your spousal relationship or with other family members.

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Free U.S. government services for children with autism

Under the U.S. federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities—including those with ASD—are eligible for a range of free or low-cost services. Under this provision, children in need and their families may receive medical evaluations, psychological services, speech therapy, physical therapy, parent counseling and training, assisted technology devices, and other specialized services.

Children under the age of 10 do not need an autism diagnosis to receive free services under IDEA. If they are experiencing a developmental delay (including delays in communication or social development), they are automatically eligible for early intervention and special education services.

Early intervention services (birth through age two)

Infants and toddlers through the age of two receive assistance through the Early Intervention program. In order to qualify, your child must first undergo a free evaluation. If the assessment reveals a developmental problem, you will work with early intervention treatment providers to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). An IFSP describes your child’s needs and the specific services he or she will receive.

For autism, an IFSP would include a variety of behavior, physical, speech, and play therapies. It would focus on preparing kids with ASD for the eventual transition to school. Early intervention services are typically conducted in the home or at a child care center.

To locate local early intervention services for your child, ask your pediatrician for a referral or use the resources listed in the Resources section at the end of the article.

Special education services (age three and older)

Children over the age of three receive assistance through school-based programs. As with early intervention, special education services are tailored to your child’s individual needs. Children with ASD are often placed with other developmentally delayed kids in small groups where they can receive more individual attention and specialized instruction. However, depending on their abilities, they may also spend at least part of the school day in a regular classroom. The goal is to place kids in the “least restrictive environment” possible where they are still able to learn.

If you’d like to pursue special education services, your local school system will first need to evaluate your child. Based on this assessment, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will be drafted. An IEP outlines the educational goals for your child for the school year. Additionally, it describes the special services or supports the school will provide your child in order to meet those goals.

Know your child’s rights

As the parent of a child with ASD, you have a legal right to:

  • Be involved in developing your child’s IEP from start to finish
  • Disagree with the school system’s recommendations
  • Seek an outside evaluation for your child
  • Invite anyone you want—from a relative to your child’s doctor—to be on the IEP team
  • Request an IEP meeting at any time if you feel your child’s needs are not being met
  • Free or low-cost legal representation if you can’t come to an agreement with the school