23 Tips For Raising a Child With Autism
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As a single parent to an autistic child, I know very well how quickly the day can become overwhelming. Over the years, I’ve learned that parenting an autistic child is an endurance sport. One that’s too hard hitting for the faint of heart, who require child leashes on their fully functional 7 year old.
The hits come in the form of tantrums, meltdowns, and a hovering sense of hopelessness. The lingering, “maybe some day” hopes that your child will develop life skills that so many others take for granted. This isn’t a game you can play without the right equipment- and one hell of a playbook. As any experienced parent to autism can tell you, if you “wing it” while they’re young, you’ll be in the powerhouse known as puberty before you know it- and you’ll lose!
Please, take what I have learned over the years as nothing more than one parent’s experience with autism. My focus, and methods, are based on experience, and many consultations with professionals over the years. My son is 14 years old, low functioning, non-verbal, incontinent, and highly aggressive. I have been raising him as a single father since 2008.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
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Tip #1: Be Positive- At All Cost!
Parenting an autistic child involves random tantrums, life stopping meltdowns, and usually about half the time you need to get ready in the morning. The constant hustle and demanding nature of raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can take it’s toll on a person’s health, and their state of mind.
Remember that a child with autism, like any child, is going to have a better attitude about life when the people around them are positive and supportive. Despite the unavoidable stress that an autistic child may bring to the table, the parents and children still have opportunities to enjoy life. Focus on the positive for yourself, and your child.
Address Negativity Right Away!
If you find yourself feeling negative, or down in the dumps for more than a day or two- THAT is when you need to take action. Not 6 months later, once you’ve gone off the rails and struggle to smile at a puppy in the park. Get on it- right away! Find books and podcasts on positive thinking. Take up a hobby that you can reasonably expect to find time to do- here and there. Something simple, that feels productive. Do something about negative feelings as soon as they start to form a pattern– period! It’s much easier to fend off a few bad days, as oppose to months of rationalizing negativity into reality.
Tip #2: Pace Yourself
Well, you aren’t going to be a positive person, if you can’t slow down well enough to think. If you read Tip #1, then you already know parenting autism is about longevity, just as much as having a positive outlook. So, take the breaks when they come, and never turn down a guilty pleasure you can afford to indulge. Parent’s should understand that life with autism is demanding, and staged like a marathon more than a race.
Tip #3: Put On A Happy Face
This may sound similar to Tip #1, but the difference is worth bringing up.
When you’re already at your wits end, and then take an elbow to the face because you’re trying to trim your child’s finger nails- real ‘happiness’ tends to leave the room. However, those feeling of angst need to remain hidden from the audience.
A positive demeanor, and a customer service tone of voice, goes a long way in the middle of a tantrum. When things get rough, remember to put on a happy face. Even if you have to make it up, and talk about nothing but puppies and unicorns. In the end, someone needs to be the face of hope in the room. Plus, negativity is working overtime already- there’s no need to contribute.
Tip #4: Accept What You Don’t Know About Your Child
Don’t limit your child based on the labels that come with autism. Find out what they like the same way you would with any child; take them out- and explore. Sure you may have a meltdown in a lobby or two, and people may stare, but who cares? Forget “people”, explore the possibilities with your child, and let the naysayers do what they do best.. look ignorant!
Tip #5: Find Support Online, Or In The Community
There are many local offices that deal with mental health, and in those institutions you will find endless options for support groups, workshops, and so on. Additionally, there is the wonderful world of social media. Facebook, is littered with support groups for everything under the sun; including autism. Find a group or chatroom, and use these tools to learn from the experiences of others.
Tip #6: Provide A Structured and Unstructured Play
With therapy, school, and the need to sit still at the dinner table, the structure that autistic children seek so much can also become overwhelming. Structured play has its place, but don’t forget to allow your child to let loose every once in a while. You never know what they can show you until you let them have the freedom to explore on their own.
Tip #7: Remain Open-minded
Treatments and therapies have varying effects on autistic children. What works for one child may not work for another. So, when you hear of some far-fetched theory about a new treatment- give it a second look. See if there is some merit to it based on studies. Sometimes the silliest methods will produce amazing results. The only way to find out what treatments will work for your child, is to try them out.
Tip #8: Reward Positive Behaviors
When an autistic child learns a new way to communicate, or behaves upon the first request; take the time to acknowledge this behavior as good. Many simple steps to life become large leaps for autistic children, which means learning a new word, or signing for “more” of something likely took a lot of effort.
Positive recognition will build the child’s confidence, and also provide a sense of direction for what behaviors you are looking for as the parent.
Tip #9: Provide A Safe Space
Children with autism need a little corner for themselves. Be it their bedroom, or pile of pillows and blankets in the corner of the living room- they tend to like their personal space. So, be sure to carve out a little piece of the house, and give your child a safe space to retreat to when their senses are being overwhelmed.
Tip #10: Plan For Birthdays And Holidays
Relatives have a very hard time figuring out what to buy for their autistic relative. In many cases, nothing is said, and Christmas morning leaves the parent with a load of toys that their child isn’t interested in. Save everyone the trouble, and contact the people who you think may buy your child a gift ahead of time. Let them know what he or she likes, and give them ideas that your child will enjoy. Instead of a load of junk, you could end up valuable toys and sensory devices.
Tip #11: Give Time A Chance
We already know that we should be open-minded when it comes to new treatments and therapies. But how long do you try them out before giving up? Well, that depends on the child, and the parent. A good rule to go by is to keep introducing new treatments long enough to know that you have fully tested the child’s patience.
There’s no way to create an exact timeline for children with autism, and not everything you try will work. The point here is that there’s a fine line between something not working, and not putting in the effort to give new treatments a fair chance to become successful. If you’re going to try something, really try at it, otherwise you’re probably better off investing your time elsewhere.
Tip #12: Use Tools For Communication
With nonverbal children, it can become easy to see communication as something that can be ignored. Nothing can be further from the truth. Regardless of whether or not the child can speak, they likely understand what is being said around them. Your goal as the parent is to bring them in to that world of communication and sharing.
A great tool for this are PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). You can line up your day, in any order that fits your schedule and then communicate tasks as they are being completed. You can do this while also addressing the activities that need to completed next. This method opens the door to the idea that communication is a tool for the parent, and the child.
Tip #13: Focus On The Task At Hand
When your child is having a meltdown, you can’t afford to overwhelm yourself by being concerned with the appointment you are going to be late for. When these intense situations are taking place your focus needs to remain on the moment. Any extra worrying or concerns will only lead to impatience, and likely a longer meltdown. Work on what is in front of you, and get to the rest later.
Tip #14: Pay Attention To Non-Verbal Cues
Whether the child is verbal or nonverbal, their body language can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. If you are heading in to a new place, or walking past something that you know will trigger your child, watch their nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. See if you can squash the anxiety that is building before it explodes.
Tip #15: Seek Respite Care
Whether or not you need a break from your child, you should really take one every once in a while. Once you receive a diagnosis a world of help opens up such as ABA therapy, and respite care. Respite care there to provide help for when you need to get groceries, or have a doctor appointment for yourself. Learn about these networks, and get all of the approvals in place. Then when you need help, support will already be set in place.
Tip #16: Seek Help For Yourself Too
Mental health is far too important to ignore. If you find that the stress of raising an autistic child is building up too much, seek professional help. There’s no shame in seeking therapy, and many parents to autism find themselves using therapy to get through the tougher years.
Tip #17: Maintain Communication With The Schools
Outside of the home, the child’s school system is going to spend the most amount of time with your son or daughter. Be sure to get emails and phone numbers, and force direct communication on the teachers and staff. They have a wealth of information and experience with your own child, and the relationship you build with them will provide endless benefits to your autistic child.
Tip #18: Have A Therapy Plan In Place
Occupational therapy and speech therapy can sound very daunting when you consider the schedule for the rest of your life. However, the benefits of success with either of these therapies far outweighs the initial investment of time. Not only does it add structure for your child, but the therapists will provide parents with more tools for getting through the day. If you have the opportunity for any form of therapy, at the very least, give it a shot before you decline the service. See what happens, and go from there.
Tip #19: Be Consistent
Consistency helps takes the fear of the unknown out of life for autistic children. Routine is a big part of autism, and there is a lot of comfort to be gained from having consistency in the child’s life. Find what routines work for your situation, and if you need to make changes, do them slowly, and expect some push back initially.
Tip #20: Challenge the Authority
Doctors will be a large part of life for the whole family. Though they are typically there to help, the doctor doesn’t know as much about your child as you do. So, don’t be shy to push back when recommendations are made for treatment, when necessary. If you know the proposed treatment, or medicine, isn’t right for your child- speak up. Let the doctors and therapist know your concerns or objections, and you’ll find that they respond in a supportive fashion.
Tip #21: Accept The Autism Lifestyle
When your child has autism there are inevitably going to be a short list of activities that you just aren’t going to be able to do as a family. Of course, parents should always push to try new things, however, if you try something a few times, over a few years, and it always ends in failure- you may just have to accept that what you’re trying to do is something you just have to give up.
The best practice for a parent to autism, is to keep on the look out for new hobbies and activities. You will hit roadblocks and run out of ideas from time to time, but don’t let yourself just give up on the idea that there are things you can do as a family. There are many possibilities, you just have to find them. Chat rooms for autism can help with this a great deal.
Tip #22: Stay Flexible With Your Plans
Autism is the human representation of a time bomb, with no clock. There’s no telling when a meltdown or tantrum is going to take place, and furthermore, there is no telling how long each outburst will last. This is the perfect recipe for late appointments, cold family dinners, and late nights getting to sleep. It’s just a fact of life for families living with autism. Accept this reality, and do your best to leave your life, and profession as flexible as possible.
Tip #23: Take Your Child With You Everywhere
It is so easy to rationalize your way in to believing that your child can’t be taken out in public. It’s usually a lot of work, in some settings you can end up as the center of attention- frankly, the simple process of going grocery shopping can become a triathlon event, complete with bumps and bruises. As counter intuitive as it sounds, you have to fight the rationalization to become a hermit. The world can deal with your child for five minutes, and if they don’t like what they see or hear, I guess they can focus on something else.
I don’t mean to downplay it, but it really does need to be that simple.
The tips and tricks I provided on this page are meant to be a guide post more so than a road map. Work through different methods for addressing problem behaviors, and try new therapies when you see develop leveling off. Bottom line, autistic children need a consistent, and positive environment to further develop their life skills. Stay patient with your child, and with yourself.
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