I was not exposed to autism or other learning disabilities when I was growing up. I had a distant cousin with an intellectual disability, but most people I knew were neuro typical. Even in my training as a speech language pathologist, I only saw one child with autism, and he was low functioning and non-verbal.
I was certainly surprised to come to the realization that my own son was on the autism spectrum. His diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome, a kind of high-functioning autism, came years ago in grade school, although we knew he was unique, and we knew he experienced the world in a different way, even earlier when he was in preschool.
While autism may not be what you expected, life often gives us things we are not expecting, or that we feel unprepared for. I’d like to share what I’ve learned in the last 15 years about parenting a child on the autism spectrum. It’s good advice to navigate the storms that you will experience raising a child with a disability.
Tips for Parenting a Child with Autism
Preparation is key. The best days I have are often the ones I have prepared for. Think ahead. Plan out the day’s activities. Prep the night before with school lunches, homework etc. Get yourself and your child prepared for appointments using calendars, picture schedules or social stories. Rehearse activities. Get your supports in place. Don’t leave it to chance. Help your child know what activity is coming and when. Driving to school or appointments? Leave early and give yourself a buffer of time, in case of a meltdown.
Flexibility. I can’t say enough about being flexible. If you try it one way and it brings a meltdown, change it up! Be prepared to leave the park early if your toddler is overwhelmed. Have a backup plan if your child isn’t able to handle the sensory stimulation of that birthday party or sleepover. Like the rubber band that s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s, so must YOU! I know we, as educators, try to teach flexibility to our students, but parents will benefit from learning to be flexible, too.
Expect the unexpected. I found that when things are going along pretty well, I become discouraged when issues do happen, or a meltdown occurs. Rather than be upset when things get nutty, I tell myself to expect it. If my son has a meltdown, I am mentally prepared for it. And when things go well, it’s a pleasant surprise and a testimony that he is learning and doing better.
Learn from your failures. Children with autism surprise us, and the things we thought would work (or that worked in the past) sometimes do not. When some sensory strategies didn’t work for our son, I was always ready to try new ones, till I found something that worked. I once heard the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result!” This is very true. You must learn from your mistakes and try something new and different, to make the life you want with your child.
Tomorrow is another day. When faced with a rough day or a failed activity, it’s important to remember that there’ll be another chance tomorrow. Take a moment to reflect on how things went and prepare a plan for next time. Getting a good night’s sleep for you (and your child) will make a big difference. It is an excellent idea to be well-rested any time. Stepping away from a problem can give you the clear head you need to think about it again and gain a fresh perspective.
Your child’s behavior is not the measure of YOUR worth. You are a valuable person. You have gifts and talents you use every day to make your children, your spouse and your family’s lives better. But you have value not because of what you do, and the effect you have on others, but simply because you are a human person,made in the image of God. Deeply loved and deeply valued by your creator. You will have an influence on your child’s life, but there will probably come a time when your child will make his own choices, and although they reflect on you, they do not make you the person you are. You are a valuable person. Do not ever forget this.
Tune up your friend “radar”. Raising a child with autism/Aspergers, you will notice how friends fall away from you (it’s like they don’t want their child to catch what your son has). People from school, work, church, and your neighborhood will overlook you or exclude you. Most people with neuro typical kids will not understand your experience, be critical of your parenting skills and offer unhelpful advice. You must make new friends. Oftentimes parents of special needs children make friends with others who have children with disabilities. Look for compassionate, understanding people to surround yourself with.
Celebrate small accomplishments. My son struggled to learn how to tie his shoes. Thank God we had shoes with velcro straps for a long time. When he was 10 (in the 4th grade) he finally learned to tie his shoes using a video (Ian’s Knot). This was just a little thing, but I encourage you to think EVERY accomplishment is important and worth celebrating. Make sure you savor those moments! That feeling of joy is often the thing I try to call up at particularly stressful times in parenting my son.
Maintain a positive attitude. This one is near and dear to my heart. I see those parents who are so wonderfully positive with their kids, that even when they say no, it’s in such a pleasant and understanding way that being around them, and their children, is a delight! OK, well I am not one of those parents. Looking for the good and positive in situations has always been a little hard for me. I have to put some effort into it. But I can tell you this is one skill you will want to develop. As much as you can, try to maintain a positive attitude. And do this right away. If you can smile about things later, it’s possible you might be able to smile about them now.
Have fun! Life has plenty of stress, and life with a child who has autism or other learning disabilities is more stressful than most. It very important to make sure you are taking time to have fun with your child, to laugh and feel joy. Be sure to find out the kinds of things he enjoys and make it a priority to have fun together. Our children remember the big (and little) things we do with them, and the attitude we have as we go through our daily lives. Give him happy times to remember.