Parenting is one of the most rewarding and challenging roles we can play in the lives of our children. Seldom do we feel prepared for all that parenting brings, especially when our child is facing challenges.
Many parents and caregivers experience a wide range of emotions when they learn their child has an ASD diagnosis, and it is not uncommon to experience feelings of fear, anger, grief, worry and helplessness, to name a few. Instead of thinking of ASD as a disorder, it may be more helpful to think of it as a different way of thinking, being and experiencing. Having a positive mindset may help you as a parent to feel more hopeful and empowered as you support your child’s unique life journey. The following are some helpful strategies to consider when parenting your child with autism.
What is Autism? Autism is a developmental disorder that is part of the autism spectrum and is often referred to as “ASD” or Autism Spectrum Disorder. While the experience of ASD is different for every child, some of the hallmarks include social impairment, non-verbal and verbal communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviours.
Helpful Parenting Strategies:
Learn about ASD– Knowledge is power. Learning about Autism and how it shows up for your child in different situations and people will help you plan and prepare for supporting your child throughout each developmental stage. Keep the following in mind: -What triggers challenging behaviour? -What elicits a positive response? -Why are transitions so hard? -What does your child find soothing? Knowing these things will help you to troubleshoot problems and prevent situations from developing. Be sure to seek reliable sources of information and professionals who can give you sound advice and support. Being open to learning from others who have experience with children and youth with ASD can be helpful- experience is an amazing teacher.
Love and accept your child for who they are. The most critical thing that parents can offer their children is unconditional love and acceptance. See your child first, and the ASD second. Prize your child for who they are right now. Avoid comparing your child to other children the same age and instead embrace your child’s uniqueness. Celebrate each new achievement, new skill, when your child overcomes a fear and is willing to try new foods and new tasks. This will help you to shift from a deficit lens to a strength-based approach. Take parenting one day at a time, sometimes, one moment at a time. Be patient with them, and with yourself.
Become an expert on your child and focus on positives. Discover your child’s strengths, interests, and affinities and build on those. Praise your child for positive behaviours, be specific about what you liked about their behaviour and reward them with things such as attention, time and play. Embrace the notion that all behaviour is communication. Learn about what triggers meltdowns and what causes stress for your child, and where you can, adjust the environment to reduce challenging behaviours and increase positive responses. Set things up for success.
Be consistent and establish routines. Children with ASD flourish in predictable environments. Wherever possible, have predictable routines and be consistent in your parenting approach. Children with ASD, as with most children, do well with this approach. Be clear on what your expectations are around behaviour and provide ongoing guidance and feedback to your child. This will help to reduce stress for both you and your child.
Connect with your child. Find ways to connect with your child, both verbally and non-verbally. Engage in activities with them that they enjoy and find new ways together to connect. Think outside the box- and be creative in how you spend time together. Share your learning with others in your child’s life so that they can also connect. Learn non-verbal ways to communicate that work for both you and your child, such as simple sign language or visual cues.
Create safe spaces. In the home environment, ensure your child has a space they can go to where they can relax and feel safe. Safety proof your home to minimize injuries or accidents. Set boundaries for your child so they understand limits and feel safe. Sometimes your child may be overwhelmed with sensory stimulation at school. Work collaboratively with the school environment to create safe spaces in the classroom or school that your child can access. Incorporate objects that promote soothing.
Pay attention to sensory sensitivities. Take note of your child’s unique sensitivities in the environment, such as sounds, smells, tastes, sights and tactile sensations. Some children with ASD have hypersensitivity to things, while others may be hyposensitive. Learn about what sensory things increase your child’s stress, and what things they find calming. Where you can, strive to make adaptations in the home and school environment that will reduce sensitivity.
Make time for fun. Engaging in play with your child is a stress release for them and for you. Activities do not always have to be therapeutic or educational, they can be for the pure and simple pleasure of enjoyment and spending time together. Discover things that your child enjoys that you can take part in and share with family members. Having fun is an important aspect of life for all of us.
Model social skills. Teaching and modelling pro social skills is an important aspect of parenting, especially for children with ASD. Talk about situations that have happened, things you watch on TV, and read stories together. Reflect on thoughts, feelings and behaviours that come up in social situations. Use “social stories” to approach challenging social situations and anticipate the thoughts and feelings that could arise. Validate your child’s experiences while also encouraging them to take risks and learn and develop social skills. Arrange play dates. Normalize the idea that all human beings need to learn social skills.
Develop a treatment plan with your practitioners. As each child is unique, there is no “one size fits all” treatment plan. There are various treatment approaches to supporting skill development in children with ASD, such as: – Speech Therapy, – Occupational Therapy, – Play Therapy, – Behaviour Therapy, – Equine Therapy, – Counselling. These are just a few options for treatment. Seek out resources both in your community and at your child’s school. There are lots of great resources available online as well. Connect with medical practitioners that you trust and monitor your child’s mood and behaviour, as it is common for people with ASD to experience other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression during their lifespan.
Become an advocate. You are the expert of your child. Although you may not realize it, you are also their best advocate. Keep a binder of records and copies of assessments to share with people who are supporting your child. Sharing information helps others to better understand your child, which in turn will lead to more consistent approaches at home, school and in the community. When attending meetings at the school, take a friend or family member with you for support. Two sets of ears are better than one, especially if we are going into an appointment or meeting already feeling stressed.
Get support. Being the parent of a child with ASD can be challenging and overwhelming at times. It is important to surround yourself with people who support both you and your child in a positive way. Creating a community of family members and friends who understand your child’s diagnosis will help to reduce your stress and increase opportunities for your child to feel included and accepted for who they are. Setting boundaries with family members and friends who are not helpful is important for your mental health as a parent or caregiver, and also important for your child’s well-being.
Take care of yourself. Taking good care of yourself is an important part of being an effective parent. Paying attention to and responding to your own needs is not a luxury- it is essential, and also within your control. Where you can, strive for life balance through the following:
– Eating and sleeping well,
– Making time for fun (including hobbies and friendships),
– Being assertive with others about what you need,
– Nurturing important relationships in your life.
These are just a few ways that you can prioritize your own self-care. When things get overwhelming, reach out for help from your caring community, and be willing to ask for respite. Consider talking with a mental health professional if you are concerned about your own well-being, as your wellness sets the foundation for your child’s wellness.
Christine Bibby, MSW, RSW
For further information
About the Ontario Autism Program:
The Ontario Autism Program (OAP) offers support to families of children and youth on the autism spectrum. Children and youth who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by a qualified professional are eligible for the program. Children receive services and supports until the age of 18.