You recently learned your child is on the autism spectrum. While this may not be a complete surprise, you may be feeling overwhelmed, emotional, confused, and unsure about what to do next.
Give yourself some time to process and put things in perspective. Though this is big news, remember: it doesn’t fundamentally change anything about your child! You are simply armed with more information you didn’t have before, and now you can take steps to support your child with all the knowledge and guidance you need.
Educate yourself about autism
Take some time to learn about the different aspects of autism and how they relate to your child. There are different levels of autism, and some high-functioning levels are better described by Asperger’s Syndrome.
No child will display the same set of symptoms, so it is important to get to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
Here are the general areas affected by autism and some of the challenges:
Social: Interacting and communicating with others, difficulty maintaining eye contact, interpreting facial expressions, identifying emotions, and recognizing nonverbal cues.
Language: Speech may be delayed, pronoun confusion (when to use you vs. me, for example), echolalia (repeating a question instead of answering it)
Emotional: Difficulty expressing, explaining, or controlling their emotions, poor emotional regulation, apathetic behavior, anxiety, and depression
Behavioral: Engages in repetitive motions like hand flapping, rocking, jumping, poor fine-motor skills, difficulty with sensory processing, needs to follow specific routines, aggressive meltdowns, and self-injurious behavior.
Perhaps this answers questions you had about your child’s challenges making friends, speech delays, behavior issues, or sensory sensitivities. Try to remain optimistic, knowing that you can finally take educated steps toward helping your child thrive!
Help and support
First, make sure you look after yourself! Here are some ways you can stay rested and calm while navigating new challenges:
- Find someone to talk to: a therapist, friend, family member
- Don’t neglect other areas of your life; make sure you maintain a balance.
- Tackle goals one at a time: you can’t address everything at once. Be gentle with yourself, and your child, and you will see steady progress.
- Be OK with asking for help. By not taking on everything yourself, you can give your child the patience he/she needs, as well as ensuring you don’t burn out.
Next, start investigating treatment options and what kinds of support will work best for you and your family. Early intervention is an important aspect of helping your child develop social, communication, and behavioral skills early in life. Here is a list of therapies and interventions to familiarize yourself with:
- Speech therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Behavioral therapy
- Physical therapy
- Developmental therapy
- Social skills groups
- Individualized Education Program (IEP) and 504 Plan
Your child’s team of professionals can help answer questions about what course of intervention will be the most effective. An evaluation by a pediatric neuropsychologist can conduct a more thorough analysis of your child’s profile, their processing strengths and weaknesses, and help guide your action plan.
Keep them physically active
Physical activity is very important for children with autism. It will help them stay regulated, work on motor skills, and help them relieve stress. However, some traditional sports and activities are not a good fit for children on the spectrum. Sports teams and playgrounds at recess are loud, fast-paced, unpredictable, and require a certain level of social skills. While you help build skills in those areas, consider activities for now that are more structured:
- Horse riding/equine therapy
- Swimming/aquatic therapy
- Bike rides
- Walking the dog
- Buy a basketball hoop
- Family trips to the park
Connect with social groups
Many communities provide parent support groups for children with autism. Spending time with families who face similar difficulties might help you learn new strategies and ideas. Scheduling play dates with these families and new friends can be a great way for your child to practice skills learned in therapy.
You might meet other families in social skills groups, in waiting rooms for therapy sessions, or through online groups such as MeetUp.com or other social media sites. You can even start your own group with specific goals in mind. Just remember there are plenty of other parents in your situation, and they might just be looking for the same thing.
Use visual schedules
With new therapies being added into your child’s day, a visual schedule can help ease some of the anxiety associated with all the changes. Children on the spectrum generally function better when their routine is set and they know their plans in advance. Visual schedules are a great way for your child to know the day’s events.
People with autism usually process and remember information better when it’s presented visually. Rather than just “tell” your child what the day’s plans are, write in on a visual schedule or calendar so he/she can refer back to it.
Becoming familiar with using a schedule also builds the foundation for important executive functioning skills, such as time management and planning ahead.
Be patient, yet stay consistent
There are a wide variety of interventions and therapies out there, and it can be overwhelming at first. Parents may feel they should try to address as much as they can, as soon as they can. However, this can be counter-productive.
Try not to over-schedule your child with too many therapy appointments. Give them room for play, family time, and relaxing. As they learn new skills, they need some time to process and practice.
If you create a schedule that is manageable yet consistent, you will start to see steady improvements in your child without risking burnout!
Use tools and strategies at home
Ask your child’s therapists and professionals what you can be doing at home! Skills learned in therapy can be reinforced at home. Your child will master them more quickly, and your parenting skills will keep improving.
An experienced therapist can be a great support for you as a parent. Find a therapist with experience working with children on the spectrum. They can teach you strategies to communicate with your child more effectively, how to problem-solve tricky situations at home, tips for how to remain patient and calm when things get rough, navigating school situations, social skills, and more.
There is no shortage of information and support for families dealing with autism. A multitude of research-based, proven interventions exist, with plenty of success stories. Keep looking into strategies that are a good fit for your child. Stay in close communication with your child’s therapists. Take care of yourself, and appreciate your child for the unique person he/she is!