Parenting is far from easy, but parenting a child with autism can be particularly demanding. If you are a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you are not alone. Receiving that diagnosis for your child is life-changing, and if there are times that you struggle, you should know you’re not the only one. Here are a few strategies that can help your family.
1. Reframe acting-out behaviors. It can be frustrating to want so badly to be able to do “normal activities” with your child and finding you cannot. Although most kids can handle a brief trip to a department store, for example, some children with ASD suffer from sensory integration challenges and can come unglued within minutes of entering the building. Rather than dwell in a place of frustration over a chaotic scene like this, remind yourself that your child is not purposefully trying to frustrate you, but is 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. Visiting a smaller store with less stimulation might go better, for example. Additionally, something your child cannot do now will not necessarily remain something they cannot do in the future.
2. 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 a fellow ASD parent can help you feel less alone during high stress points. There are also exciting new developments in behavioral therapies and social supports for ASD. Many non-profits are partnering with ASD advocacy groups to provide camps for the entire family as well as respite for parents. 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.
3. Celebrate quirks and talents. We now have a greater awareness of many famous and accomplished individuals in the arts and entertainment world who have ASD–several of them are award-winning 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. Does your child love music? Numbers? Can they put together a complex puzzle in record time? Sometimes the hyper-focusing aspect of ASD becomes kind of a superpower and your ASD child can become excellent at something this way. 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. 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 can help you to develop self-compassion during high stress periods, rather than feeling defeated and inferior. Simple activities such as meeting friends for lunch, going to bed early, starting a new novel, or scheduling some alone time for a break does wonders for pushing that reset button.
6. 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 with autism. All too often, parents fall into the trap of monitoring and correcting behaviors without always acknowledging when their child is displaying positive actions. While you of course want to protect your child from harm and shield them from rejection, it is equally important for them to know how amazing and accomplished they are. Well-placed compliments and expressions of love go a long way in building self-confidence and promoting constructive behaviors.
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 is very challenging, particularly during the early years. However, it is essential to work toward reducing judgment towards yourself or child and, instead, cultivate compassion. Indeed, life would be much easier without autism in it, but this is life. Finding ways to help your child and family adjust to your new normal is incredibly beneficial.
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