If your child is autistic, you can play a role in helping them thrive. Here are some tips to help you help them.
If you’re parenting a child with autism, you’re likely familiar with impressive strengths mixed with recurring roadblocks. They can do some things with ease, but encounter challenges in other areas.
Your child might have the potential to live independently as an adult and work in their chosen field. Certain parenting strategies can help them reach these goals.
Your autistic child might be the family computer expert. They may be the one you ask when you can’t remember which day your neighbor came to visit, or what time the hailstorm started. When it comes to their focused interest, it might seem like they have more information in their head than exists on the entire internet.
They might also object to unexpected routine changes or rules they don’t agree with. Their school grades might fluctuate wildly between the subjects they enjoy and the ones they loathe. You might spend many hours trying to entice their attention away from an issue that bothers them.
As intelligent and talented as your autistic child might be, they likely need support in certain areas. Examples include:
That said, there are ways you can help.
Autism is a spectrum, which means it affects everyone differently. Each child has their own strengths and areas of development. There are various parenting strategies you can try, depending on your child’s support needs.
1. Build rapport.
Rapport is affinity. It’s familiarity and trust that includes two-way interaction, like communication or a change in behavior in response to another person’s presence.
When an educator or therapist works with a child, the first step is building rapport.
Increasing rapport with your child involves finding ways to share in their experiences, such as:
- active listening: Active listening involves giving your child your undivided attention and noticing as much as you can about what they’re trying to communicate. You can gain useful insight by listening to behaviors as well as words.
- child-led activities: Participating in activities that your child chooses sends a message that their interests matter and is a powerful rapport-building strategy.
Rapport means your child will be more willing to communicate with you, which makes supporting them easier.
2. Increase social awareness.
Theory of mind (ToM) is the skill that allows people to understand the different perspectives of others. ToM differences are common in autism.
If your child experiences ToM differences, this doesn’t mean they can’t learn what other people think or feel. However, if they don’t passively acquire this insight at the same rate as allistic (non-autistic) kids, they might need explanations about other people’s behavior.
Spending time talking about social encounters can increase ToM skills. Asking your child how they felt or what they thought about interactions with their peers can create teachable moments where you explain behaviors that they may have misunderstood.
3. Examine communication.
It’s ironic that autistic kids with advanced vocabularies would benefit from support with communication. However, there are a few areas in which your child might benefit from coaching, such as:
- pragmatic language. This is social communication, including taking turns while speaking and listening appropriately while the other person is talking.
- expressive language. Outgoing communication, both written and spoken, is expressive language. Nonverbal communications, like gestures, are part of expressive language.
- receptive language. Incoming communication, including reading and listening, is part of receptive language. It can be useful to check for comprehension by asking your child to repeat the things you’ve told them.
Effective communication impacts how your child interacts with the allistic world, so it’s a skill worth taking the time to improve.
4. Teach calming strategies.
Emotional dysregulation isn’t just a cause of disruptive outbursts. Research, including a 2020 study, also links it to anxiety in autistic people.
It’s important to remember that emotional outbursts are not a form of manipulation. Instead, your child is feeling overwhelmed and has temporarily lost their ability to regulate emotion.
Observing and identifying triggers or warning signs enables you to intervene before your child gets too upset. When you see signs of an impending outburst, redirecting with a calming activity can help:
- “You look like you’re getting frustrated. Do you need to ask for a break?”
- “I can see you’re clenching your fists. Do you want to try a breathing exercise?”
Choices can also help your child feel more in control, such as: “You look like you need a break. Do you want to go for a walk, or have something to eat?”
5. Foster flexibility.
You may have discovered that prompting your child before an activity change makes the transition easier. This is because an unpredicted change can be anxiety-provoking for autistic people.
It’s usually easy to manage transitions at home because it’s a controlled environment. You can prompt your child with a 5- or 10-minute warning, and check in several times during that time frame. However, the outside world is not as accommodating.
One solution is to gradually fade transition prompts. Try a shorter notice with fewer check-ins to see how your child can handle it.
Another solution is to create a positive association with an unexpected change. Offer something in return for an unprompted transition, like extra iPad time later for turning off the TV now.
6. Increase autism awareness.
Increasing your child’s autism awareness begins with discussing their diagnosis.
They may have already felt different from their typically developing peers, so hearing the news that they’re autistic likely makes sense. Maybe they were diagnosed later in childhood or early in their teen years, so they knew about autism even before their own diagnosis.
Regardless of their path to diagnosis, it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of autism, such as special isolated skills (SIS). A 2014 study examining SISs in autism found repeat occurrences in several areas:
Even if your child doesn’t have an SIS, there are other autistic strengths. For example, the preference for structure makes autistic people comfortable following rules.
Along with the emphasis on strengths comes the understanding that most people, autistic or otherwise, have areas where they can benefit from help. As your child learns more about autism, they’ll likely have questions that may inspire interesting and rapport-building conversations.
7. Network with other parents.
Sometimes the best advice comes from those who’ve been in your shoes. Networking with other parents in the autistic community can connect you to support and understanding that can make your role easier.
Your child’s pediatrician may have contact information for parent support groups in your area, or you can try searching online.
These autism organizations and resources may offer support and social connection:
Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference that involves both strengths and areas of development.
Parents can help their autistic kids thrive and reach their potential with a few simple strategies, like strengthening rapport, and increasing social and communication abilities.
It can help to meet other parents of autistic kids, to learn and exchange ideas. It’s helpful to network with people who share your experience.