When raising an autistic child, doctors and therapists come in handy in answering questions that parents of autistic children may have. God knows, we’ve consulted our share of specialists. But sometimes, no advice compares to the advice of the very people who are raising these children. My husband and I have been in the position of bringing up a child on the spectrum for 15 years. We’ve seen and learned a lot, and I’d like to share some of the tips we’ve learned over the years.

Know That Sometimes It Takes Years to Get a Diagnosis

Many autistic children are diagnosed at a young age, but for some, it takes a while. We suspected something was different about our son when he was very young. He wasn’t talking at around two, so we got him a speech therapist. Then, when he was four, we had him evaluated — no autism diagnosis. We had him evaluated again when he was about seven — again, no diagnosis. It wasn’t until he was ten that he was diagnosed.

The lesson here is if you suspect autism, keep up the evaluations. Ironically, things can become easier with a diagnosis; you can receive more services and accommodations. Life is less confusing, when you know what’s wrong and can get the appropriate help your child needs.

Realize that Things Change

Autistic children, like typical children, aren’t static. Kids grow; behaviors change; new knowledge is gained; empathy and social skills are learned. For instance, my son had behavioral issues when he was a young child, but as he became more verbal and less frustrated socially (he learned to make friends), these behavioral problems diminished.

Enlist Your Friends to Help You with Your Child (It Takes a Village)

Many of your friends have special talents that they can share with your child. Ask them to get on board and share some of their skills with him or her. For example, our son loves art. He loves to draw and create cartoons. We employed our friend Rachel who has a degree in art to work with our son during the summer months. They did many fun projects such as making a sculpture of a mushroom. (My son was investigating mushrooms at that time; as you know your autistic son or daughter may become fixated on the oddest things.) Rachel and our son met for a couple of hours on Wednesdays. Their interchange was invaluable. Our son learned more art skills, but he also developed his conversation skills as well.

Be Open to Difficult Questions

“Mommy, am I disabled?” My son began asking this question at 14. For about a month, I avoided answering it. But when I answered openly that he did have a mild disability, the air was cleared, and he began to relax about his identity. Other difficult questions might be, “Will I get married and have children?” The bottom line is you need to address questions such as these even if you relay that no one can tell the future and that you certainly hope his adulthood will be exactly how he wants it to be.

Watch Out for “Snake Oil Salespeople”

Everyone and their brother seem to have answers for how to treat and even cure autism. But watch out; some people exploit vulnerable parents of autistic children, charging them exorbitant amounts of money and offering them quackery. My husband and I have run into a few of these types of people; one woman wanted to sell us a sound system that would “rewire our son’s brain.” Just remember, if the promises for success seem too good to be true, they probably are.

Talk to Other Parents of Children with Autism

Take advantage of those who have navigated the system before you.

We have good friends who have a child on the spectrum. I always consult with them because their daughter has participated in programs that have been successful, and they can recommend our next steps to be taken. For instance, their daughter did a wonderful job training program for special needs children. When our son was ready to start thinking about being employed, I signed him up for this very program. Other parents have had successes and failures on their journeys with their children. Mine their experiences.

Take Advantage of Interests and Abilities to Boost Your Child’s Self Esteem

Autistic children have strengths and weaknesses just like typical children. It’s beneficial to discover what your child is good at and encourage him or her to engage in this activity. When your child is successful at hobbies or interests, it boosts their self-esteem.

For example, our son loves running, improvisation and bowling. We are sure to involve him in these activities on a weekly basis. This helps him become his best self.

Don’t Talk Down to Your Child

If you want to encourage maturity in your autistic child, don’t talk down to him or her. Sometimes this is hard to remember, but the most successful parents of autistic kids talk to them and treat them as “normally” as possible. Here’s an example: I try to use my full vocabulary with my son, and consequently, his language skills are now getting fairly sophisticated. Remember, avoid baby talk.

Living and thriving with an autistic child or children is not easy. But it is doable. You will accomplish your goals by relying on specialists to guide you, but don’t forget the laypeople in your life that live day in and day out with those on the spectrum.

I wish you luck on your journey. Trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone.