If you are the parent, teacher, or friend of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and are wondering how best to help him or her, there are several things to keep in mind.
Accept Your Child
Your child is different from non-ASD children, but rather than focus on the differences, on what you think your child may be lacking, practice acceptance of their disability—and abilities! Many times, children with ASD—even those who are non-verbal—have special gifts and talents. Encourage your child to develop these characteristics. Just like anyone else, the autistic child will often respond well to positive reinforcement.
Nothing will help your child more than to feel unconditional love and acceptance. Treasure your child for who they are.
Learn As Much As You Can
The more you know about ASD, the better equipped you will be to relate to and help the child. Educate yourself about the disorder—and especially about your child. No two children are alike, so pay special attention to what your child’s specific challenges are. Figure out what triggers his disruptive behaviors and what prompts a positive response.
What stresses or frightens your child? What calms them? What do they find uncomfortable, or enjoyable? Once you understand what affects your child, you will be better prepared to create or modify situations that will best serve them.
Children on the spectrum all have different strengths and weaknesses. No one knows your child like you do, so it’s up to you to make sure their needs are being met.
Common Needs and Characteristics
Although children with ASD differ from one another, there are certain things that they have in common and can benefit from. Giving special attention to these things can help your child thrive.
Children on the spectrum crave consistency, and they tend to do best when they have a highly structured schedule or routine. Keeping regular times for meals, therapy appointments, school, and bedtime will go a long way to soothing your child. Keep disruptions to a minimum. If you do encounter an unavoidable change, prepare your child for it in advance.
Set up a “safe zone” in your home where your child can relax and feel secure. If your child is prone to tantrums or injurious behaviour, remove any objects that they may access to hurt themselves or others.
Along with needing structure, make sure that your response to your child’s positive and negative behaviors is consistent. If praise is given, be specific about which behavior you are praising. Likewise, if they have exhibited negative behaviour, be specific about which behaviour you would like them to change.
Many children with ASD are extra sensitive to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. By the same token, some children are “under-sensitive” to sensory stimuli, and may, for example, enjoy being in crowded, noisy places, or banging doors and objects.
Some children are sensitive to textures in food or clothing. For example, they may wish to eat only “smooth” foods, such as mashed potatoes or ice cream, or they might refuse to wear socks or long sleeves. If such is the case, don’t force your child to eat food or wear clothing that they are uncomfortable with.
Depending where they fall on the spectrum, children with ASD often find it difficult to communicate with others. They may not understand social rules or cues, or may not be able to feel empathy. Some can speak; others are non-verbal.
When communicating with a child with ASD, it may help to keep your language simple, or to use pictures or symbols. Sign language is often helpful. The child may take longer to process information; they may not understand rules or instructions. Be patient. It is probably just as frustrating for the child as it is for you. Praise them when they understand or when they’re able to successfully communicate something to you.
(The subject of communication with a child with autism is far too complex to discuss adequately here. Consult with your child’s doctor or therapist to develop a treatment plan that will best suit your child’s specific needs.)
Play can be difficult for children with autism. They may prefer to play alone, rather than with other children. They may want to play with others, but not know how. They may find it difficult to choose what to do. Nevertheless, it is important to provide playtime for them. Let their specific interests be your guide.
Everyone “stims,” or self-stimulates, to some degree. Common stimulating behaviors include:
- Biting your fingernails
- Twirling your hair around your finger
- Cracking your knuckles
- Drumming your fingers
- Tapping your pencil
- Jiggling your foot
Most stimming behavior is not annoying to others but if it is—if your constant clicking of a pen bothers someone—you generally pick up on the cue by the look on their face, and you stop the clicking.
But the stimming of a person with autism often takes much more noticeable forms. These might include:
- Rocking back and forth
- Flapping hands or flicking or snapping fingers
- Bouncing, jumping, or twirling
- Pacing or walking on tiptoes
- Pulling hair
- Repeating words or phrases
- Repetitive blinking
- Staring at lights or rotating objects, such as a ceiling fan
- Licking, rubbing, or stroking particular objects
- Sniffing people or objects
- Rearranging objects
An autistic person will continue these stimming behaviors until he or she is calmed or consoled—which may be hours. More serious behaviours, such as head banging, hitting, biting, rubbing skin or scratching, or swallowing dangerous items, can cause physical harm and necessitate an intervention.
Take Time Out For You
Living with or helping an autistic child can be draining and overwhelming—for you and the child. You are vital to your child’s success. Therefore, your wellbeing is of the utmost importance.
Make arrangements for respite care for your child so you can take care of yourself. Engage in hobbies, go for a walk, take a class, have a spa day. Or, just sit quietly and listen to music, read a book, and enjoy the beauty of nature.
You may find it helpful to seek therapy for yourself. It’s a good place to discuss all the emotions that arise because of your circumstances.
And if you have a partner, make sure that you make time for him or her. Be sure to build a “date night” into your routine. It is vital that the two of you are a team and that you nourish your relationship. And since caring for an autistic child can place strain on a marriage, marital therapy may give you and your partner some welcome relief.
Famous People on the Autism Spectrum
The autistic child is not doomed to live an unaccomplished life. Many famous current and historical figures are on the spectrum (hint: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates!) Do an Internet search for “famous people with autism.” You’ll no doubt be surprised at the names you see.
Take heart. No matter where on the autism spectrum your child falls, he or she is wonderful, lovable, and can enrich your life.