14 'Truth Bombs' About Raising Autistic Children
As an autistic writer, workshop developer and autism consultant, I get asked a lot of questions by parents and teachers. The most common request I get always makes me giggle just a little, and it goes something like this: ‘Tell me how to raise an autistic child.”
I giggle because autism is simply a way of being human, so there is no prescribed formula for parenting or teaching an autistic learner.
Having said that, there is information that is helpful, critical, even essential for parents and teachers to understand if their goal is to help grow healthy, confident, autism-proud children who believe in themselves.
After all, autism is a unique way of learning, interacting with others, and experiencing the physical / sensory world. Anyone working with the kid must understand what this means for them. We must try to understand the autism culture through the eyes of the child before considering how to teach anything at all: emotional regulation, academics, social skills, or life skills. If you can consider situations through the autism lens, it will often help to inform a more effective and positive response.
That said, this list represents some of my best advice.
1. In everything you do, ask yourself: How will this affect my child’s dignity?
Here’s why. Autism can mean the autistic child acquires skills and mastery in life skills, communication, social understanding, sensory and motor processing, executive functioning, and emotional regulation along a different timeline than a typically-developing child. As a result, people may get impatient when expectations are not aligned with the autistic child’s ability. The children may then be reprimanded, chastised, or corrected on a regular basis by many different people, and in many different settings, all day long and across years. Even when done with love and kindness, it chips away at the child’s confidence, and many autistic children become risk-averse because they simply do not trust their ability or instinct.
If you can identify the gap in their skill or understanding and then teach to that, it is far more positive than catching the child being autistic and making them feel as though they have done something naughty, rude, or inconsiderate… or that they are too slow and are causing everyone an inconvenience.
2. Use positive language.
Being corrected or being told “no” are often triggers. Flip your language to tell your child what they can do, not what they can’t.
3. The more rigid and demand-avoidant the child, the more flexible the adults need to be.
Often, those children who cannot cooperate with demands are driven by anxiety — they need to be in control of what is being asked of them. If and when this is the case, children do well with a collaborative approach: do you want to tidy your room now, or after lunch? Do you want pizza for lunch or macaroni and cheese?
4. Don’t allow anyone to shame your child for a social misstep.
Autism is a social communication diagnosis, and our children often need to be taught, directly, what others may pick up intuitively. It can be so helpful to identify the gap in the child’s understanding, and then, being very mindful of the child’s dignity, find a way to teach what the child has yet to understand.
5. Slow down, because many autistic kids have slower processing speed.
Some rules of thumb might be that they can do half the work in twice the time, or that that they are six-second kids in a three-second world. This does not mean autistic learners are cognitively slower — they may just take longer to switch gears or to respond to what is expected.
Understanding what slow processing means in your home can mean a sea change. If your child needs five or six seconds to respond when you ask them to do something, try asking, then waiting. Make certain that you have their attention — don’t call them across the room — then give one clear and unambiguous instruction: “Chris, put your shoes on, please.” Here’s the hard part. Now say nothing and wait. Do not interrupt their processing, because if you do, you shoot yourself in the foot. You cause a reboot, and the processing will start all over again.
Though there is much to consider even in this little scenario (does the child actually know how to put on the shoes? Are they so anxious that they can’t remember what they have learned, or cannot comply with your command?), learning how to wait to respect the child’s processing can make a world of difference. It can really reduce anxiety in the home and improve the family dynamic.
6. Visuals are a best practice and are essential for many autistic children.
Most of our kids benefit from having all verbal commands paired with a visual. In simple terms, this means if you send your 10-year-old upstairs to get your purse and keys, as you are saying it, hand her a note that says: “Keys…Purse.” Have a weekly or monthly calendar and teach your child to use it. Create a to-do list for the morning, for homework, and for the evening routine.
Many parents think that if their child is bright and communicates verbally, they don’t require visual support. For the vast majority of autistic learners, the visual reference helps compensate for the impact anxiety has on memory, or for difficulties in executive skills that can mean, among other things, they struggle to remember what comes next. Remember this: humans use visuals, including our phone calendars, to-do lists, step-by-step instructions for cooking. Visuals should not be considered a special education support. They are a human support that helps most people.
7. Live your life out loud!
Autistic children may think they are the only ones who mess up — the only ones for whom things don’t go right, or who struggle to understand what to do. The truth is, plans change unexpectedly for everyone at times, but our children are often not aware of this. If you were going to make lasagne, but find you are out of cheese, as the parent, you’d just figure it out and decide on making spaghetti or something else. If you have an autistic child, let your internal dialogue be heard so you can demonstrate problem-solving to your child: “Oh dear. No more cheese left! That’s OK. I will make something else that everyone likes. Let’s see — do I have spaghetti sauce? I do! Perfect. I will make spaghetti instead of lasagne tonight.” By doing this, you demonstrate emotional regulation as you cope with an unexpected change and you solve a problem.
8. Autistic children often have intolerance for uncertainty.
Learn about and incorporate the Plan B approach in your home.
The more we can help them to understand what to expect, and what is expected of them, the less anxious they may be. Try incorporating the idea of a Plan B into your life. It will help your child to be more flexible when things change unexpectedly. For example, if you have planned to take your child to the park on Saturday morning, teach them to put that plan on their calendar — but not before also including the backup plan! “Chris, I am looking forward to taking you to the park on Saturday after breakfast. I love spending time with you! Now, what is our Plan B in case we can’t go… like if it rains or one of us isn’t feeling well?” The child then chooses Plan B: to watch a Disney video with you and have a bowl of popcorn if the park trip doesn’t work out. You make sure to get the child to put the Plan B on the calendar — and you will review Saturday’s plan several times during the week.
9. Sensory differences are real.
Research is showing that up to 90% of autistic learners have sensory differences that may be impacting their behaviors and/or emotional responses. Validating the child’s experience and then letting them know you want to help them to feel comfortable can go a long way to reducing anxiety. Finding a good occupational therapist who can help the child to feel safer and more comfortable in the world is even better.
10. Keep in mind that the majority of autistic people have some sort of sleep issues.
Some studies suggest our diurnal rhythms — our body clock — is off by two to three hours. This means your child just may not be ready to sleep when tucked in.
11. Find opportunities for your child to learn from and about autistic role models.
For example, the child who loves Pokémon may enjoy knowing that the creator of the popular card game, Satoshi Tajiri, is autistic. Autistic children benefit from knowing their unique way of learning does not have to limit their potential. Read books to them where autism is not pathologized but celebrated. Consider the picture book “Do You Want to Play: Making Friends With an Autistic Kid” by my autistic son, Daniel Share-Strom.
12. Learn about your child’s interests so you can model and practice reciprocal conversation.
I know way more than I ever intended about video games, but it allowed me to share a special bond with my autistic son. We’d get into great debates over which was the best gaming system, and he learned to share the conversation, listen to his communication partner, and manage his emotions in the process. I am also autistic, which can make it harder to feign interest. However, I am highly motivated to be a good parent and to have a good relationship with my son. We tend to do well when we find the task motivating and relevant. This approach checked both of those boxes for me.
13. Remember that fairness does not mean equal — it means giving every child what they need.
Your autistic children may need more parent involvement and for a longer time than your typically-developing children. Find sibling support groups if your non-autistic children are struggling with feeling unappreciated.
14. Don’t punish the child for being autistic.
Too often, people say they understand the child is autistic, but then do little to accommodate the child’s needs. They will yell in a home where the child has auditory sensitivity. They will punish the child for not eating a food when he cannot tolerate the texture or smell. They will flip out when the child’s slower processing speed makes everyone late in getting out of the house. True autism acceptance means raised voices would be avoided, children would not be chastised for a response to an aversive food, and supports would be put in place to allow extra time to get out of the house, or to help the child master skills that are slowing them down.
Getty image by Kieferpix.