For parents of a child who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the desire to help their child is no different from any other parent.
How can parents care for a child with Autism? Our expert shares 11 helpful strategies.
Caring For A Child With Autism
1. Check their pace
One of the key tips is to be aware of the pace that they are able to work or respond with. It is important to slow down for many reasons – to allow your child to become comfortable with the situation; to allow them enough time to process and act; and to allow yourself an opportunity to highlight specific areas. This enables you to monitor what is happening and be aware of their behavior and development.
2. Set realistic expectations
Be realistic about what is possible on any given day. Many children with ASD have a sensory profile that may result in them being less consistent than others in terms of engagement and learning. Adjust according to what is going to be beneficial for your child is a skill that many parents acquire through interacting with their child. Being able to distinguish between “I won’t”, “I can’t” and “right now, I can’t” messages takes time and understanding.
3. Look out for tell-tale signs
Meltdowns and tantrums can be signs of overload. This may be a sensory overload, a reaction to a lack of sleep, certain food sensitivity or a signal that the level of input or challenge is too much for your child to cope with. If a meltdown or tantrum happens, first ensure that you and your child are safe, reduce any language and remember to remain calm. Waiting a tantrum out and then building in success for the next activity is a good way to move forward.
4. Create structure
Children with autism generally respond well to structure. Whilst it is important that parents consider this factor, they also need to slowly build up their child’s flexibility and be prepared for the unexpected. Over time, this will build up their ability to adapt to less familiar situations and help them to generalize.
5. Home learning
One of the best learning a child can do is done within the home setting. There are so many practical activities that can help a child with autism build skills, confidence, understanding and stronger relationships with others. Practical activities and using appropriate language help them to make connections between learning and the world around them.
For example, counting can be done in formal ways, but guiding your child to count in practical ways – such as the counting the steps needed to bake a cake, helps your child apply the skills of counting and provides opportunities for generalization.
Many household chores are great learning opportunities. Doing the laundry, cooking, gardening, cleaning – these are daily activities that can provide challenge and also have a certain variety that ensures your child is not just going through a fixed pattern of behaviour without thinking. By doing activities at home as “shared experiences”, a stronger relationship can be fostered and it provides opportunities for more natural and holistic learning.
6. Visual aids
Children with autism are often strong visual learners and less often auditory learners. Visual supports such as a visual schedule or visual prompts can relieve the stress of remembering a series of steps for many children. It can help them move on from one activity/situation to another. Visual cues tend to be more reassuring than the constant change of verbal instructions, which children with autism may find hard to process. Parents can help by showing them how to do things rather than just telling them. You may need to show your child several times and it’s important to have a clear start and finish to any activity.
7. Start off with structured play
Children with autism may need to be taught how to play, how to join in a group and how to sustain being a part of a social setting. Generally, they do best with structured play activities – ones that have a clear beginning and end so this is a good starting point for them. Next, parents can move into less structured and more dynamic interaction opportunities.
8. Highlighting other’s emotions
Reading facial expressions, body language and emotions takes time and direct guidance, so highlight to your child why someone is feeling a certain way and what are the signs that shows they are feeling this way. Often when children are unsure of how to react they do the opposite of what is expected, for example laughing when someone is crying. Exposure and spotlighting situations is important for them to learn. When this happens, stand back from the situation and use it as a learning opportunity instead of reprimanding your child.
9. Be specific in your communication
Children with autism think in concrete ways and tend to take longer to process verbal language. They tend to interpret language literally, so idioms, jokes, metaphors and sarcasm are often not understood. Parents need to be specific in their communication and be mindful of how receptive their children are with regards to their language. A good tip is to focus your language on what you want your child to do, rather than what you want them to stop doing.
For example, instead of saying “don’t run on the grass”, saying “walk on the path” could be more effective. Some children find it particularly challenging to process the “don’t” types of words and others can overreact when they hear the “no” word. Being aware of the pace people speak and the amount of time given for each child to process what has been said is crucial. Don’t be afraid to slow down and to wait for your child to take in what has been communicated.
See also: How Do Children With Autism Communicate
10. Interpret and investigate
Parents need to be alert and aware of the ways their child communicates. This may mean that at times a parent is part interpreter (making meaning of what is being said) and part investigator (finding out what else needs to be said). Children with autism often find communication a challenge because it is a social situation and therefore can be unpredictable and constantly changing. They may find it difficult to describe their feelings and may not be able to find the words they need, especially if they are negative i.e., angry or irritated.
Some children may compensate for not having the language that is needed for a situation by “filling the space” with other language – this may include repetitious, scripted or directly echoing language they have heard somewhere. It’s best to have several techniques for this situation – bringing your child back to the topic, slowing down the expectations so your child can re-group and adjusting the situation so that it is less stressful.
11. Celebrate and be patient
One of the most important areas to remember is to reward yourself and celebrate the difference you have made in your child’s life. Being patient with your child is important, but so is being patient with yourself as a parent. Remain focused on what the goal is and see that this is a journey where the ‘goal’ may need to be adjusted many times. The path may be more diverse but the rewards for all involved can be just as great as for any other parent-child partnership.
This article is contributed by Fiona McDonald, Head of Learning Support of Chiltern House Preschool
Fiona McDonald leads the Learning Support team which provides individual support to special needs children. The department extends specific learning support to these children in helping them integrate into the pre-schools. Fiona McDonald would be able to share her perspectives, experience and tips on dealing with such children and providing learning support for them at home.
This was first published in The New Age Parents e-magazine