When your child receives a diagnosis of autism, one of the first questions you may have is, “How can I best help my child?” The short answer is: There isn't just one right answer. Every child is different, and what works for one family may not work for yours. Here are 4 tips that have helped my family make sure we are helping our child to the best of his ability.
It sounds cliché, but it’s true: You can’t help someone else if you’re not taking care of yourself. This is even more true when you have a child with extra challenges. Unfortunately, it can also be even more difficult to take care of yourself in that situation. Constant meltdowns, endless phone calls to therapy clinics and insurance companies, trying to stop your child from taking off every last stitch of clothing because of sensory issues…who has time to take care of themselves? I’m not going to tell you to take a long bubble bath or make sure you get enough sleep at night, or whatever advice you’ve probably heard a thousand times already. Just like your child, what works for you probably won’t work for someone else; and just like your child, you have to do the best you can to take care of yourself. Sometimes taking care of yourself means taking a trusted friend or relative up on their offer to give you a few hours to wander through Target alone, without having to worry about a meltdown in the middle of the cereal aisle. Sometimes, if that’s not available, helping yourself might mean just holding your head high and ignoring the stares when the inevitable meltdown in the cereal aisle happens. Sometimes it might just mean reminding yourself that you are doing the best you can with what you have available to you. Because you are, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
Assemble A Team You Trust
You are absolutely the expert on your child. You know her or his likes, dislikes, what is very likely to trigger a meltdown, and tricks to help them through said meltdowns. But it’s good to assemble a team you trust who have expertise in other areas, like speech or occupational therapists, medical providers and educators. These people are important to have in your corner, as they are the ones who will have the most up-to-date research on autism or any other diagnosis your child has. They are the ones who have helped hundreds of other kids with autism and probably have several methods for how best to help your child. Even if their suggestions don’t work perfectly, they may at least give you an idea of something that will help your child.
Another important part of your team is support for you. Remember how you need to help yourself? You’ll want a team to help you help yourself! This may be relatives or friends who can lend a sympathetic ear, or who are willing to take your child for an hour or two just to give you some breathing room. Or it may be other parents who have children with autism, have been there, and "get it" in a way others can’t.
Provide A Safe Space
Your child is, unfortunately, going to face a lot of challenges and uphill battles. There are going to be lots of people who tell you that you need to make sure your child doesn’t do X, or you need to stop them from doing Y, or if you would just do Z, your child would be just fine. In reality, your child doesn’t have to stop doing X if it’s not important that they stop. So what if your child calms himself by hand flapping? Isn’t it great they’ve found a technique to calm themselves? Who cares if her or his only interest in the emotional egg toy is seeing how well the eggs spin? That's creative! It is true that as your child gets older, you may want to help her or him find more socially appropriate ways to calm themselves, or express themselves creatively. But that’s a problem for you to take to that team of experts you trust, not for Aunt Sally to solve when she sees your child on Thanksgiving. In the meantime, what your child needs is for you to provide a safe space for them to be themselves, stimming and all. And if Aunt Sally is horrified that your child is only eating chicken nuggets and goldfish for Thanksgiving, well, that sounds like an Aunt Sally problem, not a you (or your child) problem.
Of course you are going to love your child. But your child, like all children, needs to know you love every piece of who they are. Sometimes between all the therapy and medical appointments, it’s hard to remember to take time to just appreciate your child for all of her or his wonderful uniqueness. They need the safe space of knowing you are not going to let anyone run roughshod all over them. They need to know that someone always, always has their back and will always, always love them.
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