Parenting is a hard job. Parenting autistic kids isn’t necessarily harder...but it’s a different kind of hard. Here are 7 tips for parenting autistic kids.
One of the hardest things for me to realize when parenting an autistic child is that I can’t expect my son to just pick up on social cues and learn things by watching and mimicking, the way my typically developing daughters do. The very nature of autism means my son doesn’t process social cues the same way I do, and learning how to teach him to interact with the world has been one of my biggest parenting challenges. He can’t just be told what to do, he needs to be given step-by-step directions, broken down into the smallest chunks possible. It’s not always enough to say, "Take your plate into the kitchen." Sometimes it needs to be, "Pick up your plate, hold onto it with both hands, take it into the kitchen and set it on the counter."
When parenting autistic kids being patient is about more than ensuring extra time for putting on shoes or whatever task is at hand, although that’s important, too. What's much more important is remembering skills aren’t gained overnight. This is true of all kids, but it’s hard to think about when you’ve been paying for therapy the last six months and not seeing immediate progress. Yes, you should be seeing some progress, but it might not happen as quickly as you’d like. Ask questions, do whatever you can to facilitate that progress, but don’t be surprised if your child isn’t developing precisely the way you expected.
In that same vein, when parenting autistic kids it’s important to keep the end goal in mind. What do I want for my son? I want him to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society. Independence is a big goal for him, and I believe it to be an achievable one. But that goal is a long way off. Sometimes it’s okay to slow down a little. Occasionally (okay, often), my son’s appointments are very inconvenient, and come at a cost to the rest of the family. Sometimes we make the decision that cost is acceptable, because rescheduling would create even more inconvenience, or because it will result in a decision affecting how we move forward with his care. Other times, we decide that canceling an appointment for one week is unlikely to affect the goal of independence. We pace ourselves, instead of focusing everything we have on my son's care, so we don’t run out of steam long before he’s an independent adult.
Remember your autistic kid is still a kid
When parenting an autistic child, sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in what’s different about my son, I forget he’s still just a kid. Yes, he has his differences, but he has a lot in common with other kids. He loves to pester his sisters, he can’t wait for his birthday (because presents! And cake!), and he still snuggles with his stuffed Mickey Mouse at night. Between all the various doctor and therapy appointments, endless back-and-forths with the school, and general management of everything related to his autism diagnosis, it can be hard to take a step back and focus on this pretty awesome kid, with or without the autism.
Do what works for your kid
There’s a saying floating around about kids with autism: "When you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met...one kid with autism." Like all kids, autistic kids have different needs and respond better (or worse!) to different techniques. For example, a lot of kids who struggle with noise do really well with noise-canceling headphones. Blocking out extraneous noise allows them to put all their attention on the task at hand. My son is one of those kids who are very easily distracted by background noise. I can’t even tell you how many times noise-canceling headphones have been suggested. My son also cannot tolerate anything being put on his head — not unless it’s something he really wants to try, and even then, I call it good if it stays on for two minutes. Those giant noise-cancelling headphones? Yeah, he has no desire to put those on his head. I’m glad those work well for some kids, and I’m generally grateful for the suggestion, but I know it won’t work for my kid, and you know what? That’s okay.
Don’t be afraid to course-correct
Autistic kids are still kids, and they grow and change every day. Like all kids, when you think you’ve finally settled into that sweet spot of everything working perfectly...they go and change on you, or life just changes on you. Speech was always our biggest concern — the whole reason we started down the developmental delays path. As he entered school, my son's lack of fine motor skills became a bigger problem, and suddenly, occupational therapy became much more important than speech. I have no doubt as time goes on and other concerns come up, occupational therapy will take a backseat, too. We’ll just keep changing as my son's needs change.
Take care of you
It feels so trite to drag out the oxygen mask example, but people use it because it’s true. You can’t take care of others if you’re not taking care of you, and this is especially true when parenting autistic kids. It’s so much harder to be explicit and patient and remember to pace yourself when you haven’t had a minute of peace in the last week. Whether you need to tell everybody to stay in bed an extra five minutes so you can finish your coffee in peace, or not vacuum the floor for a month so you have a few extra minutes to enjoy a hobby, do what is necessary to take care of you.