Quite a journey this has been so far, don’t you think! Hopefully the strategies that follow will make the journey more manageable than it has been up to now. They stem from the experiences of a parent who, like his child, is on the autism spectrum but did not learn this about himself until after he became a father.
Please note that not all of these strategies will be relevant to every parenting scenario. The autism spectrum represents a wide variety of personality profiles and challenges. As such, there is no “one size fits all” set of tips.
Do everything you can to position your child for strong self-esteem: There is no more noble a pursuit than this when it comes to parenting in general. A few considerations:
- Encourage your child to accept, or better yet, embrace, who he is regardless of the types of challenges and adversity he confronts.
- Adopt realistic expectations, recognizing that it is counterproductive to discipline your child for behaviors he cannot control.
- Steer him towards activities which you think he will enjoy and at which you believe he may become proficient.
- Listen to him and respond positively to what he says whenever a positive response is warranted. When he asks you a question, answer him, regardless of whether you think the question is worthy of an answer.
- Keep in mind that when you yell or scream at your child, he will most likely beat up on himself.
- Look at small steps forward as if they are monumental achievements: For many on the spectrum, personal development occurs in small steps taken over periods of time that are longer than typically expected. If you treat small steps forward as being as significant as they truly are to your autistic child’s growth (in other words, by passionately praising them), they will contribute more to her growth than they otherwise would. Such praise is not likely to be effective when given long after the fact. Immediacy is critically important in this case so that your child can easily associate the praise with the act that is being praised. Furthermore, if and when a praiseworthy behavior becomes habitual, it need not be praised as often as it was before it became commonplace. Too much praise is likely to render it less beneficial.
Simple behaviors which are not yet habitual, which your spectrum child performs without being prompted and which show self-awareness or awareness of others are examples of small steps forward which should elicit high praise. For example, saying “please” and “thank you” when it is warranted, offering to help out with a task, saying “bless you” when somebody sneezes, properly performing an act of self-care, etc. Increments of progress towards a long-term goal, whatever that goal may be, are worthy of high praise as opposed to only giving praise once the goal has been fully attained.
- Beware of “the bachelor state of mind”: The bachelor(ette) state of mind can be thought of as a gravitational force that tries to lure you into thinking only about your own interests, even when doing so is at the expense of your child’s best interests. Not a crime when you were younger and only responsible for yourself, and yet it has a way of hanging around once your life can no longer be all about you.
For example, when you lie down on the couch to relax and then you don’t move when your child asks you to play with him, you succumb to the bachelor state of mind, particularly if opportunities to play with him are relatively few and far between. When you manage to drag yourself off the couch to play with your son in spite of how tired you are, you have triumphed over the bachelor state of mind. Your effort goes a long way toward enhancing your relationship with your child.
- Try to see the world through your child’s eyes: If you are nonautistic and your child is autistic, it is highly likely that the two of you will not end up on the same page with respect to how the information the immediate environment transmits is processed and therefore how each of you responds to what goes on around you. Consequently, at least some of your child’s behaviors probably do not make any sense to you. Nonetheless, work on putting yourself in her shoes and parenting according to her reality. A difficult task to say the least, but an important one.
Nobody wins when you repeatedly try, to no avail, to get her to behave in ways that are consistent with your own experience and which you consider to be “normal”. Refrain from criticizing what in your view are awkward, aberrant behaviors and resist the temptation to redirect her away from these behaviors. Instead, create a safe, accepting environment for her in which she can behave as she does and receive love and validation rather than be judged or scolded. Allow her to be herself to the extent that she is not harming herself or others in the process. She is beautiful just the way she is!
- Seek help if you know deep down that you could use it: Doing so is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it shows that you have the courage and the strength to pursue change for the better. Help for folks on the spectrum and their parents is available from caring, intelligent professionals including clinicians, relevant school personnel, local autism resource centers (ARC’s) and numerous organizations.
A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, and Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens
The Asperger/Autism Network is one such organization that hosts support groups and provides a variety of services aimed at helping those on the spectrum live more meaningful, connected lives. Social Thinking® is a methodology that is taught by qualified clinicians which helps autistic kids develop social competencies. The College Internship Program helps young adults on the spectrum prepare for and succeed in college, gain meaningful employment and acquire independent living skills. These are but a few among many organizations that exist to assist the autism spectrum community in achieving better outcomes. The writer Sam Farmer wears many hats, among them father, husband, musician, computer consultant, and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs, records coaching videos, and presents at conferences and support groups for the Asperger/Autism Network.