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Tips for parents of children with autism

 

Parenting a child with autism comes with its unique challenges – challenges which test the parents’ resilience, patience and tenacity. There is no one-size-fits all, and sometimes it is all about trying (and retrying!) different things, and learning what applies best to your child and your family’s situation.

However, there are some strategies that, over the years, have helped create a supportive home environment that reinforces a child’s self-worth, well-being and brings out his/her skills.  

Create a Structured Environment

Children with autism often thrive in structured environments. Establish consistent routines and schedules, thus providing predictability and eliminating the element of surprise. This will help reduce anxiety and provide a sense of security for your child. A well-organized setting involves:

  1. The arrangement of physical spaces. This includes reduced clutter, use of gentle, muted or pastel colours around the house, clearly labelled areas with specific and distinct use as much as possible.  For example dedicating a special room/ corner/ table seating for homework according to your home set-up will help the child understand that, sitting at this desk or this chair means that it is homework time.  For people with limited space around the house, even dedicating a different seat at the table than the one the child uses to eat can be helpful.  Pay attention to the details within the environment which may either help or distract your child. For example, they may be distracted if you turn on the microwave at the same time they are working or if you change the type of lightbulb you use. Even the smallest of changes can potentially have a big impact.

  2. Established schedules. Children with autism tend to thrive on fixed schedules. Establishing a pattern of, for example, homework first, dinner second and then playtime is usually much more helpful than changing the order around.  Establishing and sticking to bedtime, eating and bathing routines is extremely beneficial to reduce anxiety.  It is also important to prepare the child for what is coming next by using cues (e.g. TV time will end in 15 minutes, and then we will go to the kitchen to wash our hands and eat dinner.  In the section below we will also see how visual support can help this transition process between one activity and another). Whether it’s at home, school, or in the workplace, maintaining a structured environment enhances the chances of achieving success for most of us. Within established schedules, it is also important to include some flexibility to reduce rigidity and promote autonomy. Give choices when possible in the schedule (e.g. options for how to spend free-time) and occasionally change the schedule slightly, preparing the child for it by showing them there is something different. Inevitably, there will be times when the schedule will have to change depending on what life throws our direction, so it is important to prepare for these changes before they happen. The more rigid a routine is, the more difficult it can be when things do not go as planned.

Use of Visual Support:

Similar to many adults who rely on organizational tools such as schedules, checklists, and planners to navigate daily activities, individuals with autism benefit from having easy access to visual support for their daily schedule.  This will help them process the current reality in terms of pictures rather than abstract perceptions.  Visual aids are also an essential element of communication – autistic individuals may probably find it easier and quicker to communicate through pictures by showing their needs, wishes and concerns/ emotions through the use of visuals.  If your child prefers to communicate with pictures, make sure they are always available to them so they are able to contribute, including when going outside of the house and interacting with others. Depending on what is best for your child, you may have an AAC device, a key ring with photos, or even a whiteboard which they can draw on.

Visual aids are often also used to help children on the spectrum to learn and reinforce their social skills.  Children who find it challenging to recognise or display emotions may find it easier to recognise and understand certain social signals based on what they look like. In these cases, social stories are a very useful tool. Social stories are short stories which help teach a child about a specific situation and what to expect in it, including the expectation on how to behave. Social stories typically include pictures with minimal words to tell the story.      

Visual aids can break down complex tasks into manageable steps.  This helps individuals understand the sequence of activities, promoting independence and reducing anxiety.  When tasks are broken down into smaller steps, it makes the task more manageable. Think about a recipe. If I gave you all the ingredients to make my favourite dish – would you know what to do first? Would you know how to chop the vegetables or what temperature to set the oven? Breaking any tasks into meaningful smaller steps will increase the opportunities for your child to become more independent. Even tasks we take for granted, such as washing our hands, can be broken into smaller, meaningful steps (e.g. Turn on the tap, wet hands, take soap, scrub hands, rinse hands, turn off tap, dry with towel). Choice boards, for example, are a great way to give your child control over their life.  This consists of a simple board with visual representations of two or more tasks your child may choose to do next.  This is particularly helpful in reducing frustration and enhancing autonomy. Make sure that you do not consistently give them the same choices and ensure you are giving them choices of equal value – so for example, don’t try to offer a choice between 30 minutes of TV vs 5 minutes of playstation – nice try, mum! 😉

Visual Timers have also proven to be highly effective when supporting individuals manage their time and transition smoothly between activities, reducing anxiety surrounding sudden changes and shifts in subjects.  There are many options for physical visual timers such as the sand timers which show the sand slowly falling down and there are also applications which can be downloaded which slowly reveal a picture as the time is finishing.      

Communication Strategies:

The cornerstone of effective communication lies in active listening, where one absorbs information conveyed by a child through both verbal and non-verbal cues. Tailoring communication to your child’s unique needs involves employing strategies such as utilizing visual cues, simplifying language, and integrating non-verbal communication methods.

Behaviour is a means of communication. Pay attention to what is happening when your child is happy or upset and try to understand what they are trying to communicate. Then, give them an easier way to communicate what it is that they need. (E.g. If your child is biting you every time you try to get them to go to the store, think about what they are trying to communicate to you. You can teach them how to say (either verbally, with body language or visually) “I don’t want to”. You can use “First and Then” to communicate to them that they have to go to the store first before they get something that they really want. You can also use a social story to explain what they can expect from the store so that they are prepared. Think about if there are any triggers in the store that might set them off (e.g. lights or sound) and give them a choice to wear sunglasses or headphones.

Sensory Care:

Many children on the spectrum may be over or under sensitive to the different senses. This means that they might be affected by the lighting in a room, the feeling of certain clothes on their skin, the smell of perfume, or the tastes of certain foods, sometimes to the point of pain. There are also two senses above and beyond the five senses we commonly think of: proprioceptive and vestibular     ,       The proprioceptive sense helps us understand our bodies in relation to other objects. Being oversensitive can appear as being clumsy, standing too close to someone with no regard for personal space, or putting too much pressure on objects and causing them to break. Being undersensitive can appear as a habit of banging objects, stomping feet or squeezing/biting others. They may really enjoy tight bear hugs and not feel a light touch at all. Our vestibular sense helps us with balance and coordination.  Thoughtfully consider elements like lighting, textures, and sound levels to create a safe, comfortable and accommodating environment. Consult an occupational therapist for strategies and materials which may be helpful in helping your child to regulate their senses. It is important to note that people with autism may also be over or under sensitive to pain. If your child does not cry but something does not seem right (e.g they fell and there is a dark bruise), it is possible they are not feeling the pain that would accompany a serious injury and should be checked out by a medical professional.

There are many tools out there which are helpful for children on the spectrum, such as ear defenders (noise cancelling headphones) and sunglasses. Pay attention to the reactions your child has to different stimuli and get creative!       Make sure they get regular sensory breaks where they can stop an activity which may be overwhelming their senses, and retreat to a safe, sensory-friendly zone which may be built using soft lighting or music, soft-textured carpets, or a cocoon that can help a child feel contained. Every child is unique, so make sure that the components of the room or area are suitable to their needs and have the resources they need to be able to calm down and relax.

Establishing such sensory-friendly zones at home involves selecting specific areas designed to meet your child’s sensory needs.  Before jumping into this process however, ensure a comprehensive understanding of your child’s wants and preferences, as this knowledge is essential in creating purposefully crafted spaces that contribute significantly to comfort and well-being within the home setting.  Occupational Therapists are very well-placed to support you in setting up this space according to your child’s individual needs and preferences.

Positive Reinforcement:

Start practising positive reinforcement techniques to encourage desired behaviours in your child. Offer praise, and rewards, or engage in preferred activities as ‘rewards’ when your child demonstrates behaviours which you want to encourage. Remember, a simple smile and expressing pride, even for what may seem like small achievements to you, can be invaluable in fostering a positive environment.  Giving your child your undivided attention is crucial, especially if you want to help him or her understand boundaries.  It is much harder for the child to learn how to wait until you finish a conversation if s/he rarely gets your attention fully. 

Autonomy    

It is very important to include your child as much as possible in decisions, especially those which affect them. It can be easy to fall into the trap of doing everything for your child because you want to help them, but it is better to help them build the skills they need to become more independent in their lives. Give them the opportunity to make choices, do chores, and participate in any routines – both inside and outside of the house.      

Fight Against the Norms

The world is the way it is because it is based around the needs and wants of neurotypical adults. Keep this in mind, especially when the times are tough. Give your child access to the tools they need for the  real world and make opportunities to educate and demonstrate to others that there is more than one way of doing things (E.g. Go with your child to their favourite ice cream shop and encourage them to order for themselves – using their AAC device or pictures if necessary. Take them into the shop with you wearing their ear defenders so the sound doesn’t hurt them). Fight against the norms of society because it is everybody’s world to live in.

Conclusion:

As with any other relationship, parenting children with autism requires a well-oiled communication process that helps you understand your child while reassuring and demonstrating to the child that they are being understood.  Employing different means of communication, such as visuals, within a structured routine provides reassurance and reduces anxiety for the autistic child.  Giving importance to sensory issues which may challenge your child and providing opportunities for sensory-relief is also a good strategy to help your child feel understood and supported.  Finally, remember to take care of yourself while you continue to provide your child with the love they need.  You’re amazing, strong, resilient and you mean the world to your child.  Make sure you surround yourself with the tools and support you need to continue offering your child the best version of yourself!

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