Supporting parents of children with autism

Anne-Elise Smithson, Community Development Co-coordinator for the Children’s Autism Foundation, shares some ideas to consider as you tackle the special challenges of parenting a child with autism.

One child with autism is one child with autism.

No two are the same. Speaking in broad brush strokes, autism is a complex group of developmental challenges marked by great difficulty in social interaction and communication. This often results in limited interests, activities, play skills and social skills.

But looking deeper, autism covers a very broad spectrum of abilities and challenges. Where one child with autism may kick and scream in a given situation, another may be quiet and withdrawn. Some children with autism have an intellectual disability, but not all do.

There are some questions parents can ask themselves if they suspect their child has autism.The following should help raise any possible red flags – does your child show a lack of eye gaze? Does your child show a lot of repetitive behaviour or repetitive play, and does he/she get particularly upset when a normal routine is changed? Does he/she react quite strongly to different sensory input (touch, smell, noise, textures)? Does your child take an interest in other children?

Who to turn to

Parents often comment that they are unsure if their child’s behaviour is different from that of most other children, especially if it is their first child. As a first point of call, communicate with trusted family members and friends and ask if anybody else has noticed any signs. Learn from others who have crossed this bridge before you. Teachers, kindergarten staff and health practitioners working with your child may also be able to provide valuable insights.

When you are ready, ask your doctor for a referral to a pediatrician. It is worth arriving at your GP appointment armed with your own notes. Having a list of your concerns handy will help you paint the most accurate picture of your child, and ensure that you don’t miss any important information. Having notes can also help guide you during a potentially stressful and emotional time.

Your pediatrician can help connect you to Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education services and other relevant services. There are other professionals, community groups and not-for-profit organisations that work with children with autism.

Don’t blame yourself (or your partner)

On receiving the diagnosis, it is common for parents to feel guilty. They may ask themselves whether it is their fault, and if they have done anything wrong.  And so they search for answers, often drowning in online research, treatments, and feeling anxious about their child’s prognosis and well-being. While this is natural, it’s not ideal for you, your child, your relationship, or your family. Instead, allow yourself to simply acknowledge the shock. Accept that it is okay to grieve. This acceptance can eventually free you to appreciate the small, daily victories, rather than focus on the big hurdles.

Keep talking to your child

Don’t feel that if your child doesn’t respond, they don’t understand. You can model language in simple ways by telling your child what you are doing as you busy yourself with a household task, for example. If your child is playing with building blocks, try not to limit your comments to things like, “That’s good”, but encourage real engagement by commenting on the colours of the blocks they choose, and asking them to follow simple instructions, such as “Can you place the blue block on top of the red block”? One-on-one time with a loving adult will always be more effective than any high-tech ‘cure’.

Keep showing the love

Always keep in mind that you know your child best. Keep believing in yourself and your parenting. And more importantly, always remember that your child does not need to be defined by their diagnosis. Your child is who they always were, before they were diagnosed.

All parents need is the right support. To find out more about the Children’s Autism Foundation visit http://www.autism.org.nz.

To find out how their qualified Family Consultants can help you and your family, or to sign up for a monthly e-newsletter, please contact enquiry@autism.org.nz or (09) 415 7406.

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