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. Do this regardless of the types of challenges and adversity he confronts. As long as your child is not able to come to terms with his spectrum profile, he will not truly learn how to love himself because his profile is core to who he is. Self-acceptance is easier to achieve if you understand that every one of us has our strengths and imperfections, that it is OK to not satisfy everybody and that we all win some and lose some. It’s all intrinsic to the human experience.
- Adopt realistic expectations. Recognize that it is counterproductive to discipline your child for behaviors he cannot control. Unrealistic expectations set your child up for failure and set you up to feel let down. Nobody wins. Repeated feelings of failure and inadequacy are toxic to the process of self-esteem building.
- Steer him towards activities which you think he will enjoy and at which you believe he may become proficient. Cultivating any talent or interest, whether a favorite academic subject, fine or performing art, sport, etc. goes a long way in building self-pride. Furthermore, it becomes easier to meet other people who share the same passion which results in making friends becoming easier.
- 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. Nobody wants to feel ignored. Everybody wants to be heard because being heard makes them feel important, and good about themselves.
- Keep in mind that when you yell or scream at your child, he will most likely blame himself for whatever led to your response. The more it happens and the greater the intensity with which it happens, the more he will emotionally beat himself up. Not at all helpful to efforts at learning how to love yourself.
- Self-esteem and inner strength go hand in hand. Inner strength helps your child rise above bullying, handle criticism from others and resolve conflict. If you position your child for self-esteem building, inner strength increases at the same time. The two are inseparable.
- 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.
Keep in mind that your child may need to take one or more steps backward before more steps forward can happen. Patience becomes critical in this respect. When she moves forward, allow the high praise that you bestow upon her to be therapeutic not just for her but for you as well. Celebrating progress can be a valuable coping mechanism if you look at it that way.
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 it. If there are chores to complete around the house and you’ve got that elusive feeling of momentum sufficient to push through all of them in one shot, the bachelor state of mind wins over you if you continue with the chores and tell your child “sorry, can’t help you right now, I’m in the middle of something else” when the remaining chores could wait. Under these kinds of circumstances, it’s fine, from time to time, to tell him to wait, unless of course his need for your attention is urgent, though try not to let the bachelor state of mind rule over you all the time. Easier said than done, but the effort goes a long way toward enhancing the relationship you have with your child.
If the bachelor state of mind is a challenge with which you are contending as a parent and you wish to do something about it, try to train yourself to become aware of when you are about to resort to it. “In the moment” awareness is key to conquering it. You might find that mentally rehearsing what the bachelor state of mind means, repeatedly in your head, is an effective training strategy. Once you have attained this level of awareness, then you can work at keeping yourself from getting caught in its trap. Lastly, be sure to praise yourself when you succeed at resisting it.
- 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!
It all comes down to understanding that autistic and nonautistic people are neurologically different. As a result, autistic folks face unique challenges, behave in unique ways and also possess unique talents. Therefore, choose not to expect your child to perfectly conform to all of society’s “norms” which were created and are enforced by the nonautistic majority. Instead, choose to embrace neurodiversity.
- Dare to experiment with hands-off parenting: Letting go can seem like an impossible thing to do when you have a child on the autism spectrum and your primal instinct as a parent is to protect and shelter him granted his unique vulnerabilities. Nonetheless, think about the real-life scenarios in which it may be safe for you to take a step back and let him figure things out for himself, in his own way and in his own good time. Let him make certain decisions for himself, either with less oversight than usual or none at all. There is value in him learning from his own mistakes and triumphs, jumping in and taking a chance, and lifting himself up if and when he falls down.
You know your child better than anybody else does. You decide under which circumstances hands-on parenting is required and when it may be safe to step aside and let your child attend to a task or to a particular activity on his own. Exercise caution when starting out with this experiment and be prepared to learn what does and doesn’t work through trial and error. When little or no risk is involved, you might find that the hands-off approach makes good sense granted the benefits that your child may glean from it: opportunities for self-discovery, greater independence, self-esteem building, etc.
- 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 younger 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, some of which are nationally or internationally known.
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.
Lastly, bear in mind that support, help and advice are available online in the event that sufficient resources are out of reach where you live. Furthermore, there are clinicians who are willing to jump on a conference call or video call if need be. Ideally, the social worker, neuropsychologist, speech/language pathologist, pediatric neurologist, child psychologist or occupational therapist you find (to name just a few of the types of clinicians who commonly work with spectrum folks) should possess meaningful experience working with autistic kids.
- Educate others about these strategies: All the better if the implementation of these strategies does not have to fall squarely on you! Involve other family members, close friends and others who interact with your child on a regular basis. There is a greater likelihood of positive results with more of the people in your child’s world on board.