Caring for a Child on the Spectrum: What You Need to Know

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By Carlene Lehmann, MA, LMFT Associate

Caring for a child with autism often feels like navigating uncharted waters. While each child is a blessing, it’s okay to admit if you’re scared, anxious, nervous or don’t have a clue about what you’re doing. With one in every fifty children diagnosed with autism, there are currently 1.5 MILLION people in the U.S. who are affected by it; so, the good news is – you’re not alone.

While it’s no secret that raising a child on the spectrum has some added challenges, there are a lot of practical tips to help guide you along the way.

Early intervention is key

You probably already know this, but there is no “cure” for autism. Seeking treatment immediately after a diagnosis, however, can make a world of difference in both you and your child’s life. As autism rates rise, so does the amount of research. A lot still remains a mystery, but there’s no question that early intervention helps tremendously.

Did you know that 20 years ago, only 50% of kids on the spectrum were talking by age 9? And now, with early intervention, 80% are. We have also learned that those who start therapy when they are toddlers have a much-increased chance of beginning their kindergarten year at a regular school.

Structure is necessary

Parenting 101 teaches you that every kid needs structure in their life, but this is especially important for children on the spectrum. It’s crucial to keep mealtime, school time, playtime, therapy time, and bedtime the same each day. We know this is easier said than done, and life happens – things are bound to get in the way.

If you do anticipate a change in schedule, try to prepare your child in advance. I mentioned, “play time” above - it’s critical that you include this in your child’s daily routine. While treatment, therapy, meds, etc. all help, playtime is necessary for improved social functioning. Their whole life should not be centered on appointments.

It’s also important to remain on the same page as your child’s teachers and therapists so that their home routine is similar to their school and treatment routines. For example, if your child is practicing sign language in school, ensure you practice it at home as well.

Practice patience

Every child is different and each child has a variety of different needs. Unfortunately, there is not one fail-proof method for every child on the spectrum. Keep in mind that it might take a long time to find a method that works best for your child.

Luckily though, you can play an active role in this. You are the person your child spends the most time with, so you get to help test out which methods work and which don’t. Radical acceptance is key because you do need to be aware that there are some tools that might work well for one kid, but might not work at all for yours. Testing method after method can be frustrating and it can also be draining, which is why it’s important to find a good support system.

Join a community

It’s important to reiterate that you are not alone. At times, raising a child on the spectrum can feel incredibly isolating. People who don’t have an autistic child can help to some extent, but the truth is they’ll never fully understand. Luckily there’s a vast online community of parents who are also raising children with autism. This is a great place to swap tips, gather suggestions, or just vent.

Taking care of yourself as a parent

While joining a community is a great place to connect with other parents of children on the spectrum, remember that attending to your self-care, and seeking your own individual help and support to parent your child is important, too. Scheduling breaks to rest and renew yourself, engaging in hobbies and socializing with friends, and taking time to exercise, are among many ways to take care of yourself as a parent. Finding a therapist who understands your journey as a parent to a child with autism, is also helpful in understanding and processing your feelings and emotions in a safe, non-judgmental, and confidential environment.

Remember that your child wants to connect

Even though it doesn’t always seem like it, your autistic child wants to bond with you; they just don’t show it the same way that other children might. Communication comes in all forms, you don’t need to maintain conversations with your child to connect. Pay attention to what makes your kid laugh and smile, which activities excite them the most, which tones of voice they respond best to, and go from there.

Caring for a child on the spectrum is tough, but it’s a rewarding experience, especially when you witness your hard work pay off. No parent is perfect, but as long as you’re still trying, you’re succeeding.
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Carlene Lehmann is a marriage and family therapist associate with RCC Austin (Relationship Counseling Center of Austin). Her education and training includes working with parents of children on the autism spectrum. You can schedule an appointment with her at 512-270-4883, or visit RCC Austin's Scheduling Page and request an appointment with her.