Children with autism are different from typically developing children. For many parents, this creates a serious problem. How are parents supposed to connect with a child who doesn't ask questions, initiate play, enjoy sports, or want to try new things? Here are some tips for parents who want a strong relationship with their autistic child, but aren't sure how to get started.
1. Don't Make Assumptions About Your Child's Thoughts and Feelings
Most of the time, you can make a good guess about a person's feelings by looking at his face, listening to his tone of voice, or watching his body language. People with autism, however, may not speak at all -- or may use a flat tone even when excited. Body language -- including eye contact
, appropriate gestures and facial expressions -- can be even more challenging. Don't assume that a flat tone, lack of eye contact, or difficulty with staying focused mean your child isn't having fun. There's a good chance that your assumptions are wrong!
2. Take the Initiative
Many young children can't wait to get their parents involved in play
. In fact, many parents get very tired of hearing "Mommy, come play!" or "Daddy, you be the monster and chase me!" Parents of children with autism would generally give their eye teeth to hear that kind of request. That's not because children with autism don't enjoy chase games or time with Mommy, but rather because they don't yet have the skills to envision what they want, put words to that vision, and communicate their desires. That means it's up to you, the parent, to initiate play. Rather than waiting to hear from your child, let your child hear from you. If they have a tough time understanding spoken words like "Let's play with Elmo," it's fine to let your body do the talking by modeling the kind of play you have in mind.
3. Build on Your Child's Interests
It's not unusual for a parent to impose her personal interests on her child -- with great success. Mom loves dress up, so she buys dress up clothes for her daughter, who joins with Mom in her interest. Dad loves baseball, so he signs up his son for Little League, and the experience is wonderful. Children with autism are less flexible in their interests than typical children, so it is often an uphill struggle to get them to engage in your favorite pastimes. A better choice is to focus not on YOUR preferences, but on your child's. Does your child love model trains
? Find your inner railroad buff. Is he fascinated by Sesame Street? Discover why everyone is talking about Big Bird! As you find ways to join your child in his interests, whether verbally or non verbally, you'll find more ways to play and connect.
4. Think Outside the Typical Box
When our son was little, we tried hard to get him involved with team sports
. But to no avail: he just wasn't interested, even when the team was made up entirely of kids with special needs. So what DID turn him on when he was seven years old? His favorite Daddy and Me activity was attending a classical children's concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, followed by a couple of hours at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. Typical kid fare? Absolutely not. A ton of fun for Dad and Tom? You bet!
5. Get Dad Involved
All too often, children with autism wind up living in a world of women. This happens for a number of good reasons: mothers are usually more involved with their special needs child's daily care and choice of programs and therapies and women are more likely to choose to become teachers and therapists for young children. But a much more significant issue is the reality that fathers of autistic children
-- especially autistic boys -- are often put off by the fact their son just doesn't understand or do well with typical male activities such as team sports, working with tools, and so forth. Without a clear idea of HOW to relate to his son, many dads back away, allowing Mom to take the lead and losing out on the opportunity to connect. By following your child's lead, however, and looking for alternatives (hiking instead of baseball, for example), you may find many common interests that are just outside the usual box.
6. Don't Give Up Too Soon
Autistic people don't like change
very much. In fact, some autistic people downright hate change. As a result, it can take a very long time to successfully introduce anything new -- from a new video to a new activity, game, or venue. That doesn't mean you are doomed to repeating the same activities forever, but it does mean that you, the parent, must be very, very patient. Start by introducing the new activity with pictures and words. Then engage your child by short, easy stages. When our son first started playing with Legos, his idea was to stuff as many as he could into his pockets -- and that was it. Today, many years later, he is a true Lego "artist," designing and building his own structures, carnival rides, jazz bands... you name it!
7. Keep the Bar HighParents get tired, and it is easy to keep doing the same thing with your autistic child over and over again. After all, he enjoys it -- and it's easy for you. But when you allow sameness to take over your relationship with your child, both you and she lose the opportunity to grow together. Sure, it's fine to enjoy favorite activities. Who doesn't enjoy re-reading a favorite book together, or visiting the same rides at the same amusement park year after year? But it's important to remember that, like all children, your child with autism is growing and changing. He may not ask for change, or even crave it -- so it's up to you, the parent, to help your child get to the next level of maturity and competence. Has he made the same circular train layout 25 times in a row? Time to add in a bridge, a tunnel, an obstacle, or a new route. It may take a little while for change to feel comfortable, but that's okay: you're growing together.
8. Be Proud of Your Child's Achievements
Your child with autism may or may not become an "achiever" in the usual sense of the word. If he is relatively low functioning, chances are he won't win an academic or sports award, or become the star of the class show (though you never know: stranger things have happened). But every time your child with autism exceeds his past limitations, he achieving something remarkable. When your child asks a question, shares a toy, tries something new on his own, or engages with a stranger -- it's an opportunity to celebrate!