Success for a child with autism can be hard-won, so as parents, we cannot afford to ignore any little triumph, no matter how small it may seem to those who don’t understand.  While parents who have kids who are neurotypical may see our parenting a child with autism as indulgent, we know it for what it is: carefully building a scaffolding for our autistic children so that they can gain confidence and skills.  The line can be thin at times.

So, how do we encourage growth for our children with autism without going overboard?

Praise Goes a Long Way

Do you have a child who throws tantrums or hits and needs to learn to express herself with words, even words of frustration?  The key is taking the time to teach, rather than just correcting behavior caused by autism.  A gentle word, spoken in a quiet, firm voice can do wonders for a child feeling out of control.  With autism, remember, she is probably more upset by her lack of control than you are. (though at times it doesn’t feel that way) Careful, step by step teaching and mirroring can go a long way in helping her understand and practice self-control:  “I understand you are feeling upset. I get upset too! Tell me, I am feeling mad! Mad, mad mad!”   But screaming is not allowed.  At a more opportune time, not in the heat of the moment, give the child alternatives to tantrumming : tearing paper, screaming into a pillow, bouncing on a mini-trampoline… the sky and your imagination are the limits. 

When the child does calm down, mirror that, too!  “Wow, you were so upset and you told me what the problem was!  Together we fixed it, and now you feel better!”  Some will say that praise is not appropriate for children, but I don’t think the effect of it can be overused on a child with autism.  The child often doesn’t know the right thing to do, and gentle guidance with praise can be their roadmap.  Unlike a child who is neurotypical, a child with autism cannot “figure it out for himself.”  Left to his own devices, he will draw the wrong conclusions.  You must give the child verbal feedback.  For children who are less high-functioning, guide them with your actions instead.

Rewards: A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem

I am not a big fan of rewards systems, but these do work for some kids, quite well.  When my son was younger than is now, his special education teacher used rewards copiously in her classroom.  In fact, this seems to be the model for many special education programs.  He would have a card that would be punched at the end of each day if he was well-behaved.  At the conclusion of the week, he was able to choose a small prize from the treasure chest.  This set my child up to become a rewards monster.  As he has high-functioning autism, he was quickly able to put two and two together.  “What will you give me,” became his short-lived refrain when I asked him to do something around the house.  Yes, the rewards  motivated him, but the unintended effect was a decision on his part not to “perform” unless he was rewarded for it!  Since there aren’t continuous rewards in the real world, this became a problem.

Teach By Doing

 

Walking a child through a task, even a task you believe he should be able to accomplish by himself cannot be over-emphasized.  A child with autism can often accomplish a task today that yesterday was too hard for him.  And of course, the inverse is true: just because he did it today doesn’t mean he can do it tomorrow.  Therefore, our role as parents is to continuously empower the child; to help him understand he can do the task he sets out to do.  Sure, hand washing seems easy, but there are steps involved.  Don’t tell a child how to wash his hands.  Show him.  Let him copy you.   Make sure to explain the steps thoroughly.   Don’t assume he can do it by himself, at least, not at first. Once he gets it, stand back and let him do it.  The tricky part is to help just enough… don’t make it your accomplishment or failure, it’s not about you!

Use Visual Reminders

Posting pictures or sequences in the bathroom for teethbrushing, lists of things to be accomplished, and consistent schedules go a long way towards empowering your child and making him feel in charge.

Social Stories

Make your child the star of his own story.  This works because it creates a situation and allows the child to understand what is expected of him.  Let me reiterate: never assume he knows what the proper action is… spell it out for him.  

Autism and parenting can be a tough challenge.  We need to learn from one another.  So what have you found that works for your child?   Share it.

Tina Cruz is a writer, wife and mother of three children. The two youngest children have high-functioning autism and the oldest has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. She advocates for autism awareness and education, as well as acceptance. She views autism as a growth process and the opportunity to connect parents for support as a privilege. She is the editor of the Special Needs channel here at Typeamom. Her personal blog can be found at Send Chocolate.

photo of child on swing, copyright, Seema K, flickr

photo of scaffolding, dreamstime.com