Parenting Tools and Ideas for Raising an ASD Child
Raising an ASD Kid: Parenting Ideas to Change or Throw Out the Window
Raising children is a tough job—just ask any overworked, underpaid parent. Add in autism spectrum disorder and the parenting gig just got tougher. As parents of special needs children, we deal with all the regular stuff like setting boundaries, forming a moral compass and getting everyone where they need to be in a timely manner, but we also have extra baggage. Our children just don’t understand the world the way typical kids do, and explaining it to them can be time consuming and stressful. The truth is, once my son was diagnosed with ASD, I had to throw many of my ideas about parenting out the window and develop new skills that my son could relate to and understand. This is what I learned.
Learn to Listen: Listening seems like an easy skill to master but it’s not, especially when all you’re trying to do is get your ten-year old out the door and to school on time. I always promised myself that I would never say, because I said so, to my child, yet it seemed like a staple in my vocabulary when bombarded with the constant question of why when asking my son to do something. Getting things done isn’t easy with an ASD kid. They need to know why something is happening, especially when they don’t want to be a part of it. Why are we going to the dentist, why can’t I finish my video game before we go, why are you being mean? I would think, hey, I’m the parent, you need to listen to me and do what I’m asking you to do, but that only caused more friction. The truth is that many times ASD kids ask questions because they are anxious about what is going to happen. I have found that if I take the time to listen to those anxieties, I can get my son out the door in a positive way. It may take a little time but it’s worth it. As a parent, becoming a good listener teaches your child to, in turn, be a good listener. This is particularly important for them because ASD kids have a difficult time understanding someone else’s point of view. The days of thinking that parenting is about me leading and my child following are over for me. Sometimes I let my son take the lead and I just sit down and listen.
Consequences vs. Life Skills: Using the idea of consequences is a good way to teach children that their actions and choices have outcomes. If you don’t do your homework then you can’t watch television, or if you act up in Target then we can’t get the candy at the checkout. Consequences can be a difficult thing for ASD kids to understand and they can be angry or excited and have very little control over how they behave. We’ve had our share on melt-downs at Target and, believe me, the last thing I was thinking about was what the consequence would be. Sometimes removal from a situation is more important. I have replaced the basic consequence idea with a power-charged life skills readjustment. Every time my son makes a seemingly bad choice, is a time to learn about life. One day he wants to wear shorts to school in the heart of winter. I said, “Ok”. It seemed crazy on the outside and when he came home from school I asked if he had been cold. “Oh, no!”, he exclaimed. The next morning, I caught him pulling on his pants without a word about wearing shorts. Life has its own consequences. If he doesn’t want to do a reading assignment or homework for the day, the consequence is that he will end up with more homework over the weekend. This is what he needs to develop life skills. There are limits, of course. Many ASD kids are hands-on and visual. The words that you say to them are not always concrete. It’s true what you’ve heard; actions speak louder than words.
Becoming Nonreactive: I never thought my son would swear. Okay, that’s not entirely true, but I never thought he would throw out those swears in front of me. When it happened, my first reaction was to send him to his room and take his iPad away. It’s easy to get caught off guard and just react to negative behavior and, if my son were a typical child, I would think he should know better. But I have learned a thing or two about my ASD son and one of the biggest discoveries is that his filter use is close to nonexistent. We’re working on that. And it’s not just bad language. There are so many times when he has come home from school completely upset about what I would consider the most trivial things. He lets loose over simple assignments or misunderstandings that I know will be resolved before morning. It would be easy for me to react and say you’re making too much out of that situation or just get the work done. The truth is an ASD child just doesn’t see many situations for what they are. They almost always are reacting to a moment in time and are not able to work through their emotions about something that distressed them. The occasional swear word, the complete anger over seemingly solvable issues is really a casualty of an underused filter. Reacting negatively only adds to the anxiety. And so, when the swear slips out I don’t freak out, I just remind him that those words are really hurtful and we make up funny mock swears. If he’s angry or upset over something simple, I listen and let him vent. Later on, we’ll find time to figure it out.
Respect Is for Everyone: I never thought much about respect and what its role is in parenting. I mean, our kids are kids, respect always seemed like something reserved for adults. When I was young, I was taught that when speaking to adults I should look them in the eye and shake hands as a sign of respect. As children, we were lower on the totem pole. But in raising my ASD son, that idea has changed for me. For us there was never going to be any looking an adult in the eye, and handshakes were difficult. I began to understand that the only way to really teach respect is to show respect, yes even to children. So, what does teaching respect look like? The idea of respect is rolled up into all the things that are difficult for ASD kids to grasp. It involves listening to others, trying to put yourself in their shoes, knowing when your actions or words hurt others and caring if they do. It is being a true equal member of a family or community where your opinions matter even if the decisions don’t always go your way. I can teach my son respect by allowing him to choose the movie on movie night and he can reciprocate by letting me choose next time. I can listen to his concerns about going to a certain restaurant and change my plans because of how it might affect his sensory issues, and he can give me suggestions that would be better. Because of this mutual respect, my son has learned the art of compromise. We have some speed bumps, but that’s life, and we work through them. There are still times when compromises aren’t possible or the decisions have to be made by a parent and there is some anger or anxiety. But seeded deep down, there is rooted the idea that he matters.
Not all my parenting ideas were thrown away, but most of them had to be adjusted or tweaked. No matter what my friends tell me, parenting an ASD child is just not the same as parenting a typical child. Our kids see the world differently and it’s up to us to help them understand it in their own terms. But many of the parenting ideas that work for us can work for the typical world. If you find yourself fighting battles, make a plan to fight only the serious issues and let nature handle the rest.