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Tips for Parenting Autistic Children

One thing I learned as both an Occupational Therapist, and more so as a parent of autistic kids, is that they learn differently. They do things, from learning to write, talk, dress, interact with the world and more, on their own terms and on their own timetable. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. With neurodivergent kids you have to ignore the ages on those milestone charts. When they get to school age you need to throw out standardized test scores and what the school says they need to know in certain grades. But some gentle guidance from their caregivers can go a long way in helping them learn skills to make life around your house easier. Here I’ve tried to assemble some of my personal tried and true methods.

1. Modeling with diminishing cues

Telling your child to do something without giving any direction, steps, examples, etc. is similar to your boss at work asking you to go do someone else’s job without any training. It would be like my supervisor telling me to go do payroll. I wouldn’t know where to start. For instance, asking your child to clean up his room may feel similar. With this chore I suggest you set aside time to work on it together and you give specific instructions one at a time while you assist. For instance, “Let’s start with the stuffies. Let’s pick them all up and place them in the basket.” You work on that and ignore everything else until that is done. Then you pick another item, complete it, and move on. With this in mind, over time you can slowly pull away by giving 1 step at a time directions, writing the steps on a list, and finally (it may be years down the road) you can say “Go clean your room” and they will know what to do. This can work on nearly any step-by-step task. We did this with my own kids and getting dressed. For my oldest it only took a few months and he was getting dressed on his own every morning, with cues for what type of clothing was appropriate for the weather, by the time he was out of kindergarten. (He still puts on regular clothes occasionally at bedtime once a week or so, but as far as I know it’s been a few years since he forgot underwear). My younger kid with autism/ADHD is 9 and we still struggle a bit. She’s good with pajamas, but the morning is rough.

2. Visuals

For many kids a visual cue is helpful. Step-by-step charts posted in locations where there a multi-step activities can help a child learn a routine (hand washing, teeth brushing, taking a bath, etc). The thing to be careful with these is that they are very explicit. If a hand washing sign doesn’t say to turn off the water a child may leave the room without turning off the water. I recommend you do a walk-through of the list and do ONLY what is explicitly stated on the sign and see what happens.

3. One thing at a time

I learned early on as a parent to pick one battle at a time. If I tried to fight all the fires that popped up throughout the day, especially back when I had a wild toddler and 2 newborns, I would have ended up on a Dateline special. I started asking myself “What do I want to fix now, and what can wait?” This helped me put things in perspective and is something I continue to this day. Yes, the dirty dishes may bother me right now, but they can wait a few hours. This viewpoint can also be helpful in the school setting and in an IEP meeting where the school personnel are throwing what seems like 100 “deficits” your kid has around and goals to fix them all. What is truly important at this juncture? Classroom behavior? Math scores? Social interactions? How about you ask the child what is important to their success in school and start there?

4. Listening to your child

Whether or not your child is a speaker or a non-speaker, you need to be listening to them. It can hurt to hear it, but your child is the expert on their life. You are not. Even a preschooler, but especially an older child or teenager. I do my best to take time frequently, if not daily, to listen to my kids (neurotypical AND neurodivergent) and hear what they are telling me is important in their life. With my neurodivergents their device time is of utmost important. It’s how they interact with each other (over video games, wikis, coding projects, etc). I’ve listened and now do not limit that time as long as it is not causing problem behavior. (My two autistic kids are in the office right now talking to each other very animatedly about some video game characters and have been for nearly 20 minutes. I’m just happy they’re interacting, conversing, etc.) If your child is non-speaking, what do they gravitate towards? That is often their comfort activity. Why would you take away what comforts them?

5. Reward/token systems

I will tell you. These do not work in my house. Punishment/consequences mean nothing to my autistic kids – it’s the fact that they also have ADHD and have trouble connecting the behavior to the reward/consequence in their brains. (The only one in the house these worked on was my neurotypical kid. He now does chores and earns money and loves it.) But if they work for you, more power to you. Just make sure the amount of “tokens” you’re requesting before earning the prize is doable. I often base it on age (developmental age, not necessarily years since birth).

I know much of this may seem radical, but if it works for you take it and run. Our house went through some pretty rough times, especially trying to force “traditional” parenting methods on our very non-traditional kids. We’ve made it, though, and I have faith you can, too!

Kim Fanning, OTR/L

Disclaimer: While there are many different perspectives on whether to use person first language (“Child with Autism”) or identity-first language (“Autistic Child”), the autism community overwhelmingly has requested the use of identity-first language. The reasoning behind this (as explained thoroughly in this article: Call Me Autistic: A Soft Correction for Those Still Using Person-First Language – Autism Spectrum News) is that autistic individuals don’t carry their Autism around in a bag with them (“person with autism”)- it is part of who they are. As this is the preference for the community, we at APT want to be respectful and also use identity-first language.