As parents, friends, caregivers, or advocates of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we want to promote their well-being and growth. The best way to do that is by being thoughtful and well-informed. Caregivers must learn how to create an understanding and supportive environment while avoiding things that could hinder a young person’s growth.
Remember that while children with autism may demonstrate certain behaviors, these behaviors are often consequential to how they process the world around them. We can approach these problem behaviors with empathy and recognize that this may be a means of communication or self-regulation.
Meltdowns, stimming, and repetitive behaviors can often be misunderstood by the outside eye as misbehaving when, in reality, a child is self-regulating. We can acknowledge and accommodate a child’s needs to help them thrive and reach their full potential. Before we dive into how to help in these situations, we need to know what to avoid.
5 Things To Avoid
1. Refrain From Pressuring Your Child
No good can come from putting too much pressure on a child. While we want to set expectations and challenge our children, we need to be self-aware. Set realistic expectations, knowing what your child can handle, and be flexible to adjust as needed.
Pressuring a child with ASD can be detrimental, leading to emotional distress. A child with autism may already face challenges in understanding and expressing big feelings. Consequently, excessive pressure may amplify feelings of anxiousness. In turn, this can lead to increased unwanted behaviors.
While pressure can cause sensory overload, it can also damage relationships and adversely affect mental health. When parenting a child with autism, we want to foster an environment of love and support. Too much pressure can cause tension and lead to feelings of distrust or fear.
This feeling can erode a child’s self-esteem or confidence. They may start to feel frustrated, defeated, or overwhelmed. It takes away any sense of success or pride.
2. Don’t Punish Repetitive Behavior or Stimming
As mentioned above, people outside of the world of autism often see repetitive behaviors or stimming as children not listening or misbehaving. This is where education comes into play. As a child’s parent or advocate, it’s important to be informed about the causes behind repetitive behaviors to support your child and educate others.
Stimming is often a sign that a child is feeling overstimulated. This is their body’s way of reducing feelings of anxiety, stimulating certain senses, and regulating emotions. Even when the behavior is disruptive, stimming is more a sign that your child is struggling, not their way of doing something wrong.
Most importantly, stimming is a natural self-soothing mechanism for children. Punishing them for it is punishing them for their bodies' natural response. This is not something they are intentionally doing and can stop just because you want them to. We can, however, help our children learn to self-regulate and calm down.
3. Avoid Sudden Changes in Routine, if Possible
Having routines in place can set children up for success, allowing them to know what to expect and when to expect it. While following the exact same routine day in and day out is not always possible, it’s a good idea to keep some sense of routine in their daily structure.
Adjustments in routine can be more challenging for children on the spectrum. Cognitive rigidity is often seen in children with autism, which essentially means they struggle to adapt to new environments and situations. Once a routine is in place and children are used to it, changes in this routine take preparation and patience. It is best that new changes don’t occur suddenly.
Sudden changes can trigger anxiety and make it difficult to manage stress. If these shifts in routine include unexpected social interactions, a child’s difficulty understanding social cues can make these extra challenging to navigate.
People with autism usually rely on predictability and structure to navigate their daily lives. New or unfamiliar sensory experiences, as simple as new sights, smells, or textures, can be overwhelming and cause sensory overload.
4. Don’t Set Unclear or Undefined Expectations
When setting expectations for children, you want them to be as clear and concise as possible. First, ensure that the expectations you’re setting are personalized to the child. Don’t compare your child to others; use what you know about your little one and meet them where they’re at.
Every child has unique special needs that should be taken into consideration when setting goals. Unclear expectations that use vague or abstract language will be difficult for a child to understand. This can cause additional confusion, stress, and an unclear path for them to follow.
Setting goals in small chunks and communicating them thoroughly to your child is the best way to help them succeed. Baby steps are still steps forward; understanding your child’s specific abilities and developmental stage will help you set clear, appropriate expectations.
5. Don’t Rush Into New Situations
Preparation is key when entering a new or unknown environment. Young children with autism navigate most effectively with predictability and structure. While new situations are impossible to avoid, it is most helpful to take the time to prepare your child and talk through different situations.
Taking the time to prepare for new situations can help your child build confidence, flexibility, and adaptability. Encourage change and transitions, as they will face them in life, but taking your time through this can develop and enhance coping strategies to handle deviations from the routine.
When you rush into a new situation, on the other hand, you remove the opportunity to build on these skills. This tends to increase anxiety and cause them to shut down.
Social stories can be a very effective way to give real-world examples of different scenarios. These stories step through a range of situations, optional reactions, and possible outcomes. This is a form of early intervention that gives your child the opportunity to think through situations multiple times before living in them. Books on approaching and talking to a new friend (Leo Starts a Conversation) guide children through new interactions with peers in a listen-and-read format. Others, like Luna Pulls Hair, target specific behaviors, turning negative actions into positive ones.
How To Help Your Child With Autism Thrive
1. Work on Communication Skills
To help our growing young ones succeed and prosper, we can enhance their communication skills and social skills. Visual support IS one of the most common ways for children to express their needs through non-verbal communication. Encouraging gestures and non-verbal communication first is a good first step.
Simplified language and clear instructions can help a child understand what it is you want from them. You can break down instructions into simple, manageable steps that can allow your child to complete one thing at a time and feel successful rather than overwhelmed.
Modeling and reinforcing structured communication gives children examples to build from. Create structured, predictable communication routines that set clear expectations for interaction. Positive reinforcement and praise encourage communication and build confidence in an upbeat and non-judgmental environment.
2. Soothe Sensory Seeking Behavior
There are many tools and toys that can alleviate the need for sensory stimulation. When children with ASD feel stimulated or overwhelmed, they will often look for a form of sensory stimulation to release built-up stress or anxiety.
Sensory bins can provide a suitable outlet for anxiety, uncertainty, or other emotions — and they’re also just a lot of fun. Many of these toys and tools are portable (like the Ocean Sensory Bin) and can be used almost anywhere. As you learn your child’s cues and specific sensory triggers, you can have these tools ready to soothe their sensory needs.
Doing this intentionally and routinely will eventually teach self-regulation skills, helping children be more confident and independent.
3. Encourage Playtime
Making time for play is beneficial for children with autism for many reasons. First, playtime reduces stress and allows your child to relax and enjoy themselves. Enjoyable play will look different for every child as they all have their own unique interests. Regardless, it will allow them to form their own identity and express themselves.
Playtime is a wonderful bonding time for both children and parents. This is a great time to get to know your child and enjoy them without expectations and pressure. Unstructured time can actually be extremely beneficial on its own.
Play stimulates cognitive skills such as problem-solving and creativity. It also helps to develop and enhance motor skills. By recognizing the importance of playtime and providing a supportive and inclusive play environment, we can boost happiness levels and develop new skills, helping them to succeed.
4. Ask for Help
While the world of autism can feel isolating at times, you are far from alone! There are parents, family members, doctors, and advocates everywhere working together to help children and adolescents with autism.
If you need specific help with your child, speak with your pediatrician or healthcare provider to inquire about additional resources and accommodations. We know it can be tricky to access the resources you need (which is why we started Big Heart Toys in the first place!).
If you’re looking for support as a parent or advocate, local as well as online support groups can prove helpful.
Ask for help and remember, this is a learning process. You aren’t expected to be an expert overnight. Take your time and give yourself the grace to learn as you go.
Summary: Supporting a Child’s Needs
We want to find the balance between supporting our children’s growth and making sure we aren’t forcing too much change at once. We can create a structured and predictable environment while incorporating strategies to promote flexibility and coping skills to handle routine changes.
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