Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m writing this letter on National Grandparents Day to let you know how much I appreciate you and the important role you play in my family’s life. There’s no greeting card that could possibly tell you how much you mean to us.
I know that having a special needs grandchild can be challenging, so I’d like to thank you for your love, support, and understanding. As you know all too well, autism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It affects not only parents, but also close family members like you.
You’ve seen first-hand how overwhelming and stressful our lives can be. Believe me, it’s not easy managing all aspects of your grandchild’s daily living – including personal needs, therapy, and medical appointments – while balancing work and family responsibilities.
I’m sure there have been times when you wanted to step in but didn’t quite know how to help. And I wasn’t comfortable asking. Well, I want you to know that your grandchild could really benefit from having a wonderful, caring, loving, and patient person like you being more involved in his life. And please don’t feel that you need to have a Master’s degree in Special Education to help. Your unconditional love, hard-earned wisdom, and years of experience raising kids will do just fine. After all, I turned out OK.
And, a calming influence would be great, especially now as a new and hectic school season is about to begin.
This is a busy time for all students, but it can be very overwhelming for children with special needs. With new teachers, therapists, classmates, subjects, schedules, and activities, your extra support and attention will make a real difference for your grandchild.
So, I’ve jotted down some simple tips I thought would be useful. And, since you’ve always taught me to share good ideas with others, I’ve opened up this letter to other grandparents who want to play a vital and proactive role in their grandchildren’s lives.
- Be part of the team
The first step is the easiest. Offer to help your grandson or granddaughter on a regular basis during the school year. Most children with special needs benefit from routines and structure. By spending personal time with your grandchild, even once every week or two for a few hours, you can reinforce the work being done in school with teachers and therapists.
- Manage your expectations
Even though you spend time with your grandchild, “working” together on specific goals and tasks may be a different story. It’s important to remember your grandchild’s disorder affects normal brain function, altering cognitive, communication and social skills, and physical abilities.
This condition may limit your grandchild’s ability to process information, understand his/her surroundings, and learn new things. He/she may have a short attention span. Non-verbal children may find it difficult to express their needs and wants and become easily frustrated.
However, don’t let this discourage you. Be loving and patient and know that you’re making headway, even if it’s not as fast you might have hoped. Your grandchild will learn at his/her own pace.
Always talk with your son or daughter and let them know how it’s going. They can discuss the best ways to work with your grandchild and give you personal insight into his/her likes, dislikes, and behavior triggers.
- Start small and slowly
You can help your grandchild the most by knowing what he/she is working on in school and which areas need the most help. Most teachers and therapists don’t have much time to work individually with students, so the time you spend will benefit your grandchild greatly.
Begin slowly with small projects, broken down into small steps, to gain a sense of what works best. Reading is a good way to engage young children. Have them point to pictures or words in a book to test their understanding. For older children, colorful, animated iPad apps are a fun and effective way to learn new subjects and skills.
Many special needs children have poor fine motor skills, so simple activities, like helping them write their name or use a fork or spoon, can help immensely. Playing with a small, squeezable ball or putty can build strength and coordination. Walking in the park or around the neighborhood is a great way to build muscle strength and endurance.
And don’t forget the basics. Special needs children often need assistance with daily living skills. Helping your grandchild become self-sufficient and independent is key to a successful life.
- Have good times
All work and no play is no fun, so go on local outings. Visiting an aquarium or going to a movie is a great way to develop socialization skills. Some movie theatres offer special show times for families with children with special needs, where they can do whatever feels appropriate for them. Not only does this reduce stress, but it’s a great way to meet similar families in your area.
Spending time together doesn’t have to be a big event. The simplest thing, like showing your grandchild how to make pancakes, can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Take pictures on your cell phone of your activities. Show them to your grandchild so he/she can remember the fun times.
- Be a “GRAND” cheerleader
Keep in mind that every achievement, no matter how small, is something to rejoice about. Focus on what your grandchild can do and praise him/her constantly. Reward your grandchild with a favorite snack, toy or gift. Be proud and pat yourself on the back for being such a wonderful grandparent!
Above all, know that you are giving your grandchild (and me!) the gift of a lifetime: allowing my child to experience the same love, guidance, and support that I had from you.
So, Happy Grandparents Day! Thank you for everything you’ve done for us. As always, your help makes the future brighter for our whole family.
With much love, Deanna
Deanna Picon is the founder of Your Autism Coach, LLC, which provides personalized guidance, comprehensive support programs and seminars for parents of special needs children. Her personal mission is to empower parents as they advocate for their children, while balancing productive work and family lives. She received her BA in psychology and BA in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University. Deanna is a parent of a non-verbal, young man with autism. She is the author of “The Autism Parents’ Guide to Reclaiming Your Life.” Deanna can be reached at www.YourAutismCoach.com or @yourautismcoach.
This article was featured in Issue 52 – Celebrating the Voices of Autism