Easy Ways For Parents to Better Connect With Kids With Autism
You have a child with autism. You’re one of the one in 59 families* in the United States who gets to greet the unique daily challenges and joys that comes from raising a child with a different set of needs. In my time working as a researcher in the clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital Department of Psychiatry, and then as the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Mightier, I’ve noticed a commonality of kids with autism who thrive. They have curious and resilient parents who somehow face down the exhaustion of their families and strive to find every possible tool that can help their kids, and set a winning example for kids who are constantly growing.
Here are five things I have learned during my experience. I hope these tips are helpful for you.
1. Kids with autism are kids first
Very early in my education, I said something at lab meeting that most people might find innocuous: “autistic kids.” Yet a room of 20 fell perfectly silent, and I was pierced by the surprising intensity of many glares. I was kindly corrected, “kids with autism,” because these children are kids first. It would take me a bit more time to truly understand the lesson, but as I did, I came to be equally grated by the phrase “autistic kids.”
When you put a child’s childhood first, you are embracing them for who they are. Kids, in general, are not little adults. They learn by experiencing and playing in the world around them. They’re individuals, not some monolithic whole that comes when we assume there is a single answer for “autistic kids.” And, we don’t want to deprive a child with autism that experience just because their brain happens to be processing social cues a bit differently than others. Rather, we want to take their natural drive to play, learn, and explore and turn them into ways to address their unique needs. We must to take their need to feel safe and loved and craft experiences that are accepting of their differences rather than stigmatizing.
2. Play on the floor
I give this advice to parents in general, but it feels doubly important for kids with autism.
Imagine if you found yourself on some island where everyone was a professional basketball player. They tower over you, and you crane your neck all the time just to see them. Now imagine that they communicate their ideas to each other by playing basketball. You feel like you have something to say. The only problem is that the NBA players, by virtue of both being very tall and playing basketball every day, find your communication to be awkward and your social interaction severely limited. So, your attempt to communicate is futile, and you feel embarrassed for even trying. But you can’t tell anyone this, because you’re no good at basketball. So, you deal with it alone.
This metaphor is a bit like the life of a child with autism. The NBA players start out with a physical advantage when it comes to communication — their height makes their mode of communication easier. There’s nothing wrong with you, but it’s still hard to interact in that world. Likewise, kids with autism process social cues differently than most people.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does make communication hard. The feelings of isolation, anxiety, and embarrassment that might come with that can still exist. After all, kids with autism are still kids. Fortunately, you have the power to help them out. You can get on the floor, and simply physically play with them at their level. When you do this, you’re telling a child you value their perspective, rather than telling them to embrace your own.
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3. Embrace failing
All kids can be an emotional roller coaster. But when kids have a hard time relating and interacting with the world around them, then things can get messy. Part of childhood is sorting out this messiness. How can we learn about our emotions if we’re stripped of any opportunity to work them out?
As parents, our job is to help find a productive balance, and it is hard. Frustration and anger are brain building moments. So, when words fail kids and tempers flare, it helps to keep perspective. Is everyone safe? Make sure that no one is going to get hurt. Will time help? Most outbursts and frustrations will pass, and on the other end, a kid has built some awareness and confidence in their self-soothing ability.
Waiting out a meltdown makes most people squirm, especially in public. However, kids with autism can have some unique challenges and persevering that mean helping them exit the situation is the right move. I worked in a very prominent children’s hospital that put very cool color changing lights in the elevator, which unfortunately served as a trigger for some kids with autism. Fortunately, the lights were turned off. When those triggers come up, the best course of action might be to avoid it best you can.
4. Celebrate small wins
Kids are always growing, and as they find their way they invariably find small successes. Every kid is finding new achievements every day, and one of the most enjoyable parts of being a parent is being there to celebrate them with them. Successes don’t have to be large or macro; they aren’t just getting the “A” or winning the softball tournament. Getting in the elevator, or finding your way around any sticky challenge is a win. Lots of small wins quickly add up to big wins, and kids build self-esteem when they know you’re celebrating their effort right there with them.
5. Take time for yourself
If there’s one thing that pretty much every parenting advice I’ve ever read gets wrong, it’s this. If you’re stressed or tired, that will rub off on everyone around you, including your child. It is absolutely okay to embrace activities for your family that gives you some spare moments to recharge. In my family, that is screen time. Even better is if the screen time can serve some positive end, like building emotional or academic skills. But even that isn’t necessary. Being able to cook dinner in peace makes everyone in my house happier.
*according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Jason Kahn, PhD, is a dad, researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, Co-founder & Chief Science Officer at Mightier. Mightier uses the power of bioresponsive games to help kids build and practice calming skills to meet real-world challenges.
This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism