Raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) requires stamina, support and new skills. With World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, here are some steps that can help you.
Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have a neurological and developmental condition that affects their thinking, problem-solving and learning, leaving some gifted, and others seriously impaired. Parenting such children, and helping them develop to the best of their potential, is a tough task but can be rewarding.
Find support early
Connect with an organisation such as Autism South Africa, where you can find resources and share experiences with parents and experts who have travelled this road – and who can give guidance, reassurance or a shoulder to lean on.
Have a treatment plan
Every child is different, and is differently affected by ASD. The goal is to draw up a plan that best addresses your child’s specific needs, and your family and financial circumstances, says Sandy Klopper, national director of Autism South Africa. “Each child requires a unique intervention plan.” There are numerous options today, from speech and behaviour therapies to physical, occupational and nutritional therapies. Learn all you can about autism (keep to reputable websites linked to established medical or academic institutions). Talk to autism experts (through your health care provider or Autism SA), and ask lots of questions.
Have a structured schedule
Children with ASD do best with consistency, says Klopper. Try to keep regular times for meals, classes, therapy and bed. Find out what therapy entails, and extend what happens there to what happens at home for continuity and reinforcement.
Be sure to include time for fun and play with them
Find things that make them come out of their shell, smile or laugh, and aim to include these even for a short time each day.
Reward positive behaviour
Children with ASD often have sensory issues and may resist being held or cuddled. Show appreciation using things they enjoy, from time with a favourite plaything to a sticker.
Be understanding about negative behaviour
If children with ASD misbehave or throw tantrums, it’s mostly the result of frustration at being unable to convey what they want or the emotions they feel (anger, stress, fear). Sensory sensitivities can trigger “bad behaviour” – try to work out which sounds, sights, smells, movements or tactile sensations set off your child, and help them avoid these. Cultivate staying calm, firm and reassuring.
Look for non-verbal cues to help you communicate with them
Take note of the sounds or gestures they make when they want something or are tired, stressed or hungry, so you can respond before frustration erupts.
Show your child that you love and accept them as they are
Don’t compare them to other children; appreciate their quirks and celebrate successes, however small.
Make time for yourself, your relationship and any other children
A child with ASD can take a great deal of time and energy, but if you become worn out and your relationship crumbles, they too can suffer, as can siblings. Have a support system and use it. If need be, get counseling for yourself to stave off anxiety, depression or burnout.
Don’t give up
However difficult things may get, says Klopper, with consistency and care, “your child can make progress in the long term, and have a positive and productive life ahead”.
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