By David Paltin, Ph.D.
Over the past twenty years working with children and adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, there are a few key approaches that make a great amount of sense to me. Some of these things are based on seeing how things might not work out well as children reach adulthood, and other things on this list are based on what we know about how autistic conditions affect our experience of the world around us.
1) Don’t confuse problems with perspective-taking with selfishness. “You said we we’re going home first!”, “That’s my train and only I play with it!” These shrill complaints can get on parents’ nerves and draw angry looks at the park, but the truth is that children with autism may make these choices because of their problems with perspective taking. Children with spectrum conditions aren’t necessarily selfish, but may have an incredibly hard time seeing things through another person’s eyes. Think of it as the same as trying to solve a difficult math problem without the right tools, or trying to speak a foreign language you’ve never heard before, and you’ll understand the difficulty in perspective taking. Instead of labeling and punishing the tone of voice your child is using when he or she makes these statements, guide them toward the coping skills he or she will need to tolerate different viewpoints or needs that others express.
2) We’d all like to find the answer to what causes autistic spectrum conditions, but we shouldn’t grasp for single source explanations. Research is pointing in the direction of multiple causes of autism from a variety of sources. Some of these sources may involve genetic predisposition, and others might involve the combination of genetics and environmental factors. So, it’s probably not just a matter of food dyes, or water contaminants. Instead, we need to continue to understand the complexity of autism in its many forms.
3) We need to always stay focused five years into the future. Developmental differences like autism require planning and adaptation to meet the demands of each stage in life. Setting our sights toward the next developmental stage, whether we are thinking of activities like banking or shopping, or social behaviors such as reaching out to friends, helps us map out a path toward the future. Make a chart with some areas of daily functioning listed, and mark down where you would like to see your child five years from now.
4) We help our children learn to cope and adapt by giving them challenges they can handle. Many parents feel like they are doing a balancing act with their children, trying to reduce their stress from the world while they are also helping promote adaptation. Of course, there is no crime in helping a child with texture sensitivity find a softer shirt, or allowing a child with a script in their minds to have some time to speak their script out loud in play. But we also need to help our children come to terms with lives that require adaptation. By the time our children are ready to move further out into the world, we need to at least help them develop good ways of coping with changes that are demanded of them. By giving them structured, reasonable challenges, we can coach them on how to react and to stay steady until they are able to change.
5) It isn’t an option to forget about our own stress until our kids grow up. Parents of children, teens, and adults with autism know a kind of stress that other parents may not be able to understand. Our children sometimes react to our attempts to support and help them in a way that makes us feel ineffective or unable to soothe them. This stress leads to a higher than average divorce rate, parent burn-out, and other serious family problems. Participating in opportunities to talk to other parents as well as continuing to allow some time to pursue hobbies that interest us help keep us charged for the difficult times we often face.