Parenting Kids on the Spectrum

There is always magic to be found in a child, and children on the autism spectrum have a very special type of magic. With their laser-beam focus, ability to locate the most beautiful non sequitur in every moment, and their creative (and very often gifted) mind, the magic of parenting a child with autism is available every day.

As parents of children with autism, sometimes we get so focused on the intense job of trying to help our children be functional, that this formula for magical moments eludes us. Our hyper-focus on helping our child survive in the world drowns out our enjoyment of the delights and pleasures of our children’s unique, and often fun, view of the world.

Yes, raising a child with autism is serious business, parenting on steroids even, but there is always power in appreciating the gifts of our children. Parents of children on the autism spectrum often feel exhausted from the constant stress, overwhelmed and worried about the future, and don’t feel the freedom to experience the lighter side. Autism is part of our children, but it doesn’t define them any more than being left-handed, red-headed, or blue-eyed. Each child has a unique personality, talents, and gifts which come in a bundle with some challenges. When we spend equal focus appreciating the positives, it can give us much needed relief from the business of trying to cajole our children into “normalcy.”

Focusing on the positives has the added bonus of bringing us closer to our children and helping them to recognize their strengths, too. My son can be so creative and he has a great sense of humor. I love to hear him laugh – it’s therapeutic for both of us when he laughs. We play a silly game when we are driving in the car that we call the “name game” where we adjust the names and definitions of things. For example, an airplane that is covered in fur would be a “hairplane,” and an airplane dressed up for Halloween would be a “scareplane.” An airplane that likes to take risks would be a “dareplane.” A ghost that likes to look in a mirror would be a “reflecto-plasm,” which is a name game alternative for ectoplasm. You get the idea. We have had so much fun with this game over the years!

Sharing these lighter moments helps to balance out the more complicated aspects of raising a child with autism. When I know that my son will need some support to comply with a request that he does not like, I use the C.A.L.M Method, which is a 4-step process to supporting children with autism. “C” stands for “check your own emotions.” We need to be calm and in control of ourselves, because our kids cue off of us. “A” stands for “assess the child’s sensory needs.” When children with autism are neurologically calm, they have more neurological bandwidth available for processing the world, which increases the likelihood that the child will be able to comply with a request that they find difficult (which could be as small as brushing your teeth on the morning). The “L” stands for “using linear language.” Abstract concepts are often confusing to those with autism, so speaking in specific, clear, linear terms, such as using a list, can really aid the understanding of what is being asked. The “M” stands for motivation, which is a challenge for many individuals on the spectrum. People with autism are motivated differently than the rest of us. Instead of responding to intrinsic, social motivation such as “this is the way everyone else is doing it,” we need to provide explicit extrinsic motivators, like chicken nuggets from McDonald’s. God bless McDonald’s for their chicken nuggets, they support so many of us by motivating our children on the autism spectrum. It always feels good to appreciate the little things!

Jeanne Beard, founder of the National Autism Academy and author of “Autism & The Rest Of Us”, has decades of experience in the trenches with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the people diagnosed with them. In addition to her essential life experience creating functional, nurturing, and balanced relationships with those on the spectrum, Jeanne was mentored by clinical expert Timothy Wahlberg, PhD during the writing of his clinical guide “Finding the Gray: Understanding and Thriving in the Black and White World of Autism and Asperger’s.” Through her incredible insight into the thoughts, experiences, and challenges of those on the spectrum AND of the rest of us, Jeanne builds a bridge to hope and a better future for us all.

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