by Elizabeth Verdick, coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
April is National Autism Awareness Month. April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. But as we parents of children on the spectrum know, autism is every day, 24/7. We love our children, we’re working hard to help them face their challenges—and we need help.
What can you do? It can be as simple as supporting a friend, neighbor, or colleague whose child has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
1. Be a good listener: Sometimes, the topic of autism is a thorny one. Parents might be confused about the diagnosis, hesitant to answer questions, or anxious about their child’s future. Be a ready, willing, sensitive listener. Ask how the child is doing in general, instead of asking specific questions about ASD. Once the parent opens up about the topic, express empathy—and keep listening. Certain questions are very difficult for the parent to answer; for example, the child’s prognosis. Sometimes, all we really want is for someone to listen without giving advice, no matter how well intentioned. Put simply: Just be there.
2. Avoid comparisons: Maybe you’ve heard the quote, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” Each person on the spectrum is an individual, with his or her own skills, challenges, personality, and temperament. Honor that. There’s an impulse to lump these children together and talk about them as if they’re the same—but the truth is, they’re all uniquely themselves. Resist telling the parent what you’ve observed in another child with autism, unless asked.
3. Remain involved: Many parents of a child who has autism or Asperger’s find that, over time, we become isolated. Even if we’ve found support among the ASD community, our children still need exposure to “typical” children of all ages. Invite us over for playdates or outings. Short, structured social events can be helpful for everyone—our child benefits and so does yours, because together we learn about differences and acceptance.
4. Refrain from judging: As parents of a child with special needs, we learn not to take anything for granted. We soon discover that getting our children to try new foods, sit quietly at the table, ask questions, make conversation, or behave in social settings can be difficult. The truth is, most of us have had embarrassing moments in public when our child screamed, resisted, or bolted. And we’ve gotten dirty looks from people who assume we’re “bad” parents who need to teach our children some “discipline.” Becoming educated about autism is a mind- and eye-opener. We need your support, not your judgment.
5. Offer your time: Daily living is a greater challenge for those of us with children on the spectrum. We love our children, but our efforts to help them learn and grow may take a large toll on us. Getting some time to ourselves—for a nap, a walk, or a coffee date with our spouse—is challenging. Often, we can’t simply hire a neighborhood teenager to babysit. We need a trusted adult to interact with our child, who may have communication or behavioral difficulties. A break helps recharge and renew us so we can get back to caring for our child. Giving an hour of your time this April—or any time of the year—is a wonderful way to support a family dealing with ASD.
How will you work to make a difference for kids and families who deal with autism spectrum disorders on a daily basis? What support have others given to you?
Elizabeth Verdick has been writing books since 1997, the year her daughter was born. Her two children are the inspiration for nearly everything she writes. Previously she shared her personal story, Telling My Son He Has Autism, on this blog. These days she writes books for babies, toddlers, teens, and every age in between. She especially loves creating new board book series—the first books in the Happy Healthy Baby® series are now available. The Toddler Tools® series helps young children and their parents cope with those tough times and transitions that happen every day (like naptime and bedtime). The Best Behavior® series helps toddlers reach new milestones and improve their day-to-day behavior. Elizabeth also enjoys getting the chance to look at the funny side of life in the Laugh and Learn® series, which helps kids ages 8 to 13 get a handle on the social-emotional skills they’re developing throughout the elementary and middle school years.
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