If you are the parent, guardian, or caregiver for an autistic child, you are not alone. As many as 1 in 44 children show signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by the time they reach eight years old. If you recently found out that a child you care for is autistic, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Naturally, you’ll want to prepare yourself to meet the inevitable ups and downs that come with caring for an autistic child. But where do you begin?
This article is intended to help you prepare for the tasks associated with autistic care for children. It includes an overview of how autism affects children, what you can expect when caring for a child with autism, and how to help someone with autism, including what you can do to ensure that the child under your care is able to thrive in a safe and supportive environment.
How Autism Affects Children
Autism is called a spectrum disorder due to its variations in type and severity of symptoms. A developmental disorder, ASD characteristics include social, behavioral, and communication challenges.
A child diagnosed with ASD may have problems interacting with others. Many engage in repetitive behaviors, while others may have limited interests. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. There is no “one size fits all” to an ASD diagnosis. Each child is unique and their autism may manifest in one, some, or all of the following symptoms at varying degrees:
- Inability or reluctance to make eye contact
- Difficulty with verbal expressions of needs or feelings
- Feeling distressed when routines are interrupted
- Not being able to enjoy activities such as playing
- Unresponsive to others seeking to interact with them
- Intense interest in or focus on certain activities or subjects
- High sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as light, taste, and smell
- Difficulty relating to others’ experiences or seeing a situation from another’s point of view
- Tendency to engage in repetitive actions such as rocking or flapping hands (referred to as stimming behaviors)
Depending on the severity of symptoms, an autistic child may be able to grow into a self-sufficient high-functioning adult, may need lifetime care and support, or may fall somewhere in between these two. Experts agree that regardless of where the child falls on the autism spectrum, early intervention can go a long way in helping to improve an autistic child’s quality of life and development. Along with medication and therapy, maintaining a supportive environment is key to helping an autistic child develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially.
How To Care for an Autistic Child
While each child with ASD is different, there are some common methods that can help you care for an autistic child. From creating a safe space to educating yourself, there are a few ways to make life easier for a child with autism. Tips include:
Pay close attention to your child’s particular sensitivities and triggers
Nobody is in a better position to understand your child than you are. If you’re a caregiver, pay close attention to the child in your care. When it comes to how to help autism-affected children, it’s important to understand their environmental and social triggers and stressors so you can anticipate and stave off negative interactions and responses. For example, many autistic children are hypersensitive to sound, light, touch, taste, and/or smell. Others might seem unaffected by certain sensory stimuli.
Pay attention to what tactile or other sensations trigger your child and cause a disruptive behavior reaction. Know their stressors and identify what calms your child. Their success depends on your knowledge and support. Use this knowledge to advocate for your child as you take an active role in all treatment decisions.
2. Stay positive and focus on good behaviors
Talk about and reward good behavior. Be generous with compliments — autistic children respond best to positive reinforcement. Conversely, try to ignore attention-getting or other forms of negative behavior. Many children with ASD will act up in order to get you to focus on them. If you ignore this type of behavior and instead acknowledge and complement good behavior, you’ll go a long way in helping your child learn better coping mechanisms, which can help set them up for life as an adult.
3. Practice unconditional love and acceptance
It is important to commit to meeting your child where they are. In other words, avoid comparing them to other children or piling too many expectations on them. Instead, accept your child exactly as they are and offer them your unconditional love. It’s important to show them you care. Autism is already challenging for your child, make sure they know they can rely on you.
Even though many children with ASD have trouble expressing their feelings, they do understand when you express love for them and they need to feel your love and acceptance as much as any other child. With an ASD child, go out of your way to express your genuine interest and support often. This, more than any other tip or intervention or piece of advice, will help your child become the best version of themself that they can be.
4. Never stop learning about ASD
When it comes to autism care, knowledge is power. The more educated you are about ASD, the more likely it is you will be able to handle the challenges in caring for your autistic child. Read as much as you can about ASD. Explore the different treatment options and ask questions until you are satisfied that you’ve received the answers you need. Keep up with the latest research and insist your child’s care team does the same.
Use this knowledge to create an autism treatment plan that is tailored to your child’s specific needs. Remember, you know your child best. As you formulate a personalized plan for your child, ask yourself the following questions:
- What type of plan will take my child’s interests and strengths into consideration?
- How much structure does my child need and will this plan meet those needs?
- Is the plan predicated on a system of positive reinforcement?
- How involved will each of my child’s caregivers be in implementing the plan?
5. Create a structured environment
Autistic children thrive on routine. Set up a schedule and, to the extent possible, stick to it. Establish regular times to wake up and get dressed. Try to establish a routine that includes consistent times when meals will be eaten, when your child will go to school and when they will arrive home. Set up a schedule for attending therapy sessions, for recreation, and for bed.
Of course, it’s impossible to avoid all disruptions in an established routine. Try to compensate for these inevitable changes by preparing your child in advance when possible. By alerting your child to a routine change, anticipating potential reactions, and preparing yourself and the rest of the family and care team for the possible fallout from a break in routine, you’ll go a long way in reducing the level of stress your child will experience. You’ll also curtail adverse reactions from others that could exacerbate the situation.
6. Consider in-home care for an autistic child
Not every parent can be a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver who can focus exclusively on the needs of their child with ASD. Many parents have other children to nurture and care for, and many work outside the home to support their families and further their careers.
Don’t let the fact that you can’t devote every waking hour to the care and nurturing of your autistic child add to your stress. There are great options for assistance, including finding an au pair agency with experience providing home care for an autistic child. When looking for the right full-time live-in caregiver, make a list of what you want and need, as well as available resources for finding the right au pair for your family. Questions to ask include:
- Does the caregiver have experience working with similar ASD children?
- If there are other children in the household, will the au pair know how to juggle the responsibilities of making sure everyone gets attention, care, and support?
- Does the au pair share your family’s values, interests, and lifestyle?
- Have they been vetted through a reputable agency for experience, character, and skills?
7.Make sure all caregivers practice consistency
Since your child is going to be interacting with other caregivers — including, for example, teachers, therapists, babysitters, a nanny or au pair — on a regular basis, it’s important that all of you are on the same page when it comes to your expectations and how you communicate with your child. Make sure there is consistency among all adults and older children regarding how you reward or discourage certain behaviors and how you maintain their routines.
Keep in mind that your child may not have an easy time transitioning from one caregiver to another. It’s up to you and the entire family and caregiving team to maintain the consistency your child needs to make sense of their environment.
8. Dedicate a space for your child to relax and unwind
Every child needs time to unwind, relax, and play. While the concept of play may look different for your autistic child, it doesn’t mean their need for “me time” is any less important. Start by creating a unique space in your home that is designed for their safety and security. How you set this space up will depend on your child’s specific needs. For instance, you also might want to mark off this personal area with tape or use other visual clues to help your child recognize their personal break space and transition to play time.
If your child is prone to accidents or is at risk of injuring themselves, you’ll need to take the necessary steps to keep them safe. Survey the area and be sure to remove any objects or furniture that could be dangerous. You might also want to think about putting padding over flooring and other hard surfaces. The idea is to create an environment where your autistic child can just “be” — free from pressure to conform or meet outside expectations.
Taking Care Of Yourself
While your main focus might be on how to care for an autistic child, it’s also important to acknowledge that caring for your autistic child is demanding in both time and energy. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, tired, stressed, and burned out, you’re not alone.
Parents of special needs children often put their own needs last. This lack of self-care can lead to stress and depression, often making the situation worse and affecting your child. That is why it is of paramount importance that you take care of yourself.
Many parents of children with ASD have found success with the following tips:
- Find caregivers to share the responsibilities of caring for your ASD child. Many parents of all special needs children — including autistic children — find that having a regular or live-in nanny or caregiver can help them maintain a balanced life and, ultimately, be able to meet their family’s needs in a healthier and less stressful way.
- Join a Parents of ASD Children support group. There’s strength in numbers, validation in sharing your struggles, and listening to the ups and downs of others in a similar situation. Autism support groups are a great place to share information, give and receive advice, and find the all-important emotional support that every parent of a special needs child needs.
- Find a counselor or therapist. We all need some emotional help and guidance from time to time. This is especially the case for often exhausted parents of autistic children. Just having an empathetic professional to talk to can go a long way in helping you find strength and learn the coping mechanisms you need to embrace life’s challenges so you can truly enjoy the good times.
- Seek out respite care when needed. Whether it’s for a few hours or even a few days or weeks, every caregiver needs a break. Sometimes the best decision you can make is to put your child, temporarily, in the safe and loving hands of a trusted caregiver so you can take a break to recharge your own physical, emotional, and physical batteries. With just one day of worry-free rest and relaxation, you just might find that your coping skills not only improve, but you reconnect with the joy of raising and caring for the special child you love so much.
Find a Caregiver for Autistic Children with Go Au Pair
As a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you know what your child’s care needs are and whether hiring a dedicated caregiver is in your family’s best interest. If you decide that your best option is to seek out an in-home caregiver, consider inviting an au pair to join your family.
Many families of special needs children find that a dedicated and experienced au pair is the best way to ensure their child receives the love and support they need at a cost they can afford.
With more than 30 years of experience providing quality in-home care options for parents of all kinds of children — including autistic children — Go Au Pair can help you find the perfect au pair for your child’s and your family’s needs. Contact us today to learn more about the benefits of inviting an au pair into your home.