Parenting: young child
Parenting a young child with autism can feel stressful. Your child might have behaviors that put a strain on your family, but these aren’t your or your child’s fault. Your child simply needs discipline, support, and guidance, and using a positive parenting approach is best.
First, understand your child’s autism
Autism affects the way your child’s brain works and how they behave, communicate, and experience the world. There are some common signs of autism, but it is a spectrum of behaviors, and everybody with autism is different.
Some children display very few autistic behaviors while others have more. Sometimes these look like bad behavior, but it’s not always something your child can control. Learn as much as you can about autism and know how it affects your child. That way, you can focus on exactly what your child needs.
Embrace your child
Some of your child’s behaviors might look odd to other people, but you don’t need to stop them or fix them. As long as your child isn’t hurting themselves or others, embrace their quirks and their interests.
Remind yourself that it’s not a tantrum
Your child might find some situations overwhelming. That’s because autism makes it hard for your child to adjust to change, and it causes sensitivity to the way things taste, smell, sound, and feel.
Your child might act out when you’re in public places or when they’re stressed. They might scream or hit and bite, but for a young child with autism, this isn’t naughtiness. It’s what’s often called a meltdown.
Meltdowns can happen because changes make them anxious or they become totally overwhelmed by the sounds and smells around them and they lose control. Rather than get frustrated and stressed, remind yourself that they aren’t doing it on purpose and adjust your expectations.
Know their triggers
If your child has lots of meltdowns or reacts with chaotic behavior a lot, learn the triggers. Keep a diary of when your child gets overwhelmed and see if you find patterns. It might be a certain time of day or when you change the routine throughout the day.
Once you know the triggers, do what you can to lower them. If noises are too much, try noise-canceling headphones. If changes in your routine are an issue, use consistency. Keep your schedule the same as much as possible and use visual tools like pictures and stories to show what’s coming next.
Your child will usually show you signs that they’re becoming overwhelmed by what’s happening around them. They might start:
- Asking the same questions again and again
- Other stimming behaviors
Stimming is the repetitive behavior that your child with autism does to calm and regulate their body. They might stim more when they’re stressed, which can be a sign a meltdown is coming. Watch for signs and step in early. Distract your child or move to a calm area and use soothing techniques like fidget toys or music.
Being proactive and paying attention to your child’s behavior can help you avoid problems before they start. You won’t avoid all meltdowns or problems, but it will set you both up for success and help manage stress and challenging behavior.
Use positive reinforcement
With autism, your child doesn’t pick up on things the way you do and might not understand you’re upset. You also can’t discipline some behaviors away because they are part of living with autism, not bad behavior. Instead, use positive parenting to encourage more of the behavior you want to see.
Autism makes it hard for kids to understand what you mean. They often take what you say literally, and they also don’t always understand feelings and can’t tell when you’re angry or irritated. You can avoid a lot of frustration by giving clear instructions and explaining what you want. Use short sentences and don’t overwhelm children with too much information.
It’s easy to focus on your child’s stressful or overwhelming behaviors and overlook what they do well. But praise builds confidence and shows your child that positive behavior gets positive reactions and benefits. Offer praise freely, especially during tasks that are usually hard.
Use an incentive system
Rewards are another positive tool. You can encourage the behaviors you want to see by rewarding them when they happen. Some families use screen time or treats or other things as rewards, and others use tokens. When they earn so many tokens, they can spend them for a specific reward. Whatever you use, give it right away.
Redirection is when you interrupt your child’s behavior and tell them what to do instead. For example, if your child is hitting, you can tell them to put their hands down. Or you can move them to another activity that uses both hands. This is a simple way to guide them to better behavior.
Therapy can help your child cope with their disorder. It can teach them skills they don’t have and can help you understand how to discipline and help your child. Take advantage of local programs and resources for children with autism and family caregivers.
Also, prioritize your self-care, too. Parenting a young child with autism can take a toll on your mental health. Look for respite workers who can watch your child or do some therapy work while you take a break. Or ask your partner or a friend to babysit for an afternoon while you get some time away.You might also benefit from a parent support group where you can talk to other parents and get advice. If you feel stressed and have trouble coping, talk to a counselor. They can help you learn new ways to cope with your feelings and reactions.
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Ambitious about Autism: "Behaviours that challenge," "Repetitive behaviors and stimming."
National Autistic Society: "Communication tips," "Distressing behaviour: a guide for all audiences," "Meltdowns — a guide for all audiences."
National Health Institute National Institute of Mental Health: "Autism Spectrum Disorder."
National Health Service: "Help for families of autistic people," "How to help with your child's behavior," "Newly diagnosed: things to help," "What is autism?"
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