11 Ways to Make Your Autistic Child's Life Easier
Loving that autistic child of yours with all your heart is a wonderful, precious experience. If you’re not autistic yourself, though, even the purest love won't help you understand how being autistic affects your child’s body, their senses, and how they interact with the world.
You don't want to inadvertently make your beloved child's life harder than it has to be, so please consider the advice below -- advice I’ve gleaned about autistic experiences, gathered during twelve years of listening to autistic people, professionals, and parents. Some of these factors are common knowledge in autism communities and circles, but others are really not talked about enough, and every last one bears repeating.
Photo Credit: Shannon Des Roches Rosa via Flickr.
If you want to do right by your autistic kid (or any autistic person, really), then please do your best to understand and respect these eleven factors about being autistic:
1) Processing Time: Almost every autistic person I know has their own rhythm and speed at which they process information. In my son's case, this means giving him a few beats to respond, rather than impatiently assuming he didn't understand what was said. Other processing scenarios include relying on captioning for fully comprehending videos or movies -- even for those who can hear -- or needing to record and re-listen to lectures. Disregarding processing needs can lead to autistic people having their abilities or comprehension grossly underestimated.
2) Visual and Auditory Processing: Autistic people often process visual and audio input faster, or with greater intensity. Sometimes this means "super hearing," as in being able to detect --and act on -- parents' whisperings about hidden cookies. Sometimes this means overhead lights flicker distractingly or painfully in ways non-autistic people don't notice. And sometimes, kids who can't screen out overwhelming sights or sounds on their own end up doing poorly or even melting down in classroom or other settings, because they're using all their energy to cope with torrential sensory input -- instead of learning, or being able to communicate, or picking up on social cues and exchanges. Providing noise-canceling headphones, using glasses with colored lenses, and using non-fluorescent lights are just a few options to make home and classroom environments more autistic-friendly.
3) Sensitivity to Barometric Pressure: I don't need to consult Weather.com or my Dark Sky app to know if rain is approaching, because my son will usually have already let me know that his head hurts due to the barometric pressure change. Many of my autistic friends have also reported being more sensitive to barometric pressure than their non-autistic peers; in some cases, the pressure change can even trigger migraines. So if your child gets distressed any time a storm comes in, consider that they may be in pain rather than scared, and take good care of them accordingly.
4) Undiagnosed Heartburn (or Other Medical Conditions): If your child has a hard time going to or staying asleep, or is going through an agitated patch in general, consider that they may have heartburn. Heartburn hurts like hell, gets worse upon lying down -- and is usually easy to treat with over-the-counter meds (after a consultation with a doctor, of course). Treating my son's heartburn has genuinely improved his ability to fall asleep, as well as his quality of life -- and is but one example of how what is dismissed or assumed to be autistic "behavior" can actually be a reaction to an undiagnosed medical condition.
5) Stimming: Flapping hands, flicking a straw, chewing on a silicone tube, fiddling with hair -- these are all examples of the kinds of "stimming" that can help autistic kids entertain themselves, regulate themselves, or cope with being overwhelmed -- and which serve beneficial and legitimate purposes. But since stims can be perceived as odd or undesirable by non-autistic people, great effort is often put into blocking or "extinguishing" such stims (and not just in autistic kids, by the way -- behavioral suppression is now also being used for kids with ADHD.) Healthy stimming needs to be understood and accepted, which is different from evaluating repetitive self-injury, distress, or aggression.
6) Echolalia: Autistic kids will often repeat phrases, words, or scripts. Echolalia can be functional communication, similar to the way a subset of Gen X-ers considers lines from the movie Caddyshack perfectly acceptable responses during casual conversation. Echolalia can also be a form of verbal stimming: it can be reassuring and self-soothing to repeat phrases either to one's self, or in a call-and-response fashion with other people. Yet parents, teachers, and therapists often try to squelch or redirect autistic echolalia. Just say no. And then say it again!
7) A Serious Need for Chill Time: Autistic people get overwhelmed by the world. So when your kid comes home from school, an outing, or even after spending time with you, be sure to give them all the downtime they need. Give them space to process, reintegrate themselves, stim, watch favorite videos -- however they indicate to you that they best decompress. This is especially crucial for our kids, as autistic kids tend to get highly scheduled, with therapies and other intensively socially activities that require more energy than is expected of non-autistic peers, so their energy reserves can get completely drained.
8) Face Blindness, or Prosopagnosia: Face blindness is a real thing for many autistic people, though its degree can vary. (Agnosia in general is a thing, actually -- difficulty differentiating between shapes, smells, buildings, individual cats.) So try to help your child compensate: Teach them to recognize people by traits besides faces, and be aware of situations that may stress them out, like meeting up with friends or acquaintances, or recognizing teachers or aides. Help them come up with a strategy that works best for friends or family to approach them, like having the other person always say, “Hey, it’s me, [Name].”
9) Sensitivity to Tone of Voice: Autistic kids can be incredibly sensitive to other people's emotions, sometimes absorbing and even magnifying them. This means that keeping your tone of voice neutral or positive when speaking to your autistic child is a worthwhile effort. What you many consider a "firm" kind voice may be perceived as hurtful and angry by an autistic person who vibrates at a high emotional frequency, so do your best to practice a calm, comforting communication style with your child.
10) Simplify Their Space: People who get easily overwhelmed by visual and audio input, may have agnosia, and need chill time to process, often appreciate bedroom and classroom environments that are soothingly spare and uncluttered. If your child has a difficult time creating or tending such a space on their own due to common autistic co-occuring attention, executive functioning, or other factors, then do your best to help them organize and maintain these spaces as they prefer.
11) Need for Respite: If your autistic child is indeed an emotional sponge, they will need period breaks from the primary emotion emitters in their lives -- their family members. Do your best to make sure they get those breaks, however you can and however they desire -- such as giving your child space, taking them for silent car rides, or having them spend time with a respite worker or other trusted, appreciated person who is not you. You'll both benefit.
Every autistic person is unique, which means these eleven factors may not ring true for every autistic person -- even though these factors are all incredibly common. This list is also not meant to be comprehensive (please, add your own considerations in the comments). Consider this a starting point, a check list, a mini-guide for parents to consider autistic matters and perspectives they may not have known about, and which may help them and their kids live the Best Lives Possible.