There will be difficult moments while raising a child with autism that a parent will find hard to deal with. However, there are certain situations that can be resolved with patience and knowledge of autism and how it can affect someone. By understanding what the child is feeling when they are becoming difficult or troublesome, it’s easier to focus on making the child feel calm and safe, which will resolve the situation.
It is easy to get frustrated and want to blame the child, but this will not help and will only make the situation much worse.
Below are a few situations that you might come across when interacting with children who have autism, and how you can diffuse these situations to make it easier for everyone involved.
Autism and sleep
Sleep is incredibly important for any child, but for parents of children with autism, bedtime can become a real hassle. Kids with autism have very sensitive nervous systems, which means that variations in their day can make it hard for them to fall asleep. You should try to avoid letting your children have caffeine during the day or night, as it could keep them up past bed time. It also is not a good idea to give them any chocolate or other foods high in sugar at night before bed. If they usually have dessert after dinner, try to encourage naturally sugar-free options. That will allow them to keep their normal routine without the adverse effects sugar can have on their sleep.
Experts warn that while sleep disruptions are common among children with autism, parents should not cater to the irregular behavior. Many parents whose child gets up extra early or refuses to fall asleep simply let them start their day or watch television. This will disrupt their internal clock and lead to further sleep problems. If they get up before they normally do, lead them back to bed and try and help them fall back asleep (if you read them a story before bed or sing a lullaby, try that).
Another tip that parents find helpful is implementing a clock rule. This is when you put a clock in your child's room, and show them a picture with their clock having a certain time on it (whenever they normally get up). Tell your child that they can only start their day if their clock matches the picture. This will help them keep a more consistent sleep schedule and will help their mood as a result.
Autism and food sensitivity
Children with autism are notorious for being very picky eaters. This is simply another sensory issue that makes them sensitive to certain tastes, smells, textures, or visual aesthetics. Most parents simply stick to the few foods that they can get their children to eat. While this might seem like a good idea to keep your child comfortable, it can also lead to them having a less than stellar diet and having a hard time eating anywhere other than your home. What some parents don't realize is that the first step is not to get your child to eat new food. The key is to build their tolerance to it simply being on the table. If you want to introduce your child to a new dish, make something you know they like and then make a smaller portion of the new dish. Simply having it on the table will get them used to the visuals of it. They might want to feel and play with the new food. While this is normally considered bad manners, it is important for them to get used to the feel and texture of the food. Eventually, when they are ready, they will try and eat the new dish. This takes patience and time, but it will expand their palette and make dinner time more enjoyable for everyone.
Approaching a meltdown
As for any child, meltdowns can be unpredictable. They begin to scream, cry, hold their ears, or any other number of different responses that signal the child's displeasure. One common misconception is that a meltdown and temper tantrum are synonymous terms. They are not. A temper tantrum is a child attempting to get his or her way. A meltdown happens when a child gets so upset that they feel completely overwhelmed. This is not something they can control, and simply telling them to stop will likely do nothing.
Many meltdowns are actually preventable if you know what will cause them. Sensory overload is the most common cause of a meltdown in children with autism. Crowds, loud noises, pungent smells, or long and difficult trips will all more than likely cause the child to feel overwhelmed. You and your family may want to go to a state fair or amusement park for the whole day, but you have to consider whether your child will last that long without being overwhelmed. It is important to stay realistic about trips and other excursions.
If a meltdown does happen, the best thing to do is hold your child and try and soothe them in whatever way you can. Holding them makes them feel safe and can ease some of the fear that meltdowns may bring. Trying to talk them down in a soothing voice will help much more than trying to scold them or discipline them for something that they can't control. Sometimes taking them to a quiet and secluded place could help them as well. It is common to receive some negative attention from bystanders who watch the meltdown happen, but you shouldn't let this make you feel bad. Those people simply do not understand what parenting a child with autism is like. Although you should try and be courteous and remove your child from a situation if it may bother others, at the end of the day your and your child's well-being is more important than the "inconvenience" of someone having to listen to a screaming child.
Dealing with aggressive behavior
Sometimes children with autism will lash out with certain aggressive behaviors like spitting, hitting, pushing, etc. Sometimes the behaviors can be self-injuring like hair pulling or biting their nails. These behaviors are obviously unacceptable and need to be changed, but knowing how to properly do that can be a little tricky.
There could be an underlying reason that a child with autism will get particularly aggressive. Sensory overload could also be the culprit here, as the overwhelming feeling could make the child exhibit violent behaviors. It also could be due to the child being frustrated that they can't communicate their needs effectively (something that most children with autism struggle with).
These types of behaviors obviously must be addressed. The child must know that what they are doing is unacceptable, so move them away from the situation and explain that what they are doing is not okay. You should also try to explain to them why what they are doing is not okay to reemphasize your point. If you still struggle with a child showing aggressive tendencies, you should consider seeing a behaviorist. These professionals will discover why these behaviors are occurring, and can help you and your child figure out how to work together.
Knowing what children are going through and why they behave the way they do is the key to solving problems and overcoming difficult situations. For more information on autism resources, developments, and tips, be sure to check out the rest of our website.