April is National Autism Awareness Month. With 1 in 50 children in the U.S. diagnosed, chances are you know at least one family raising an autistic child. Mighty Mommy has 5 ways you can offer your help and support to families living with autism.
One in 50 school-aged kids is diagnosed with autism in the U.S.,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with boys four times more likely than girls to receive a diagnosis. This staggering statistic about the prevalence of autism in the United States hits close to home for many of us who either know a family friend dealing with the disorder or perhaps one of your own precious children is autistic.
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Although the nation has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month in April since the 1970s, because of the significant increase in newly diagnosed cases of autism, healthcare and special education providers are turning up the heat nationwide to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about this complex social disorder.
You may know a family with an autistic child but aren’t quite sure how to offer your support or even what kind of questions you should ask about their prognosis. I have personal experience with the world of autism so today, I’d like to share 5 ways on which you can reach out and get involved with families that are struggling to maintain as normal a life as possible while raising an autistic child.
What is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. According to Autism Speaks.org, these disorders cause difficulties in social interaction such as lack of interest in peers or other individuals, limited or no eye contact, and extreme difficulty engaging with groups in a social setting. Some autistic children have sensory issues where they are extremely sensitive to sound, touch, or other sensory stimulation, as well as exhibiting repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping, twirling, rocking, and head banging—just to name a few.
Though there is no known cause for autism, it is thought to be some type of abnormality in brain structure or function, and researchers are investigating a number of theories including the link between heredity, genetics, and medical problems.
See also: Coping with a Special Needs Diagnosis
Here are 5 ways you can help and support families with autism:
Tip #1: Make Yourself Available
Parents of children with autism need someone to listen and ask how they are doing. The diagnosis of autism can push parents and their kids into isolation because they get so wrapped up with treatment plans, activities, and therapy sessions they often don’t have time for much else. If you have a friend who is a parent of an afflicted child, let them know you are there and stay connected by inviting her out for lunch or over for a cup of tea so you can give her something else to focus on other than her child’s troubles. Let your friend take the lead as far as discussing how things are going with her child (or not). Regardless, just being there on a regular basis can make a world of difference.
Tip #2: Read a Book about Autism
When my two children received “possible” autism diagnoses 15 years ago, I felt like my entire life had been turned upside down. Once I came to terms with what we were possibly dealing with, I wanted to learn as much information as possible about autism so I read nearly every book I could find as well as endless online articles. Unfortunately, 15 years ago, there wasn’t half the information that is available today, but thankfully that is no longer the case.
I have two book recommendations that I think anyone wanting to learn more about autism should consider. Just released on April 9, 2013 is a remarkable memoir about a mother and her autistic son called The Spark written by Kristine Barnett.
Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At age 9 he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize, and at 12 he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes, let alone read or speak or function.
Relying on the insights she developed at the daycare center which she runs out of her garage, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark,” his passionate interests. Instead of concentrating on what he couldn’t do, she focused on what he could do. This basic philosophy, along with her belief in the power of ordinary childhood experiences and the importance of play, helped Jake overcome huge odds. I found it a very engaging and informative book.
I also highly recommend Let Me Hear Your Voice written by Catherine Maurice. This uplifting story is about how a family pulled not one but two children out of the torments of autism—and into a normal life. I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it!
Tip #3: Have Play Dates with Friends
If you have a friend who has a child with autism, invite her and her kids over for a play date. It might not be the typical playtime as with normally developing peers, but it will offer the autistic child an excellent opportunity to learn social and behavioral skills from peers without developmental challenges. Even better, the play date may provide your children with a lesson in acceptance and tolerance of people who are different from them.. It can be of great experience for both families.
Tip #4: Get to Know an Autistic Child
For families with an autistic child, respite is often a difficulty unless the parents of the child are relieving one another or they have a trusted family member such as a grandparent who has a personal relationship with the child and an understanding of his/her social quirks and unusual needs. If you can spend a few hours a week getting to know an autistic child in your neighborhood or of a family friend, you can then offer to provide a brief respite once you understand how to appropriately interact with him or her. Even if you can only offer a couple of hours of your time every few weeks, it can mean everything to an overwhelmed parent to have a few hours to go grocery shopping or to just spend some alone time with their spouse.
Tip #5: Don’t Judge
Most autistic children are not able to handle the stimulus most of us take for granted when visiting a crowded grocery store, waiting in the pediatrician’s office, or simply hanging out at the local playground with our kids. Don’t be quick to judge how a parent is handling a situation like a child having a meltdown at the checkout lane at the store or perhaps spinning uncontrollably in a public place like a waiting room. This could be an autistic child exhibiting a repetitive behavior or struggling with a sensory overload and is acting this way just to survive. Even if you know the child is autistic and you are only trying to be helpful and offer some constructive parenting advice—please don’t. Parents of autistic children are already under a lot of pressure, they are usually exhausted, and more than anything else, they don’t need to be judged. What they need is compassion, support, and unconditional patience where their child is concerned.
I am very thankful that my two developmentally delayed children did not in the end have autism, but for at least a year, we weren’t sure what their prognoses would be. I will never forget how challenging that time in our life was.
Do you have any experience interacting with an autistic child? Please let me know in the comments section or on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. I’m also on Twitter @MightyMommy. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t forget to check out my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT. Hopefully you can make a difference in the life of a family raising a special needs child. Go give your child a big hug and until next time—happy parenting!