Following an autism diagnosis, every parent will ask themselves what to do and what not to do with an autistic child. They are reasonable questions as parents want what’s best for their kids going forward. Every child with autism will require different supports, but there are still certain things all parents should avoid.
From personal experience, my wife and I wanted to help our son so much that we made some of these mistakes in what we thought at the time was the best thing for him. Unfortunately, these mistakes often overstimulated him, leading to unnecessary stress for him and us. Let’s take a look at 11 things you shouldn’t do with an autistic child.
1. Don’t let them think autism is bad.
This may seem self-explanatory, but many autistic children end up in a situation where they think something is wrong with them due to their diagnosis. As a parent, I’ve heard many people bring a negative connotation to both of my sons’ autism diagnoses.
Much of it comes from older family members who lived in a time when less was known about autism, so there’s no malice behind it. Still, as autism parents, it’s our job to ensure our kids don’t bring that negative connotation to their own diagnosis.
My older son was diagnosed with autism after my younger son. My younger son is nonverbal and still wears a diaper even though he’s eight years old. When my older son received his diagnosis, the only example he could follow was his younger brother and how people reacted to his brother’s diagnosis.
My older son expressed fear he would lose his ability to speak because of his brother’s situation. My wife and I had to work to make him understand that autism affects everyone differently and no two people will be the same. We also had to help him understand many people’s reactions to his brother’s diagnosis were based on fear and not facts.
2. Don’t complicate their tasks.
This is something I’ve had to learn with both of my sons. My older son needs specific instructions. If cleaning his room requires several different steps, I can’t just say, “Clean your room,” or he gets overwhelmed, leading to potential autism meltdowns.
I also can’t tell him about every step at the beginning of the task and leave him to his own devices. He needs step-by-step guidance. However, once he has that, he is able to complete his task with no sensory overload.
Some kids may also require simple language to guide them on their tasks. While my older son has a vocabulary well beyond his years, my younger son won’t understand certain words.
When we are telling him to get dressed for school or bed, we sometimes have to break down the words to encourage him to dress himself. It may take longer, but the simple language and tasks will be easier for both you and your children.
3. Don’t suddenly change their routine.
Many autistic kids thrive in a routine setting. While life has a way of changing routines on a whim, autism parents should do their best to make sure their autistic child’s routine isn’t changed unnecessarily. Routine changes can lead to sensory overload, autism meltdowns, and sleep struggles, and these are just the ones I can name from personal experience.
While my older son is able to adjust better most of the time, my younger son struggles with routine changes when he’s not prepared for them. But sudden changes are far more overwhelming and have resulted in many sleepless nights with an inconsolable child.
4. Don’t compare them to their peers.
We’ve all heard the saying, “If you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child.” It may be the most poignant and truthful saying I’ve ever heard.
Comparing children to their peers is the perfect example of what not to do with an autistic child. While competition can be wonderful in athletic endeavors, it can also foster resentment in other facets of a child’s life.
Instead, we should celebrate each achievement by our children. It doesn’t matter if the achievement comes later than their peers. What matters is they completed the achievement. Avoiding competition can help foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for your autistic children to mature.
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5. Don’t speak in metaphors.
Some autistic kids struggle with figurative language. They may only see things in a literal sense, making metaphors confusing for them. This is true of every child when they are really young, but the figurative language struggle can last into adulthood for those on the autism spectrum.
As someone who writes for a living and is often looking for a more creative way to tell stories, this has led to struggles when communicating with my son.
While he has picked up on metaphors and sarcasm as he’s gotten older, he still picks them up at a slower rate than other kids. His first response to anyone is almost always in the literal sense before he takes time to think about the figurative sense.
When we take time to understand autism, our communication skills with the autistic people in our lives can only improve.
6. Don’t yell or rush at them.
As parents, we’ve all been there. Our children are getting on our last nerves. They have found our buttons and won’t stop pushing them. Add an autism diagnosis on top of being a child, and they may have an even bigger reaction if we lose our cool with them.
Matching their energy and behaviors can often lead to unnecessary anxiety and stress for all involved. Instead, parents need to find an alternative way to communicate.
It can be difficult to stay calm when my son is talking back and overreacting to a simple setback. I’ve lost my cool more times than I would like to admit and gotten into a shouting match with him.
But, when I’m at my best, I’m able to speak calmly to him and get him to respond calmly as well. Keeping your cool can help you and your autistic child communicate better and grow your bonds.
7. Don’t try to stop their stims.
Stimming can be an excellent way for a child with autism to cope with something overwhelming them at that moment. Stopping their stims can often create a much bigger problem as it is their form of self-soothing. If a stem presents a danger to either the autistic child or others, it should be redirected rather than stopped.
My younger son bangs his head and flaps his hands like he’s trying to dog paddle. When he’s banging his head in the air, it’s not a problem. When he’s banging his head on our soft couch or his mattress, it’s fine.
Sometimes, however, he bangs his head on walls or the floor. That’s when we try to redirect him to a pillow or something soft because we don’t want him hurting himself.
The same is true with his arm flapping. His flapping has hit other children and other family members in the past. We redirect his flapping to something that won’t hurt him and won’t have him accidentally hitting someone else.
8. Don’t force eye contact.
Some children with autism struggle with eye contact. They find it uncomfortable. Don’t force it. While some may see it as rude, many children just can’t handle it.
Instead, find other ways to communicate with your autistic child. Plenty of verbal and nonverbal communication methods don’t require eye contact.
9. Don’t leave them unattended for too long.
While many autistic kids will thrive in their own space, they still shouldn’t be left unattended for too long. They may be good at playing in their room, but they can still find hidden dangers and may pursue them. It’s up to us as parents to make sure we are constantly checking in on them.
If there’s a situation where supervision is temporarily unavailable, you can create a way to keep them safe. In my life, my nonverbal son will often wake up before we do and will remain quiet enough that we don’t realize he’s awake.
We got Noah’s bed to help keep him safe. He is zipped up in the bed so that if he wakes up, he can’t sneak out of his room or potentially the house. It also allows us to hear him when he’s jumping on the bed or pushing against the mesh netting.
10. Don’t force them to eat food they don’t like.
When I was a kid, my parents insisted that I couldn’t leave the table until I ate everything on my plate, even if they knew I didn’t like the food. While some of that is to encourage healthy eating, as many kids don’t like vegetables, it created rough situations while I fought them over the food.
When you add in an autism diagnosis, things get tougher. Many autistic children experience sensitivities to food that make the experience more than just not liking the taste. It can actually be torture for them to try to eat these foods.
You can usually find alternative sources of the nutrients present in these foods, allowing you to vary your child’s diet. Plus, it can encourage your kids to be more involved in their food choices. These can help make mealtimes far less stressful for all involved.
11. Don’t give up.
You will always be the best advocate for your child with autism. If you foster a positive and supportive relationship with your autistic children, you will help set them up for a brighter future. An autistic child whose family supports them has a better chance of being a successful autistic adult.
So, acknowledge those victories for your autistic child. No matter how small they may be to others, they are huge to your child with autism. Also, seek out professional help and services in your area. There are many therapies and treatments that can make your child’s journey easier.
Importance of knowing what not to do with an autistic child
Your child needs you to be supportive and encouraging, but to do that, you need to be well-informed. While there are plenty of well-intentioned people out there, they may be guided by common misconceptions about autism.
You will want to learn what is a fact and what is a misconception so you can guide your children with autism to a better life. Remember to not be so rigid in your beliefs. As you research, you’ll learn things you never knew. Just remember to be sensitive to others and open-minded.
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Q: What are the best strategies for parenting autistic children?
A: Experts recommend seeking support, either online or from a local organization. They also recommend keeping a consistent routine for your children and making sure play is included in their schedule. And most of all, stay positive and take care of yourself so you are in the best place to take care of your child.
Q: How do you discipline an autistic child?
A: Experts recommend clear rules about behavior with positive consequences for appropriate behaviors, like praise and rewards, as well as negative consequences for inappropriate behaviors.
Q: How do you calm an autistic child?
A: During an autism meltdown, it’s important to stay calm and give your child space. Let them stim while removing anything that may trigger sensory overload. Once the child is on the path to self-soothing, let one person talk to them to help calm them down further.
Q: What activities are good for autistic children?
A: While each child is different, there are many activities that will fulfill the child’s needs. These include nature walks, using sensory bins, yoga, dance, and swimming. It’s up to the parents to know what activity their child is capable of performing at a given time.
Heather R. Hall & J. Carolyn Graff (2010) Parenting Challenges in Families of Children with Autism: A Pilot Study, Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 33:4, 187-204, DOI: 10.3109/01460862.2010.528644
Khim Lynn Ooi, Yin Sin Ong, Sabrina Anne Jacob & Tahir Mehmood Khan (2016) A meta-synthesis on parenting a child with autism, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12:, 745-762, DOI: 10.2147/NDT.S100634
Nielsen, T., Pontoppidan, M. & Rayce, S.B. The Parental Stress Scale revisited: Rasch-based construct validity for Danish parents of children 2–18 years old with and without behavioral problems. Health Qual Life Outcomes 18, 281 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12955-020-01495-w
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