Tips for Parents of Children with Autism

Hey readers! I got a request from a reader a while back for tips that don’t break the bank for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I am not an expert, and I am still a student, but I do have some tips that might be helpful. I have worked with teens and young adults with ASD for years as a volunteer in Best Buddies, a club mentor, and as a Life Skills Coach. Through these experiences, I have come up with some tips that may be helpful for parents.

First let’s clear up what ASD is. There is a wide range of what ASD may look like in each child, hence why it is called a spectrum. Overall, individuals who have ASD have challenges with social skills, speech and non-verbal communication, and may have repetitive behaviors or single interests. Check out the Autism Speaks website for more info.

Since ASD is a spectrum, these tips are not black and white. One tip may work for one individual but not for another. Some people who have ASD are very independent while others need additional support. Be sure to know what the child struggles with or needs before implementing these strategies.

Tip #1: Visual Schedules

Providing visual schedules for people who have ASD can be really helpful. This provides visual input to help them expect what is coming. One thing that people who have ASD may struggle with is unexpected events or getting out of their comfort zone. Providing a visual schedule may help to alleviate the discomfort of change by letting them know what to expect ahead of time. You can do this by using a mix of words and pictures, and allowing the child to help create the schedule. This gives them some control over the situation, and may motivate them to get something done that they are not interested in so that they can get to the thing they DO want to do. You can also let them check off or put a sticker next to items once they are completed!

Tip #2: Token Economy

This has been helpful for the young adults that I work with. For those who need external motivation, we use what OTs call a “token economy”. Essentially, if a person meets all of his/her goals for the day (ie. use respectful language to peers and staff, use appropriate touching, keep phone away, and/or stay with the group), they get a point. Once the individual meets a certain number of points, they earn a prize or a “token”. Some prize examples may be stickers, Kudo Banz (I saw this on Shark Tank!), or anything that will motivate your child from 5 Below or the Dollar Store. Positive reinforcements can create patterns of expected or desired behaviors, so try this rather than punishing unexpected or undesired behaviors.

Tip #3: Sensory Tools

Many individuals who have ASD also have sensory processing disorder or various sensory preferences (but not all). One idea is to provide your child with a “sensory diet.” This means that throughout the day, you use different tools to give your child his/her needed dose of sensory input. This may look like having breakfast (try foods with different textures, colors, and smells), then working on a skill such as handwriting. After sitting for a period of time, the child may need some movement. Try crashing into pillows or onto a bed, or bouncing on a bosu ball. You may also provide breaks throughout the day for running, jumping or swinging outside between seated or quiet activities. You can also provide tools such as weighted blankets, vests or lap pads, calming scents using essential oils, beanbag tapping, fidget spinners/toys, stress balls, chewy or sour candy (in moderation), massagers, etc.

Tip #4: Provide Time and Space

If you ask your child a question, give them the time and space they need to answer it. Some of my participants prefer writing down answers to questions or how they are feeling rather than speaking them out loud. Most of the time, they have the answer in them, but they need support to answer it themselves.

Tip #5: Embrace Their Interests

One common aspect of ASD is having single interests. This may mean that your child only wants to play with and talk about trains all day long, for example. Rather than taking this toy away or refusing to play with them, get on their level. Ask them questions about trains. Read a book about trains. Play with a toy train. Even go for a ride on a real train! You don’t have to talk trains 24/7, but embracing their interests will hopefully allow you to communicate with your child, give him/her a sense of autonomy of what you talk about or play with, and make him/her happy.

Tip #6: Play, Play, Play!

Change up how you play! Since children with ASD may have single interests, this may be a challenge. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Sensory Play: Don’t be afraid to get messy! You can use shaving cream, soapy water, sand, play dough, slime, cold cooked spaghetti, dry rice, etc! You can put small objects in sand or play dough for them to find, or you can write letters in shaving cream (also practicing handwriting skills here!). Check out this website for more sensory play ideas.
  • Social Play: One challenge for children with ASD is social skills and communication. Practice playing games with rules, taking turns, and not always being the winner. Also, invite classmates over to play to work on social skills with other children their age.
  • Pretend Play: Some children with ASD like to be in a kind of fantasy world in their heads. Try engaging in pretend play with them. This shows them that you care about what they are interested in and provides you with a chance to communicate and play with your child.

I hope some of these tips come in handy! Thanks for reading!

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