Photo: Harvard Health Publications
In her groundbreaking new book, The Autism Revolution: Whole-Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be, Harvard researcher and clinician Dr. Martha Herbert offers a new approach to autism, teaching people to view "autism as a series of problems that can be overcome—and talents that can be developed."
In this excerpt, Dr. Herbert shares 10 meaningful ways you can help someone with autism. Use these tips to help support a child.
1. Go for the extraordinary
You may feel that you know your child is “in there” somewhere. Trust your feeling. See your child’s hidden gifts, even if they are blocked by lots of confusion and difficulties. Don’t define your child by his or her problems—they grew out of a cascade of challenges that you can address together slowly, carefully, and deliberately. Don’t aim for “normal.” People with autism are capable of astounding insights and creativity. Your goal should be to rejoice in their strengths and shore up their vulnerable spots, not to “fix” them.
2. Know what you can't control—and what you can
The set of genes we are born with is what we will have for life, but that doesn’t mean our future is foretold. The power of individual genes is shaped by our environment. Your aim should be to create as supportive and nourishing an environment as possible — for yourself as well as your loved one with autism.
3. Repair and support cells and cycles
Everything we do relies on our cells. How well we do it all is affected by our cellular health. Problems in cells create slowdowns and glitches; nourishing them well will make them more energetic and efficient. This solid foundation for your child’s whole body and brain is well worth your serious effort.
4. Get gut and immune systems on your side
Napoleon Bonaparte once said that an “army marches on its stomach,” meaning that a fighting force will only be strong if it is well fed. Our digestive system gives us energy and building materials, and our immune system relies on the gut and its vast array of gut bugs to learn what’s friendly and fight what’s dangerous. Our digestive and immune systems are vulnerable to problems because they are exposed to the outside world. But that also means they are accessible to our efforts to fortify them — and when we help them, we help the whole body.
5. Build better brain health
Our brains need energy and nutrition supplies. The neurons you have for life depend on partnerships with a good blood supply and networks of other brain cells, which grow and change and respond to the environment. You can build brain health by reducing blockages like those caused by inflammation, and by feeding brain cells the nutrients they need to function. Better brain health will help restore the brain’s full powers.
6. Calm brain chaos
Remember the last time you went to a busy department store or museum, a state fair or an amusement park. You were probably exhausted when you got home, worn-out not just from the activities you did, but from the stress of all that chaos. The brains of people with autism can create that level of bedlam and worse all the time. Sensory, sleep, seizure, speech and language, and other brain-based issues increase your child’s stress. Understanding how your child’s brain makes them feel, and having concrete steps you can take to help with this, will make their world (and yours) more manageable.
7. Join your child's world
Look for the hidden reasons behind what your child does, especially when it is hardest to imagine any. Challenging or bizarre behaviour is usually a signal that something is not right, either outside or inside their bodies. Learn to decode your child’s messages, and communicate in ways he or she can understand. Take it as slowly as necessary. Without judgment, teach them step by step the simple things that come naturally to people without autism. If you deeply join their world and love them unconditionally just as they are, they will feel safer and will blossom more easily.
8. Love, rejoice and make breakthroughs
Once you get in synch with your child’s world, find ways to gently broaden it. Enrich their experience. Give them physical activities they might not choose on their own so they can feel how their bodies move in space. Help them channel their special interests into skills. Build bridges between your way of experiencing and theirs. Help them expand their comfort zone and means of communicating. Give them room to find their own inner rhythms and feelings. Then step back, let their creativity flow, and celebrate.
9. Lead the revolution!
There’s a ridiculous amount expected of you as the parent of a child with autism. In addition to just making it through the day, you need to carefully track your child’s progress to see what’s working and what isn’t worth the effort. Share what you learn and it may help others, too. Advocate for research that gives us a handle on how to support your child the most. You can help us all take a revolutionary fresh look at autism so we can address our own as well as society’s autism problem. Let’s all be part of the solution.
10. Do it for yourself, your next baby, your family, and your world Learn to look at autism as something that develops, not something that is destined. Viewing autism as the outcome of a cascade of events gives you strategies for slowing or stopping that cascade—or even dialling it back. Your autism challenge can give you the impetus to strongly support the health of your whole family, your future children, and your environment.