Tips for parents of kids with autism

In honour of World Autism Awareness Day, Amy Baskin shares her tips for parents of kids with ASD.

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Amy’s daughters Talia (left) and Leah (right). Photo: Jack Kesselman

My cell phone rings. “Hi Mom,” Talia says. “I’m on the city bus.”

“Great. How was your cooking class?”

“Good. We made chicken pasta. Love you, Mom.”

I smile. When Talia was diagnosed with autism at age three, I never could have imagined her doing any of this: Taking public transit by herself. Using a cell phone. Texting. Facebook chatting. And most of all—hearing her say she loves me.

Now Tal is 21—a huge milestone year. In June, she leaves her beloved high school. Honestly, we’re not sure what comes next. But thanks to Talia’s support circle, we’ve got some good ideas. And some precious friendships.

When you’re parenting a child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), you face a harsh truth: therapies, programs, funding and supports are limited. In adulthood, they’re even scarcer.

Read more: 10 tips for helping children with autism >

But here’s the good news—friendship, caring and community are in great supply. At the risk of sounding hokey, I’ve learned that relationships are key to the quality of our kids’ lives. And to our own.

If you’re parenting an amazing individual with ASD, know that you’re part of a huge community. According to recent Canadian studies, one child in 94 is diagnosed with ASD. In honour of World Autism Awareness Day, here are my best time-tested tips for parents of kids with ASD.

Join your local autism society. You’ll meet other parents who really “get it.” Need a babysitter? An autism-friendly dentist? Just ask. And give back. Share your contacts, your resources, your friendship. You’ll feel like a million bucks. You’ll change your community. No time for meetings or get-togethers? Join their listservs or Facebook groups.

Hire babysitters. Ask your local high school or college for an enthusiastic student. Go out. Do something fun. Get your kid used to being cared for by different, trusted people. This does wonders to build social skills and flexibility. And you’ll stay sane.

Try new things. Sure, our kids crave structure and routine. But expand their world with new outings, people and experiences. When Tal was younger, we took her (often literally kicking and screaming) to crowded music festivals, fairs and art galleries. But now, she enjoys trying new experiences—everything from kayaking to zumba classes.

Work on strengths. Often we’re so busy trying to “fix” challenges, that we neglect their strengths. Tal is a whiz at texting, Facebook and Google searches. Perhaps she’ll use these skills on the job one day. What does your kid love?

• Ditch the guilt. You could spend every waking moment trying to “cure” your child’s autism with the next great therapy, diet or program. Staying up to 2:00 a.m. researching autism online sucks the life out of you (been there, done that!) Pour yourself a glass of wine and watch The Good Wife instead.

Make and keep your friends. Chat with neighbours. Host a “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” knitting night. Join a running group. Research shows that social isolation is a health risk. The happier and healthier you are, the more you have to give to your kids.

Use tech-skills to build friendships. Many kids with ASD struggle with social skills, but connect well by texting, Facebook or Twitter. (Some parents help their non-verbal kids share messages and photos on Facebook). Coach them on internet safety and get them on board.

Take public transit (if available). With step-by-step teaching, Talia has learned to take transit to her favourite outings (mall, YMCA, public library). Start early on this skill. It’s life-changing for kids. And for their parents.

Get known in your community. Take your kid along to your local grocery store, library branch, bookstore, YMCA, recreation centre etc. Chat up everyone you see there. Build those relationships. They can lead to jobs, volunteering or recreation for your child as an adult.

Celebrate! Hug your kids. Eat ice cream. Bake cupcakes. Watch your kids’ favourite flicks. And check out any Autism Awareness parade or flag-raising in your community today. Remember to wear a blue shirt!

Read more: Autism: How to help your child reach out socially and emotionally > 

Your turn:

• What’s your best tip for parents of kids with autism?

• Are you doing anything to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day?

Amy Baskin is a long-time contributor to Today’s Parent and other national magazines. She’s speaking about youth with ASD transitioning to adulthood at the 5th Biennial Stages of Autism Conference on April 7, 2014. Learn more about Amy’s writing and speaking at www.amybaskin.com.

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