Parenting a toddler with autism can present unique challenges, but with the right strategies and support, you can help your child thrive. Here are some practical tips to consider:
Encourage ALL Communication: Often, children diagnosed with Autism have difficulty communicating their needs and wants. Not all communication needs to be vocal. The best way to start reinforcing communication is to begin reinforcing any identifiable responses they use. For example, many kids will start using gestures, such as pointing to communicate. Once you can get your child to use easy-to-recognize gestures, it will be easier for them to communicate with a wider variety of people, reducing the probability of problem behaviors. Once this reliable method is established, begin teaching additional methods of communication. Find your child’s preferred method of communication, whether it's sign language, picture exchange systems, or communication devices. Working closely with a speech therapist can enhance the development of language and communication skills.
Educate Others: Many times, parents report feelings of embarrassment and shame about their child’s behaviors. This can result in anxiety taking the child places, including the homes of family and friends. The best way to reduce this anxiety is to help educate family members and friends about Autism and your child's unique needs. Most likely, your circle of friends and family want to support you, and they want you and your child to be a part of their lives. The better they understand what you need from them, the more understanding and support your child receives, and the better they can thrive.
Early Intervention: Many parents feel overwhelmed with all the assessments and authorizations that get sent to them after their child is diagnosed with Autism. However, the earlier you address your child's needs, the better the outcomes can be. Working with specialists, therapists, and educators experienced with Autism can make a significant impact on your child's development.
Encourage Social Interactions: Children diagnosed with Autism typically have difficulty initiating, responding to, and engaging in social interactions. It’s easy to say to look for service providers, but many have extremely long waiting lists, and not all service providers specialize in real social skills. What can you do until you find the right provider? One easy way is to arrange playdates with understanding peers and attend structured social groups. (Note. Structured is emphasized, as unstructured activities may trigger behaviors, instead of help.)
Create a Structured Environment: Children with Autism are typically more successful in structured environments with predictable routines. Establishing and maintaining a consistent daily schedule can help you plan your day and make transitions easier for your child to tolerate. Additionally, using visual schedules and timers can be helpful in maintaining a structured environment/schedule.
Positive Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement means that you reward specific behaviors you want to encourage, which should increase the future occurrences of those behaviors. When your child learns those specific behaviors lead to a desired result, they will begin to independently perform those behaviors to obtain those results. This is more effective the more you stick to the structure of rewarding appropriate behaviors. Many parents’ one concern about using positive reinforcement is that if they cannot reward their child at that moment, they may engage in problem behaviors, like tantrums. The fix, as behaviors begin to occur naturally, you can provide the rewards less often, teaching them to tolerate only being rewarded sometimes. Ideally, rewards should focus on social praise and attention (e.g., high-fives, hugs), decreasing the risk of needing to keep a tablet or favorite toy around at all times.
Sensory Considerations: Many children diagnosed with Autism have sensory sensitivities. The best way to address this is for you to observe how your child responds to different sensory experiences. Pay attention to noticeable sensitivities to any specific types of touch, sound, visual, smell, or taste. These sensory sensitivities can be pleasurable OR aversive. You’re not just looking for what they like, you also want to learn what they avoid and dislike. This can help you learn items and activities that may be reinforcing. Examples of pleasurable sensitivities include toys with moving parts like busy boards or playing soothing music. However, you can use items like headphones to help block aversive sensitivities, such as muffling noises while running errands or vacuuming.
Touch (e.g., stuffed animals, hard plastic toys, soft rubber, cotton versus silky blankets)
Sounds (e.g., instrumental music, loud/sudden sounds)
Visuals (e.g., bright lights, RGB lighting)
Smells/Tastes (e.g., scented candles, specific foods)
In conclusion ...
Remember that every child with Autism has unique needs, abilities, and sensitivities. What works for one child may not work for another. Be open to trying different strategies and flexible when needing to adjust them to meet your child's individual needs and strengths. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and tell people what you need. Parenting is difficult for everyone, and sometimes it looks easier for others. Take time to enjoy the small moments with, and accomplishments of, your child as you learn from each other.