As moms and dads know, children develop at individual rates: Some parents are thrilled when their child colors between the lines while others are posting videos of their four-year-old reciting Shakespeare. But even though kids are as unique as snowflakes, missing milestones can signal a problem.
If you have a son or daughter with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you’re probably onto this. You may be well-versed in developmental delays and social or verbal regression (perhaps so much so that you could serve as co-author on this article).
Maybe you’ve noticed that your child is different even if you can’t put your finger on exactly why.
Maybe your child refrains from slaying imaginary dragons in their pillow fort, playing games, or engaging in make-believe. Maybe they dislike wrestling with their older brother and prefer to play alone.
Maybe your child engages in repetitive behaviors, has problems sleeping, and regularly refuses to eat dinner. The latter isn’t especially unique as kids (all kids!) tend to be picky eaters (preferring a bowl of sugar to a plate of broccoli). But maybe your child takes this to the extreme. Maybe they insist on eating only one type of food or they refuse to eat foods with certain textures.
Maybe your child requires strict routine and a structure much more rigid than usual. If their plans are disrupted or their routine is altered, maybe they find it difficult to regulate their behaviors and emotions. And maybe you’re at your wits end too.
It’s certainly a lot to handle but understanding autism is the first step in helping your kiddo and yourself.
The Autism Spectrum: Your Child is Here
A lot of people talk about “being on the autism spectrum” but what does this mean? Essentially, children on the spectrum experience challenges relating to others. The severity of these challenges is determined by where they are on the spectrum. One autistic child can be on the mild end of the spectrum and experience muted symptoms while another child can be on the severe end and experience symptoms that are much more intense.
Regardless of where they land, all degrees of ASD have commonalities, including:
Compromised social skills: A hallmark symptom, children with ASD may exhibit a variety of compromised social skills. They may fail to recognize nonverbal language, fail to acknowledge unwritten social rules (such as waving when passing someone on the street), and fail to show interest in others, solely focusing on their own interests instead. They may also take things literally, failing to see irony, sarcasm, or humor or show an unwillingness to engage in flexible thinking and habitually insist on doing things one way.
Communication challenges: Some autistic children will talk to anyone; others don’t speak at all. In fact, about 40% of children with ASD are nonverbal, a challenge that is more prominent toward the severe end of the spectrum. Some autistic children demonstrate language skills during their first years of their life but then regress. Some do the opposite and begin speaking when they’re older.
Unusual Interests and behaviors: Autistic children typically demonstrate interests and behaviors that seem unusual. For instance, while a non-autistic child may show interest in cars or kittens, an autistic child may be enthusiastic about a lawn mower or the inner workings of a record player. They may behave atypically as well, engaging in repetitive behaviors, acting compulsive or impulsive, rocking back and forth, and exhibiting clumsiness when catching a ball or jumping on a trampoline.
Sensory processing challenges: Children with ASD tend to have senses like superheroes (since they are superheroes!). They’re hypersensitive to texture, taste, light, odor, and sound. This can cause stimulation overload easily and lead to meltdowns.
But none of this suggests that autistic children are antisocial. Often, they want relationships with other people; they just don’t know how to foster those connections.
What Does ASD Mean for Parents?
When you’re the parent of an autistic child, it’s important to know you’re not alone: Nearly 2% of children in the US have ASD and that means there are plenty of moms and dads who understand what you’re going through.
It’s vital to seek the support you and your child need. The sooner your family receives medical and behavioral help, the more likely your son or daughter is to live a life as normal as possible.
Perhaps what ASD means the most for parents is that you are now an advocate. The person aptly qualified to fight for your child is the one you see in the mirror. With experience, passion, and unconditional love, you’re the perfect person for the job.