Raising any child isn’t easy, but raising a child with sensory issues like autism comes with a whole set of other challenges that can leave you feeling drained and wondering whether you’re ever doing the right thing.
Parents of neurotypical children have the luxury of comparing notes with each other all the time, but it’s harder to pick up the same kind of clues and reassurance about what is and isn’t helpful unless you know someone else whose child plays, communicates, or behaves in non-neurotypical ways.
The way your child responds to the world can be as challenging as it is unique, but don’t despair! There are tweaks you can apply to your parenting style that will help. Your child experiences the world through a differently tuned set of senses to everyone else.
You can’t experience life as they do but there are a few things that you can do (and avoid!) to help close the gap. You can bring out the best in your child by modifying or letting go of certain parenting behaviours. Forget what your peers are doing. It’s time for sensory issue customized parenting!
The Dos and Don’ts
- Don’t hover like a SWAT team, primed and ready to anticipate every problem and intercept it when it shows up. No one learns anything useful by having everything done for them. Yes, it’s hard. You want to protect them, but you have to expose them to the experiences that will shape them. There are things they need to succeed at and celebrate, or fail at and learn from.
- Don’t do the opposite of hovering – leaving them to do their own thing entirely. The right amount of focused engagement from you will help them to understand asking, answering, turn-taking, pretending, joking, and all that other tricky stuff.
- Don’t compete with other parents. When everyone else’s kids are learning violin, tennis, and Cantonese before they’re six, you’ll always feel like your child is left behind. But they’re in a different race entirely. Your child is running a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll serve them best by tuning out from all that stuff because then it won’t affect your parenting style.
- Don’t insist on perfection. It won’t work. Encourage your child to build on their strengths and help them to bring up their deficits, but don’t demand straight A’s. You can still have high expectations, but if you want to avoid tears and frustration (from both of you !) make sure to make them realistic ones.
- Do be consistent with discipline. Children who struggle with learning gain a lot from discipline and structure, but you have to uphold your side of the deal by being consistent. Morning routine, mealtime manners, and all the other “things we do and don’t do” provide a framework that yes, they will naturally test, but which will contribute to their sense of security in the long run.
- Use rewards and consequences, or ‘positive reinforcement’ for good behavior and ‘natural consequences’ for bad. Natural consequences mean there’s a clear link between the punishment and the behavior, so throwing food results in food being taken away for example. Then substitute positive behavior, which in this case could mean you demonstrate how to treat food properly!
- Do keep learning. You’re a behavioural and emotional detective who knows a lot about your child but one who can always learn more. Compare notes with other parents, care providers, teachers, and others to get the experience and perspectives that will help your child overcome each hurdle.
- Do keep messages clear and simple. Avoid ambiguous language. The clearer and simpler the better and if that means using pictures or role-playing then go for it. Share this approach with everyone else who’s involved with your child. There’s that consistency again!
- Praise them. Praise can work wonders and might be even more effective than punishment, so take the time to notice and reward each small achievement they make on the road to accomplishing bigger goals.
Be Kind to You
Hey, you’re doing a great job and never forget it! It’s hard doing these simple things consistently, but even just doing what you can is worth a lot to your child. And when it feels like it’s too much to cope with, be kind to yourself and ask for help. You need and deserve the respite and support that will keep you going.