How To Handle An Autistic Stepchild
In this article I will show you how to handle an autistic stepchild. You will learn the role all three of you (you, your spouse and your stepchild) will play, and what steps you need to take. Before we dive in, we need to better understand what’s being asked.
This article was inspired by a question I was directly asked some time ago, and it struck a nerve with me. A woman, presumably a step mom, literally asked me how to handle an autistic stepchild. I thought about it for a moment before replying, you don’t “handle” an autistic stepchild, you raise one.
She said to me, “Oh you know what I mean. How do you handle everything having to be about them, everything has to be their way. How do you handle the meltdowns, the pickiness over clothes and not liking most foods…”, and on she went.
I understood what she meant, but it was important that SHE understood what she was really asking. You see, how you handle an autistic stepchild is all about you. It’s like asking how to deal with something unpleasant, something you don’t like. In this case it isn’t the stepchild you don’t like, it’s the behaviors associated with the autism diagnosis.
My answer to her was valid. You’re not asking what it takes to deal with an autistic child, you’re asking how to raise one. You don’t want to know how to ignore their behaviors, you want to better understand them so you can help. And if we’re being honest, you probably want to change their behaviors to one’s more in line with what you think is appropriate.
I get it! And I want to help you with this. In fact I want to help you so well that you share this with others so they can benefit too. Don’t keep us a secret!
Handling An Autistic Stepchild
Now that we’ve uncovered what it is we’re after, let’s get to the heart of it. Successfully raising an autistic stepchild requires the work of all three of you. You, your spouse and the stepchild. There are two problems with this. You can’t force your stepchild to cooperate in this endeavor, and your spouse has more than likely helped the best they know how and you have reached a dead end.
Don’t worry. We’ll cover these issues, but first let’s start with what we CAN directly control. Let’s start with you. There are four steps you personally need to take to be successful.
- Learn more about autism and believe that the behaviors of an autism diagnosis are real.
- Gain a deep understanding of autism behaviors.
- Accept that the stepchild has autism, and even though you may improve many behaviors, the autism will still exist.
- Develop a support system to help you when times are tough
Taking The First Step To Handling An Autistic Stepchild
The first step is one you’re already taking. You need to learn more about autism! I know this sounds redundant, but hear me out. You see, our views of the world, our paradigms, also shape our world. Our beliefs become our reality. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt one way, then after learning the entire story you felt another way?
Look at this example. You see a man trip a woman outside of a store and take her purse. WHAT!?!?! As you’re about to act, you see security run out of the store and apprehend the woman who was tripped. She had stolen the purse out of someone’s cart and was trying to get away.
An obvious and over simplified example, I know, so let’s look at one that’s less obvious and may hit closer to home. Your autistic stepchild comes home from school and immediately goes into meltdown mode. They’re screaming and cursing, slamming doors and calling you every name under the sun. Several hours later at the end of it all, you find out this was all over the fact that the school removed the soda machine from the cafeteria.
What Just Happened?
This last example isn’t so clear. In this case your stepchild’s behavior just SLAMMED directly into your belief about how the world is supposed to work. The soda machine was removed. Is it THAT big of a deal that it warranted such a reaction?
Yes. It IS that big of a deal to your stepchild, and you need to believe that. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do need to believe that it’s that big of a deal to your stepchild. Teaching your autistic child better behaviors has to start with you understanding things through their eyes. The removal of the soda machine may very well be the equivalent of you working for two weeks only to find out that your employer has decided not to pay you. Oh, and you’re fired!
You may not react the same way, we’ll get to that in a bit, but the feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness are very similar. What you need to believe and understand is how the kiddo is feeling. You can teach them to react more appropriately, but you can NOT change how they feel.
Understanding things like rigid thinking, the importance of routine, ego-centrism as it all applies to autism won’t immediately lead to things getting easier, but it will reduce your own anger and anxiety towards your autistic stepchild. Here’s a great video to show you what I mean.
Gaining A Deep Understanding Of Autism Behaviors
This is vital to not only developing a stronger relationship with your autistic stepchild, but to also maintaining your own peace of mind. Understanding autism behaviors helps give you direction. Is the kiddo having a tantrum because he isn’t getting his way, or is he experiencing a meltdown that he can’t completely control?
No one is wrong for the way they feel. Having autism means your stepchild may feel and experience things differently than a neurotypical child, but it doesn’t make them wrong for thinking or feeling the things they do.
Real Life Example
I remember a time when John’s therapist was moving to a different state. As a going away present, Bella spent hours carving a watermelon to look like a basket, and decorated it with a fruit bouquet.
John on the other hand was NOT happy his therapist leaving. The next morning he was up before Bella and threw away the watermelon she had spent hours on, destroying it in the process.
His reason? His therapist shouldn’t have a gift. Why? Because she was moving away. Bad behaviors have consequences. It was something his therapist had been working on him with. Was Bella angry? Heck ya she was!! At the same time though, it showed that he was grasping a concept we had been working with him on. Granted, we still had a ways to go for him to realize that A.) His therapist moving was NOT a bad behavior and B.) you can not do something bad in response to something bad.
My point is this. John’s behavior with the watermelon was still unacceptable. It still angered us. But by understanding the behaviors associated with autism, we were able to see the true reason why it happened, and that made it more bearable for us. It gave us hope as he was demonstrating concepts we had been working on him with, and also gave us direction on where we still needed to go.
Giving a detailed explanation of many of the behaviors associated with an autism diagnosis is beyond the scope of this particular article, but here’s a great place to get started. Why Is My Autistic Child Disrespectful? This goes into a lot of detail explaining specific autism behaviors along with explanations and real life examples.
Accept That Your Stepchild Has Autism
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Um…I’ve already accepted it. That’s why I’m here!”. We’re going to talk about specific ways to make things better for you, your spouse and your autistic stepchild shortly, but before we get there we need to have a heart to heart talk. Just you and I.
Autism doesn’t go away. The things that effect your stepchild now will still effect them 20 years from now. Yes they will mature. Yes they will gain more control over their actions and better understand the world around them so that their behaviors seemingly improve. But at the end of the day, they will still have autism.
When you see improvements, you aren’t seeing their autism “getting better”. What you are seeing is their frames of reference expanding. YOU will be experiencing their autism less, but they won’t be. The underlying issues will still remain.
Look At It This Way
Your stepchild seems ungrateful. You try, and you try, and you try to get them to say thank you when somebody does something for them. After what seems like an eternity of working on this, they begin to say thank you when you cook dinner. They show gratitude for gifts and for some of the things that you do for them.
Are they more thankful now? NO! They’ve simply learned that you expect them to say thank you at those specific times. Their frame of reference has expanded to include all the times you’ve taught them to say thank you.
Tomorrow when you’re at a restaurant with them, and the server brings your stepchild a refill for their drink, don’t be shocked if they say something like, “It’s about time. I’ve been waiting for over two minutes for that refill!”
Why? Because their frame of reference hasn’t grown to encompass EVERY SINGLE circumstance that they might come across! The autistic behaviors are still there. The autism is still there. The fact that they are the center of their own world is still there. They weren’t trying to be rude or unappreciative when they said that. They were simply being honest.
This is what it means to accept that your stepchild has autism. Your stepchild is autistic now, and he or she will be autistic forever. Some behaviors will improve more than you ever thought possible, and other behaviors may never get better.
Develop A Support System
The final thing I want to touch on before we begin discussing actionable steps involving your stepchild and spouse, is the importance of a support system.
You need people to talk to. People beyond your spouse. Don’t get me wrong, your spouse should usually be the number one person you talk to, but there are times when they aren’t the person you need at that moment.
Bella often says we all need that one special someone. The person who knows you don’t mean it when you say you’re about to kill that child, but who also knows you well enough to jump in when you just might! A person who may or may not entirely understand autism, but who understands you. Who can console you when you’re spouse is being an ass-monkey, but will also tell you when you’re the one who’s being difficult!
Additionally, you do need people who understand autism. People who can relate to the things you’re going through, and who can tell you when the things you’re experiencing are normal from an autism family point of view. You need to know that you’re not the only one feeling the things you do, or going through the things that you’re going through.
Where Can I Find All Of That?
Join an autism support group! Many autism support groups provide you with a non-judgmental atmosphere where you can vent, or ask questions that neurotypical parents wouldn’t understand. You’ll find people who are facing the same challenges you face. People who will listen to you, understand from experience what you’re going through and offer insights when needed.
You can find many groups online through websites and social media. You can also find local support groups where you’ll actually meet people and their kids. Local groups can offer advice on things like which dentists in the area work well with autistic kids, and where to go for hair cuts.
Personally, Bella and I take advantage of both. We are members of a few different online support groups as well as members of a local support group. We offer advice, ask for advice and have created relationships with many people through these groups. This has helped us a lot over the years!
Getting The Right Help From Your Spouse
Now that you yourself are headed in the right direction, let’s focus on your spouse. More specifically, let’s focus on how your spouse can best support you. It’s not easy being a step parent. It’s even harder being a step parent to an autistic step child. Having a supportive spouse who guides you through the process can make all the difference in the world.
Here are some ways in which they can do this.
Allow You To Make Mistakes
Let’s be honest, you’re going to make mistakes. As long as the mistakes don’t jeopardize the safety or well being of the child it’s OK. Learning from mistakes is one of the best ways to improve understanding.
I remember one of the first mistakes Bella let me walk into with John. He was playing a video game with his nephew, and rather than sharing screen time, he kept making excuses to continue playing his self.
“Let me try one more time.”
“This level’s probably too hard for you, let me do it.”
“I almost beat this level, I want to do it again,” etc…
I told Bella she should stop John. That she should make him give his nephew a fair turn. She tried to explain to me why John was acting the way he was. When he told his nephew he could play after this level was completed, it didn’t matter if it took 10 minutes or 10 hours. In his mind, it was his turn until then.
When the next level came, he knew it would be too hard for his younger nephew. It didn’t matter that his nephew might not care and have fun playing anyways. His factual thinking and literal understanding led him to the conclusion that he should be the one to play the next level too.
There was much more to it than that, but you get the idea. I disagreed with Bella’s assessment and said John should be made to allow his nephew to play or he wouldn’t be allowed to play anymore. She looked at me, with a twinkle in her eye I might add, and said (I’ll never forget these words) “Let me know how that goes for you“. And she went outside to the back porch.
You can guess what happened next. Total meltdown! It was the first time I had seen an autistic meltdown, and it was focused directly at me! I was an awful person. I had to leave and wasn’t allowed to come over anymore. He was going to have his older brother come beat me up and teach me a lesson. And on and on it went.
At the time, this was the worst behavior I had ever experienced from a child. In hindsight, that meltdown was mild. It only lasted for a few minutes before Bella, who had been listening to everything as it played out, came inside and calmed everything down.
My point is this. I learned more from that one scenario than from anything I had ever read or talked about before. Bella knew that my intervening would cause a meltdown. She tried to explain to me why, but I couldn’t see it. I didn’t see autism, I saw a spoiled child. Afterwards, we talked about it some more and I truly saw what was autism and what was just John being John.
Of course this didn’t stop me from making more mistakes in the future and causing more meltdowns, but I DID learn a lot and continuously improved over time. Which leads me to my next point!
Help You Understand Which Behaviors Are Autism And Which Aren’t
Typically your spouse will know your stepchild better than you. Especially in the beginning. To my inexperienced eye, the scenario I described above seemed like a spoiled child who didn’t want to share video game time. And to be honest, I was partially right! He really didn’t want to share the video game. But when he said things like, I’ll play until this level is over, and his nephew agreed, it became set in his mind.
I didn’t see which behaviors were autism related. I didn’t realize that his literal understanding and fact consideration hindered him from seeing that his nephew didn’t care if he wasn’t any good at playing the game, he just enjoyed it. My intent, getting John to share video game time, was pure and good, my approach was horrible! Had I done something like affirm John’s thoughts and then helped redirect them to more appropriate actions, I might have gotten the result I wanted without causing a meltdown.
The Line Between Autistic And Neurotypical Behaviors Is Often Blurred
There are many behaviors your stepchild may exhibit which seem inappropriate, rude, selfish, spoiled etc…which are in fact caused by autism. It can also be true that many of these same behaviors really are your stepchild being inappropriate, rude, selfish etc… And worse yet, there are many times when one of these behaviors isn’t directly caused by autism, but IS caused because it can’t be corrected…because of autism!
Take the time to ask your spouse questions about behaviors you see your autistic stepchild exhibiting. Learn from him or her which ones are autism, which aren’t and which ones are an indirect side effect. Learning to tell the difference will go a long way in helping you lead your stepchild down the right path. Be prepared though, because not everything is black and white. You’ll often find gray areas where you just can’t tell what should be acceptable based on the autism diagnosis and what shouldn’t, which leads us to our next point.
Study Autism Behaviors WITH Your Spouse
Go online, get a book, watch some videos together. Utilize whichever media source you prefer, but take time for you and your spouse to research autism behaviors together.
Doing this will accomplish several things.
- It will give your spouse the opportunity to point out which autistic behaviors apply to your stepchild, and which one’s don’t. ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder. There are a wide range of behaviors associated with autism and not all of them apply to every person.
- By studying these things together, your spouse will be able to give real life examples of how different behaviors apply to your stepchild. It’s one thing to say that the kiddo experiences literal understanding. Explaining that the reason they didn’t understand you when you said “That movie we just saw kicked butt!” is due to their literal understanding, and then going on to give other examples will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of how your stepchild functions.
- You’ll have a better opportunity to ask questions as they relate to your circumstances, and look up specific information regarding those questions.
- Your spouse may very well learn some things they were unaware of, giving you both the opportunity to learn and grow together on this journey.
Be Included In Appointments And Decisions
You should be involved in important events like Dr’s appointments and IEP meetings as well as the more mundane things like haircuts. Besides being able to ask questions and learn, you’ll have the opportunity to provide your own feedback. You will experience first hand how people of authority besides your spouse feel about the situation. You’ll also have a direct impact on the direction you and your family take to successfully raise your stepchild.
Your Autistic Stepchild
Finally we come to the part your stepchild plays in all of this. As I stated earlier, you can’t force them to think or act the way you want, but there are steps you can take to help.
Allow Them To Make Decisions
Let’s be honest. Things like hair cuts and Dr’s appointments are never easy. Our kiddos live in a world they don’t entirely understand, so they try to control it as much as possible. Doing things like having them help to decide on appointment days and times helps give them some of the control they need in order to handle situations better. You may not be able to control their dislike of doing these things, but you can guide them to a grudging acceptance of what needs to be done.
Affirm And Redirect
Two of our favorite words in this household! Don’t fight what your stepchild is feeling or saying. Go with it, and then redirect it.
John left a Dr’s appointment one time completely upset. By the time we walked out of the building, he was in full meltdown mode. In the parking lot he told Bella he was never getting in the car with her again. It was his way of saying he was never going to the Dr again.
Rather than fighting him on this, Bella simply said “OK. Would you like that to start now, or after I take you home?” He of course grumbled some more before getting in the car to go home.
Part of autism is problems communicating. Often times when an autistic person is being unreasonable, making threats and other things along those lines, they are actually having problems properly communicating their thoughts and emotions properly.
Validate their feelings, don’t correct them. Then guide them through their correct intent.
Don’t Reason During A Meltdown
There is a time to teach, and a time to let things play out. When an autistic child is experiencing a meltdown, the things you say usually won’t get through to the rationale part of their brain.
I explain it like this. A meltdown is like a train. It starts off slow, builds momentum, and once it gets going you’re not going to stop it until it’s run its course.
Meltdowns are not fun. Truth be told, the person having the meltdown doesn’t like it anymore than you do! They just can’t typically control it. And you’re not going to be able to make them control it, so help them through it instead.
Teach Them To Use Better Words
After a meltdown is over, or better yet before it even starts, teach your stepchild to use better words. Teach them to express themselves and their feelings in an appropriate manner.
Concepts like gratitude, thoughtfulness and selflessness are learned behaviors. Unfortunately autism hinders the autistic person’s ability to grasp these things. This does not mean they can’t learn. Autism is not a reflection of a person’s intelligence level.
It does however mean that these concepts may be more challenging for someone on the spectrum. It might also mean that your stepchild may never fully feel something like gratitude every time it is expected, but they can be taught to show these things at the appropriate times.
Give Them Time To Ruminate
Don’t expect to teach a concept, and see instantaneous results or even get an immediate reaction. Remember, autism does not reflect intelligence. Trust that the things you teach are being thought about. Believe that they are going over the things you say, and are trying to fit them into their frame of reference.
Understand too, the challenge involved in grasping a foreign concept. You instinctively know when to say thank you. Half the time you probably say it without even meaning it, just because it’s expected.
Look at it from an autistic perspective though. When someone holds the door open for you, why should you thank them? You didn’t ask them to do it, expect them to do it, nor need them to do it. And part of the reason the person is holding the door in the first place is because you were right behind them and it would be rude for them to not hold the door, which means they’re not just doing it out of kindness.
You might be saying to yourself that you can teach them to say thank you anytime someone does something for them. Does that mean you should thank your boss every time your paycheck is direct deposited into your bank account? We thank a server at a restaurant for serving us, shouldn’t we also thank the cook for preparing our food?
My point is, social etiquette and it’s rules are often times gray areas. Many autistics are black and white thinkers that require facts to govern their lives.
We’ve covered A LOT in this article! Hopefully by now you see that how to handle an autistic stepchild is more about you than it is them. That you can’t fix autism, but you can certainly guide your stepchild to better behaviors.
If you have found value in this article I’d like you to do two things.
- Share this article with others on social media.
- Read the article What Not To Do With An Autistic Child And Why It is a great companion article to this one, and will guide you through more ways to better understand your autistic stepchild.