Just as important as knowing what to do with an autistic child, is knowing what NOT to do with an autistic child. As an autism parent and person who helps other autism parents, there are many mistakes I see over and over again. Some are simple oversights that people don’t realize can be hurtful to an autistic child, while others can have major negative impacts that last a lifetime.
A lot of information out there focuses on what you should do for a child with autism. Today I want to take a different approach. I want to focus on what not to do. A list of the most common mistakes I see that have the biggest impacts, and can have major negative consequences for a child with autism.
As you’re going through this list, don’t just think of yourself. Think about the other people in your kiddos life. The teachers, grandparents, coaches, friends, people in your child’s life who have a small understanding of ASD, but don’t live with it. People who care about your child, but whose life doesn’t revolve around him or her. If we as autism parents are sometimes guilty of the things we’ll talk about today, how much more so are other people in your kiddos life?
What Not To Do With An Autistic Child
Here is what will be covered in this article.
- Don’t discipline autism
- Forcing them to be neurotypical
- Acting as if their identity is strictly autism
- Talking around them as if they’re not there
- Treating them as less because they have autism
- Discounting their opinions because they have autism
- Allowing them to be bullied
- Don’t stop believing in them
Don’t Discipline Autism
Before we go further, I want to state up front that I am NOT saying you shouldn’t discipline an autistic child. I am saying that you shouldn’t discipline them for their autistic behaviors.
What’s The Difference?
If John is having a tantrum in public, discipline might be warranted. If John is having a meltdown in public due to sensory overload, then that’s autism. My job at that point is to help him, not to punish. Punishment won’t happen later either, even if the meltdown included cursing or other unacceptable behaviors.
This is autism folks! Disciplining an autistic child for having autism related behaviors is about like punishing a blind child for walking into a wall! Just because it isn’t a physical disability, doesn’t make it any less real.
Take a moment to analyze situations and ask yourself if what is happening is a result of your child misbehaving, or is something related to their autism diagnosis.
On a side note, just because I wouldn’t discipline John in this example does not mean I would not take the opportunity to teach him. In a situation like this, once the meltdown is over and he is more receptive to listening, we would discuss what happened. I would listen to him, and gain a better understanding of what went wrong and what caused the meltdown. Then I would work with him so that HE could better understand what is appropriate and what is unacceptable, and can learn how to handle himself better in the future.
Real Life Example
A while back, I made plans to take John to a zoo, a water park and an outdoors-man store. Long story short, I picked a horrible day to go. On top of the fact that it was a long drive, it was a holiday weekend. The lines were long, it was miserably hot, nothing was going as planned. Needless to say, John had a meltdown.
By the time we left the water park, I was DONE! I had just about reached my limit, and had taken all I was willing to take. I knew the meltdown wasn’t his fault, but I had had enough. It was at that time that he brought up the store I had said I would take him to.
Are you freaking kidding me?!?!?! You think I’m taking you to a store after the meltdown you just had? This of course started another meltdown. Geez!!
Then I thought about it. This new meltdown had nothing to do with the others. Despite what had happened, this was a whole new and unrelated issue for John. He had it in his mind the entire day that we would be going to this store. Not taking him would be the equivalent of changing his routine without notice. Beyond just wanting to go he NEEDED to go! This is autism.
Don’t Force An Autistic Child To Be Neurotypical
What does it mean to be neurotypical? To be blunt it means to not be affected by autism or by a mental illness. (Please note that autism is NOT a mental illness. Read nearly ANY post made on this site for reference, no link required lol)
I get it. You want the child to act more normal, but the fact is “normal” is a relative term. An autistic child IS normal…for someone with autism! How you think, what you think, the paradigms in your life, these are all not only normal for you, they are also shared by millions of other people around the world.
On the flip side, even though you may think or feel a million things each day, and millions of other people may think or feel each of those things as well, no one thinks or feels all of them just like you. YOU are unique. So is an autistic child.
Imagine though if someone told you that it was wrong for you to think or feel the things that you do. How damaging would that be? How awful would it be for you to be made to feel as if you were wrong or a bad person for your thoughts or feelings? What negative impacts would that have on your life?
Don’t Act As If Their Identity Is Strictly Autism
It’s often said that autism does not define a person. That autism is something a person has, but not who they are. There is some debate regarding this as many people, some autistics included, feel that autism does indeed define them. That they would not be who they are, for better or worse, without autism.
I’m not going to debate that in this article, but I will say that autism is not ALL that makes up an autistic person. Autistic people are just that…PEOPLE! They have likes and dislikes. Dreams and hopes for their future.
Your likes, your dislikes, the things in life that are important to you, these are what you want to be talked to about. These are the things that make you YOU, and someone with autism is no different. They are people first, just like you and I.
If you simply think of someone as autistic and treat them as such, you miss out on all of the other things that make them who they are. You dehumanize and categorize them in a way that can be demoralizing.
It’s OK to seek a better understanding of autism so that you can support an autistic person in the way that they need, but always remember that they are people first and foremost.
An Autistic Child Is Not Broken!
The first thing to realize is that an autistic child does not need “fixed”. I named this site Autism: Some Assembly Required for a reason. Our autistic kiddos, in fact the entire autistic community does not need fixed. They need to be understood. They don’t need to be reprogrammed to think or feel differently, they simply need help understanding how other people think and feel, and to learn how to react to these things when possible.
As neurotypical people, we have the ability to quickly and efficiently relate to others. We can readily identify a social situation and can communicate and react appropriately. People with autism struggle with this. And by struggle, I mean in some instances they simply aren’t capable. An ASD diagnosis itself identifies areas that an autistic person may not have the ability to understand or control.
You can’t teach a blind person to see. And it’s completely unfair that as a society we accept that a blind person can’t see without passing judgment, while at the same time we refuse to accept that a kiddo with autism can’t tell the difference between sarcasm and being mean. We accept that someone with a missing limb experiences phantom pain, but refuse to acknowledge that bright lights or loud noises might physically hurt an autistic person.
A blind person is not forced to see. We don’t force the person with phantom pain to just ignore it. An autistic child should not not be forced to not be autistic. Believe that the behaviors of an autism diagnosis are REAL, and teach your child that it’s OK to have autism, while at the same time teaching them to function in a neurotypical world.
Don’t Talk Around Someone With Autism Them As If They’re Not There
Questions at the Dr’s office regarding the child need to first be directed to the kiddo directly. The child should attempt to answer the questions themselves as much as possible in their own words.
At restaurants, teach a child with autism to order their own food. Have them pay for things at the convenient store. This builds self confidence and helps reinforce the things taught at home.
What If The Person With Autism Is Nonverbal?
These same things apply even if a child is nonverbal, though of course more help and input will be needed from you. Too often people assume a child who is nonverbal isn’t listening. People believe that a child who is not making eye contact is not paying attention.
As autism parents we know that this couldn’t be further from the truth, but many times people fail to take it a step further and make sure that the child is directly included in conversations. Questions are answered for them rather than prompting them to answer. We accept it when the questions about our autistic kids are directed to us rather than to our child.
Don’t do it yourself and don’t allow others to talk over or around your child. Make sure that they are treated like the individuals that they are.
Don’t Treat Them As Less Because They Have Autism
We all have limitations. We are also all capable of many great things. The same holds true for someone with autism. They have strengths and weaknesses just like anyone else.
Some weaknesses may be more pronounced, and as many kiddos on the spectrum don’t recognize how social etiquette rules apply, they may be less apt to try and hide what others would consider to be deficiencies.
This does not however, make them less of a person. Society as a whole is based upon the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals that encompass it. When you tear someone down, you weaken society. When you build them up you strengthen it.
Autistic people have all of the needs and rights to a fair and equal life as anyone else. Treating them as less or as if they deserve less is more than just wrong, it devalues them and can ultimately lead to them being the lesser person they are perceived as.
How Are We As Autism Parents Guilt Of This?
There’s a fine line between expecting too much out of your child, and not expecting enough. Any time we hold our children to a standard lower than what they are capable of achieving we are doing them a disservice. It’s a tough line we walk as autism parents. This is why learning about the behaviors associated with an autism diagnosis is so important!
Are you giving your child any chores to routinely do? Expecting them to do a chore perfectly may be too much. Not expecting them to do any chores at all may be too little.
Ask yourself these questions. Do I answer for my child or let them speak for themselves? Does my kiddo at least make an attempt to clean up after themselves, or do I do all of the work? Am I expecting less out of my child because an autism behavior prohibits them from accomplishing a task, or am I just allowing them to not do something simply because they don’t want to?
Don’t Discount Their Opinions Just Because They Have Autism
As individuals we like AND need to be heard. Our thoughts and opinions, however insignificant to others, are important to us. They are part of what makes us who we are. When you immediately discount an autistic person’s opinion you are belittling them. This is demoralizing, and makes someone feel unimportant.
I talk about this a lot because it is so true and SO important. Autistic children are people too! Their thoughts and opinions are just as important to them as yours are to you. And one can argue that their input may be even more valuable as it gives you insight into what is important to them. It can be the best way to get valuable information about what they are thinking.
Don’t Allow Them To Be Bullied
It’s no secret that autistic children are one of the most targeted groups for bullying. Perhaps the saddest truth of all regarding this is that often times they don’t realize they are being bullied.
Sure they recognize when someone is mean to them, but they don’t recognize many social cues such as sarcasm, which sets them up for prolonged mistreatment by others. Here is a great video that demonstrates what I am referring to.
I know I don’t have to explain to you the significance or the negative impacts that bullying can have on a child, so instead I will share with you some tips on how to tell if an autistic child is being bullied. I am purposely omitting the obvious warning signs such as unexplained bruises or cuts, unexplained missing personal items etc…and am simply focusing on signs specific to children on the spectrum.
Signs Of Bullying
Blaming themselves for problems – Sometimes kids do this on their own and that’s understandable. If you find an autistic child doing this uncharacteristically when they don’t normally do so, if you see and increase in how often they are blaming themselves, or if you constantly see them blaming themselves for unrelated things that are clearly not their fault, this may be a sign of bullying.
Unexplained meltdowns or increase in the number of meltdowns – Many kids on the spectrum have meltdowns. This is a typical part of autism. If you see an unexplained sudden increase in the number of meltdowns they have, or if you begin to see meltdowns for no discernible reason when in the past you’ve been able to figure out the root cause, you should start asking questions related to bullying.
Talks about new “friends” who you know have been trouble in the past – Whereas there is nothing wrong, and it is in fact encouraged, for our kids to make new friends, be wary if they are suddenly friends with people who have caused problems for them in the past.
Unexplained changes in routine – If there’s one thing we can be sure of with our kiddos, it’s that they HAVE to keep their routine. If you notice sudden changes in their routine, especially routines involving school, you should be asking questions.
An increase in sad meltdowns – Many people who are unfamiliar with autism may not realize this, but meltdowns aren’t always filled with anger. Sometimes a meltdown can be filled with sadness and tears. Watch out for an unexplained increase in these types of meltdowns as they may be a sign that an autistic child is suffering from being bullied.
There are SO many signs of bullying, I am sure this has just scratched the surface. If you have more signs you wish to share, I urge you to leave a comment on the YouTube video from above. Share what you know, and help others!
Don’t Stop Believing In Them
This may sound simplistic. You might be saying to yourself, “I would never give up on a child.” This isn’t something that happens overnight though. It isn’t a conscious decision you make, thinking to yourself “I think I’ll just give up on this kid.”
It’s a slow process where you begin accepting the kiddos limitations and stop striving daily for continuous improvement. A cycle where you’ve accepted things as they are. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to recognize that our children do have limitations. This is true for all people regardless of whether or not they have autism.
Accepting the limitations of a child with autism however, does not mean you shouldn’t continuously strive for improvement.
I think this happens because noticeable improvements often times takes so long. In some cases it can take years to see small improvements. And sometimes there are areas in our kids lives that may never improve.
You find yourself drudging through life day to day trying to survive rather than pushing to thrive.
I can tell you from experience, improvement DOES happen. And the more you work on things, the faster and further that improvement will happen. I admit, there will be some areas where the improvement never reaches the level you hope it will. There will also be areas however, that far exceed what you thought possible.
You may tell Mr or Ms Quirky a thousand times to use their words before it finally sinks in. NEVER GIVE UP!
We’ve talked about a lot of things that you shouldn’t do with an autistic child in this article, but I want to give you one for yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over past mistakes you may have made, or for blunders that you might still make. You’re not perfect! In fact none of us are.
I’ll be openly honest with you and say that even though I teach, preach, treat, parent and advocate about autism I still make mistakes. And not always little ones either! Big fat juicy mistakes, where I’m lying in bed later that night wishing I had handled things in a different way. There are times when I’m in a situation and I have to step back and ask myself what I would advise someone else to do, because I’m about to lose it myself LOL! It’s OK.
Most of the time there are no concrete right or wrong answers. Much of what we go through on a daily basis falls into gray areas. We have a sense of direction where we want to go, but the path to get there is hidden. Only hindsight is 20/20. Everything else is an educated guess at best.
I don’t know who it is in your life that has given you reason to research autism, or what has led you to read this article. What I do know though, is that whatever autistic person out there is the cause for this, they are fortunate to have YOU in their life.
Despite all your potential mistakes and imperfections, you care enough to strive to be better yourself, and THAT makes you special!
Autism can be hard. I’m not talking end of the world hard, just challenging. It’s challenging for the autistic person themselves trying to make sense of a neurotypical world. Challenging too for the parent, the friend, the grandparents, the teacher or anyone directly involved.
As with most things in life though, it’s not the “doing” that is hard, it’s the understanding. No test is difficult if you already know the answers. The hard part is studying for all of the potential questions. The challenging part is picking an answer that “best fits” a vague question when the question then requires a follow up based on your answer and you have no idea what the next part will be!
I stated earlier to never stop believing in someone with autism, but it’s just as important to never stop believing in yourself. Never stop trying to find a better way to explain something. Continuously research and strive to better understand autism and the behaviors associated with an autism diagnosis.
I talk about this a lot because I feel it’s vital to people better understanding autism. It’s usually not the behaviors that are a problem, it’s how we view those behaviors. The difference between something good versus bad is simply how we view it.
A child screaming in the store for no apparent reason is typically seen as bad. A child screaming because they are in pain or have lost their parents and are scared becomes a different issue. It doesn’t change the fact the child is screaming, it simply changes how you see it. In your mind it goes from anger towards the child to empathy.
Having a better understanding autism can make all the difference in the world.