• Janele Hoerner

10 Ways to Help a Family with a Child with Autism Feel Less Stress

It is no secret that the Holidays are a very stressful time of year. The extra expectations, events, and parties that are supposed to be magical and wondrous most times fall short. They are anticipated to only leave the adults stressed out and overwhelmed although as the snowflakes dance softly from the sky children also become stressed out and overwhelmed. Even though the children are expected to play merrily about amidst the chaos of the adult’s hectic chosen schedules. Most individuals believe they are choosing to make all this fun for the kids and the kids can recover from the lack of sleep, be resilient among the crazy schedules, and have a ton of fun amidst it all and yet it’s all a grownup created fantasy.

Reality is, this type of Holiday happiness is not only stressful for adults it can leave a child with Autism engaging in self injurious behavior, rocking back and forth, hiding in their safe place all while desperately attempting to communicate that they just want their security back. Although how are they supposed to communicate that to everyone bouncing about around them when they cannot even begin to relax from the high that their family, the ones who are supposed to care the most about them, put them in?

Below are 10 tips that can be passed along to family members before arrival so that a special needs child can respond as happily as possible for the Holiday bliss:

1. Do not show up unannounced, EVER!

A simple phone call or email ahead of time, preferably the night before asking for the best time to visit is enough to ease the surprise it bestows upon the child and avoid the ill effect it may have in ruining the rest of the child’s (and their parent’s) day. Children with Autism need to prepare themselves ahead of time for what will happen next and if their schedule is altered they will not respond well. Think of the child and what is in the child’s best interest, not yours.

2. Enter the home calmly with no loud noises.

As you are coming through the door, keep your voice in a lower regimen- showing no excitement or complex emotions. Leave gifts and packages in the car, so that the child is not overwhelmed by something other than your person. Greet the child as you would a sleeping infant while using a slow and whisper-like speech.

3. Let the child come to you, never approach a child with autism unexpectedly.

Speak with the parent and although while welcoming the child to come to you, never go after the child. Keep your voice calm if you want to call their name, but do not call more than once, they will hear you. However, in the same instance they may be choosing to ignore you until they are ready to say hi.

4. Do not demand physical affection upon arrival or departure.

Allow the child to reject the display of affection and accept that. They are in control as to what and how they feel and please do not take that personally. Forcing love upon a child may send their body into sensory overload and allow a meltdown to erupt that could have been avoided by a small choice or your part. You are the adult and by that title you must accept that all individuals feel differently, please do not take the denial of a hug or goodbye personally.

5. Listen to the parent talk, vent, show their emotions but rarely if ever give advice.

Special needs parents have enough to deal with from every person they encounter in the world and hearing your opinion, not matter how close you feel you are, is just another factor that may push them away from you. It is incredibly difficult constantly being told how another person believes you should raise your child, especially if those strategies are ones used to raise a typical child. So, if you care about the parent, allow the parent to confide, vent, and cry to you, but do not judge them in their struggles- support them.

6. Ask how you can help and follow through with what was suggested by the parent.

It is often extreamly hard for a parent to ask for help when they themselves have so many tasks that need to be dealt with in a timely manner. If you want to help, do not suggest that the parent get a cleaning service to have a small break or the like. Instead ask how you can help and really listen to what they are saying. Accept and follow through with what they have said while offering your help at whatever they may need in the future. If you truly want to be helpful, help them in the ways they communicate to you that they need help.

7. Never suggest favoritism toward another child or that another child in the family should be “tested”.

This is a very touchy subject, but it has a relatively simple explanation. A parent raising a child with autism may not be able to show love in the ways you would expect to their Autistic child so they may seem to give those extra hugs to another child. However, this does behavior does not suggest favoritism to another child. The parent must show love in an appropriate way for their child’s benefit and they are being selfless in seeing the needs of the child before the needs of themselves. Secondly, a parent will already be aware of the signs of Autism and does not need to believe that other people are judging, as well as attempting to diagnose their other children. The simple suggestion may negatively impact your already fragile relationship.

8. Avoid generalized comments towards the family.

Comments such as, “You are doing too much”, “Let me help you out sometime”, “Let me watch said child for the day so you can relax,” are way to general. They will go right over the special needs parents head and could cause harm to your relationship. Instead say something like, “Can I please make dinner for you at a specified time,” or “Can I become a regular caregiver for said child”, and “I would be willing to learn how to care for your child in the appropriate ways or manner that you would like.” These suggestions are concrete that make sense to the parents overstimulated mind without making them feel as if they are failing in your eyes.

9. Never buy the child a toy with noise as a present- no matter how cute it is.

Refrain from buying a child a toy that you feel is a lot of fun, instead buy the family a gift card to a store (preferably online) so that the parent can pick out what the child may need. This helps to not overstimulating the family with another chore of either disposing of the item or adding more stress to the family unit by the intrusion of the toy.

10. Lastly, learn to love the child for who they are, not who you believe them to be.

Try not to make or have expectations for what you want to happen at your visit. Having a child with autism is extreamly different than raising a typical child, so please be understanding that this family needs to function in a new way from what you may believe. These parents are doing the best they possibly can with the child they have been gifted and you need to be okay with that.

11. Bonus clue- If you see a child with special needs out in public, and you must look at them or a behavior they are doing for a moment just smile while you look- Please don’t point and stare. These children deserve the same respect you would give your own child.

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