More than 3.9 million grandmothers are raising their grandkids in their homes. Overall, about 5.4 million kids nationwide live with their grandmothers. In fact, one in 10 grandmothers has been the primary support of a grandkid at some time in their lives. While this is not a new phenomenon in this country, the rate of grandmothers raising their grandkids is increasing, and there is every reason to believe the numbers will continue to grow.
Kids with Aspergers (high-functioning autism) have a special need in their lives for ‘safe’ people who won’t criticize them or put them down for their differences. They need loving, non-judgmental grandmothers who accept them as they are and make a place for them in their lives. If you can reach out to them, they will treasure your relationship with them for the rest of their lives.
Many grandmothers in this care taking role underestimate or are unaware of the added burdens their new role as "mothers" will place upon them. Grandmothers often assume their role will be to nurture and reward kids without having to set limits. When grandmothers serve as mothers, however, they must learn to set limits and establish controls as they did with their own kids.
Grandparents raising Aspergers grandchildren should provide the following:
- advocacy that builds a support system around the kids in their family, neighborhood, and community
- affection and compassion freely given
- guidance modeled by the grandparents’ behaviors
- establishing and maintaining reasonable limits, direction, and activities to meet their needs
- motivation that models and stimulates curiosity and imagination in learning about the world
- nurturing with kindness and attentive listening to feeling and ideas
- understanding that takes into consideration how the grand kids view, influence, and respond to the world around them
In the best of circumstances, kids who are being raised by their grandmothers are going to experience loss and abandonment as well as other issues relating to their place in the family. This is not what they expected out of life.
Nobody knows what causes Aspergers, though most scientists acknowledge a genetic factor. So the deficits your grandkid has can only be understood, minimized and worked around. They will require accommodating on everyone’s part. But in time, with proper programming, the kid’s behavior and understanding of the world should improve.
Often, grandmothers take on the parenting role when the grandkid's own mothers abandon them or when the kids can no longer live with them because of the parent's mental disorder, substance abuse, or incarceration. Thus, you may have the added burden of caring for kids who suffered from abuse or neglect from their own mothers. These kids may feel insecure and afraid; they may be angry at their situation and even embarrassed by it. It will take time for these kids to feel safe and secure. You can encourage these good feelings and ease their adjustment to their new home in a number of ways:
- Help your grandkids to feel that they are "home" by making room for them and their belongings. Your home needs to be welcoming, safe, and kid-friendly.
- Practice positive discipline that emphasizes education, not punishment, and that rewards good behavior with praise.
- Set up a daily routine of mealtimes, bedtime, and other activities so that the kids have some predictability in their lives.
- Set up a few rules, and explain the rules to the kids. Then, enforce them consistently.
- Work on communication skills. Talk to your grandkids, and make sure that the kids know that they can always talk to you.
The deficits that comprise Aspergers are not always readily apparent, especially in milder cases. The kid is usually of average intelligence or higher, yet lacks what are essentially instincts for other kids. If your grandkid seems “perfectly normal” despite the diagnosis you’ve been told about, then he is probably working very hard to make sure he fits in - and it’s not as easy as it looks. It is best to treat your grandkid for what he is - normal. But be prepared to take some advice from those closest to him regarding what is the best way to handle certain situations.
Building new relationships can be difficult. Sometimes, it helps to find things that you can do with your grandkids to nurture your relationship and to make them feel secure and happy in their new home:
- There are many local support groups for grandmothers raising grandkids, and a number of these groups also provide activities for the kids. You might also find welcoming groups at your place of worship or in the local schools or library.
- If you don't have your own computer, use the one at the public library. The library may have classes or other free help for you. You'll find lots of things that you and your grandkids can do on the computer, from games to school research.
- Kids of all ages need to be active. Physical activity may help your grandkids feel better and develop a healthy lifestyle, and it can be an important stress reliever for you.
- Kids love to hear stories, and even older kids may surprise you by sitting quietly as you read aloud. Kids who see you read have a better chance of becoming readers themselves.
Look for ways to be supportive. Let them know that there is another heart tugging at the load - and it’s yours. Keep on the lookout for articles about Aspergers and send them copies. This shows that you are interested. Ask lots of questions about the special programs the kid is in. Be enthusiastic and optimistic. Let them know you think they’re doing a great job. At other times, you can be a sympathetic sounding board when they have difficult decisions to make, or when they just need to tell someone what an awful day they’ve had.
If you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and unhappy, you are not going to be able to provide the best care for your grandkids. It's important that you take care of yourself and not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by your parental responsibilities. Here are some suggestions:
- Talk to someone. This could be a friend or relative or a professional, such as a counselor, family doctor, or someone at your church or temple. Unburdening yourself can be a stress reliever.
- Take a parenting class. A class may help you to feel more comfortable with your status as a caregiver for young kids. It will also provide resources in the form of your teacher and the other students in the class.
- Take a break. A short time away from your grandkids may give you some time to relax. Look for a trusted adult who can babysit or take over while you're out.
- Learn to say "no." You don't have time to do everything. Learn to make priorities, and eliminate the unnecessary tasks in your life.
- Find a support group—either a group specifically for grandmothers raising grandkids or some other support group where you can share your challenges with others who will understand.
Your grandkid needs to know that you are a safe haven in a bewildering world. It may seem a lot to ask to be flexible with a kid who appears to be misbehaving, but inflexibility will only put distance between you and the kid. If the kid’s manners and mannerisms drive you crazy, ask others for suggestions on how to set expectations for your house.
It might be helpful to think of yourself as a seeing-eye dog. Remember, your Aspergers grandchild is “blind” in certain ways. Point out trouble-spots and guide him around them, explain social situations that he can’t “see,” and narrate what you are doing as you do it. By doing so, you’ll help him to feel more secure with you, and you’ll be actively participating in his special programming.
Watch the emotional levels. Asperger kids often have great difficulty sorting out emotions. If you get angry, the kid could lose control because she is unable to deal with your anger and her own confusion at the same time. Reign in your temper when the kid is clumsy, stubborn, or frustrated. In situations where you feel you really need to be firm, keep your tone calm, your movements slow and even, and tell the kid what you’re going to do before you do it. Get advice from others on how to deal with little meltdowns so that you are prepared in advance, but do your best to avoid triggering them.
Here are some simple DO’s to remember:
- Do acknowledge the kid’s expressions of frustration.
- Do control your anger.
- Do get involved in the kid’s interests.
- Do learn what sorts of activities are recommended for the kid.
- Do praise the kid for his strengths.
- Do respect the kid’s fears, even if they seem senseless.
Here are some simple DON’T’s to remember:
- Don’t compare him with his siblings.
- Don’t feel helpless - ask for help.
- Don’t joke, tease, shame, threaten, or demean the kid.
- Don’t talk to him as if he were stupid.
- Don’t tell the kid he will outgrow his difficulties.
There is lots of useful free information for grandmothers. Much of it is available on the Internet. If your computer skills are a little rusty, you can find help at your public library.
The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook