Empowering Children on the Autism Spectrum: The Ultimate Parenting Challenge

What are some of the best tips for "empowering" a special needs child on the autism spectrum?

Raising a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High Functioning Autism (HFA) will have its ups and downs. There are going to be times when you want to crawl back into bed and put the covers up over your head (and occasionally you have to give in to that). But, you have to get right back up and push forward. You should always keep your eye on the prize, which is your “special needs” youngster.

Even though raising a youngster on the autism spectrum is a long journey, moms and dads have many options and places to turn for help. Early intervention is key. You have to get going right away, because time is of the essence. Get focused on what your mission is. Here’s how…

Best tips for empowering a child on the autism spectrum:

1. Assess your youngster's need for medication. While there is no medication for Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism, there are drugs for specific symptoms that your child might display. For instance, the FDA approved Risperdal in 2006 for the treatment of irritability in young people with the disorder. Short attention spans can sometimes be improved with stimulant drugs that are used to treat ADD or ADHD. Asperger’s and HFA kids who have anxiety, depression, or OCD behaviors can often be treated with anti-depressants.

Drugs have a limited role in improving symptoms of Asperger’s. However, some may help prevent self-injury and other behaviors that are causing difficulty. Medicines may also take a youngster on the spectrum to a functional level so he or she can benefit from other treatments. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests targeting the main problem behaviors when considering medicines.

2. Become very familiar with public policies so you can be your youngster's advocate in gaining the best education and care possible. For example, make sure that plans (504 or IEP) are in place for your youngster to receive therapies at school.

3. Beware of irritating sensations. Many children with Asperger’s and HFA are hypersensitive to certain sounds, lighting conditions, skin sensations, tastes, textures, temperatures, and certain colors. The exact form of these hypersensitivities tends to vary over time, but most kids require some adult recognition of the problem and adjustments to limit their exposure to them. A variety of programs to desensitize kids to touch and sound sensitivities are being researched, and may offer hope in the future.

4. Communicate with other professionals and moms/dads, and learn from those who have crossed this bridge before you.

5. Consider supplementation. One supplement some moms and dads feel is helpful for a youngster with the disorder is vitamin B-6, which is taken with a magnesium supplement. The results of research studies are mixed on vitamin B-6 and magnesium supplementation. While many kids respond positively, some respond negatively or not at all.

6. Develop a consistent structure and routine. Children with Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism thrive best in an environment where things are predictable. They usually have great difficulty with unexpected change and lack of structure. So, have a schedule that your youngster follows every day, and do things in the same way. Some kids can cope with a free-time schedule and appraise the happenings of the day each morning. Others will need to be scheduled right down to the task of putting on clothing.

7. Do not expect your youngster to tolerate new people or group situations. If your youngster must be with a group, allow him or her a large personal space and opportunity for escape.

8. Find local support groups and parent network organizations for families of kids on the spectrum. Ask your doctor for referrals. Also, join online chat groups.

9. Get support for yourself. The burden of raising a youngster on the spectrum can be lightened by family, friends, community agencies, and others who have shared similar experiences. Gathering your support network involves knowing ahead of time whom you can call for different types of support (and emergencies), including: (a) emotional support (e.g., a close friend or family member who is a confidant and whom you  trust with your most personal feelings and concerns), (b) social support (e.g., a friend or colleague you enjoy being with and who helps you survive disappointments and shares your victories), (c) informational support (e.g., your youngster's doctor, teachers, therapists, or other caregivers you can ask for advice on major decisions regarding his or her treatment), and (d) practical support (e.g., a neighbor or close friend who will help you out in a pinch).

10. Learn more about diet changes. Diet changes are based on the idea that food allergies and/or an insufficiency of a specific vitamin or mineral can cause symptoms of Asperger’s and HFA. If you decide to try a special diet for a given period of time, be sure you talk to your doctor and a registered dietitian. The youngster's nutritional status must be assessed and carefully measured. One diet that some moms and dads have found helpful is a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet. Gluten is a casein-like substance found in wheat, oats, rye, and barley. Casein is the principal protein in dairy products such as milk. Ask for guidance from your youngster's doctor or nutritionist to ensure your youngster is getting adequate nutritional value from his or her diet.

11. Learn to live with some stereotypic behavior. When your youngster is in public, you want to train him or her to behave as well as possible, but at home, the child should have opportunity to just be himself or herself. Many self-stimulatory and characteristic behaviors serve a purpose. Thus, while it may seem advisable to try to prevent some of the more peculiar behaviors, it is extremely difficult to eliminate fixations entirely. Eliminated behaviors are typically and quickly replaced by another self-stimulatory or unusual behavior. The new behavior may or may not be more tolerable than the initial behavior, and programs to eliminate these behaviors must carefully consider the possible consequences.

Diminishing the frequency, or limiting the expression of stereotypic behavior to certain times and places, are the most reasonable goals. These are best accomplished by some disregarding, redirecting, or providing another task to focus on. Substitution or training to reduce some peculiar behaviors can help the youngster to appear less different in the school or community. This involves adult intervention and requires detection of equally reinforcing alternate behaviors. Any behavior to be changed will need to be replaced with a behavior that is at least as pleasurable to the youngster.

12. Look for warning signs that come before meltdowns. Once you can identify warning signs, you may be able to adjust the situation to prevent a meltdown. For many kids on the spectrum, a meltdown is their only method of communicating a need or distress. Other “typical” kids may be quite helpful in figuring out the message of a meltdown and the warning signs.

13. Plan outings with other families who have a youngster on the spectrum. There are many families who share your concerns and daily challenges. Talking openly with these families can give you new insight and better ways of coping.

14. Plan time for breaks. Many moms and dads of kids with Asperger’s and HFA feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and sometimes defeated. They talk about difficulties in their marriage and other relationships. While there is no quick fix for resolving negative emotions, you can take measures to protect yourself so your youngster's disorder does not get in the way of your physical or emotional health. Review your calendar weekly. In the midst of the many appointments your youngster might have with speech or occupational therapists or other health care professionals, write in "appointments" for yourself and your relationships. Schedule regular dates with your spouse, other kids in the family, and close friends.

15. Prepare your youngster for changes in routine. For some kids, this will require only a reminder of the next event (e.g., "First dinner, then bath"). For others, the use of pictures can help with the transition.

16. Protect your youngster from aggressive role models as much as possible. Kids with Asperger’s and HFA often copy behaviors without understanding why the other person did them. This “copy-cat behavior” is called echopraxia (i.e., the abnormal repetition of the actions of another person). This is similar to the echolalia (i.e., the echoing of words or phrases) many kids on the spectrum engage in. Both forms of echoing may occur immediately, or in a delayed fashion. Kids who are spanked or hit are more likely to hit others.

Those who observe violent behavior at home, in school or in the community, as well as in movies or cartoons, may also imitate it inappropriately. Decide which TV shows are appropriate for your youngster to watch. This will require considerable adult insight and the cooperation of all family members, including siblings.

17. Read all you can on Autism Spectrum Disorders so you understand the symptoms and behaviors and the differences in medications or alternative therapies.

18. Review the recommended treatment options. Experts agree that a youngster with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism should receive treatment as soon after diagnosis as possible. There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders, but early intervention using skills training and behavior modification techniques can yield good results. This type of educational and behavioral treatment tackles autism-related symptoms (e.g., impaired social interaction, communication problems, repetitive behaviors, etc.), and can boost the youngster's chances of being able to go to school and participate in normal activities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following techniques for helping a youngster with the disorder improve overall function and reach his or her potential: (1) speech therapy can help the youngster improve language and social skills to communicate more effectively; (2) occupational and physical therapy can help improve any deficiencies in coordination, muscle tone, and motor skills – and may also help the youngster to learn to process information from the senses (i.e., sight, sound, hearing, touch, and smell) in more manageable ways; and (3) behavioral training and management uses positive reinforcement, self-help, and social skills training to improve behavior and communication.

19. Teach your extended family members about the disorder. Many parents of children with Asperger’s talk about feeling isolated. Once a youngster is diagnosed, parents often find that some family members stop asking about the youngster, or the youngster is left out of birthday parties or other family gatherings. Sometimes siblings admit to feeling stressed, lonely, and even angry, as all attention is focused on their Asperger’s brother or sister.

While these feelings are natural, you can help your family members cope by educating them about the disorder and your youngster's specific needs. Training family members about the disorder and how to effectively manage the symptoms has been shown to reduce family stress and improve the functioning of the child. Some families will need more outside assistance than others depending on their internal functioning, established support systems, and financial situation.

20. Work closely with your child’s school. His or her curriculum will require a major focus on self-care and social skills. Deciding what your youngster needs to learn in school will depend on his or her unique features, level of intelligence, family setting, and need to function in the community. The family and school should decide together on the critical skills your youngster needs to develop, and then work together to train him or her to use these skills in a real life setting.

There's no doubt that raising a youngster with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism is the ultimate parenting challenge. But with the necessary support and ongoing training, you and your family can learn how to cope and work as a team.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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