Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum: How to Make a Tough Job Easier

“Our son has high-functioning autism and ADHD.  His behavior is affecting every member of our family. We love him of course, but his meltdowns and tantrums are putting a great deal of stress on our marriage, and his siblings. We have put our resources of time and money towards providing treatment and interventions for him - to the exclusion of other priorities – with no positive outcome thus far. I am beyond burned out. To complicate matters, my parents believe that our son simply needs some old school discipline. They are so out-of-the-loop on what’s going on – it’s heart-rending.”

Having a child with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can be hard on the entire family. Usually one parent (often the mom) recognizes and faces the problem sooner or more readily than the other. Confusion and disagreement can result.

For example:
  • Grandparents may blame the parents for not giving enough direct help to the youngster, not doing enough, not being disciplined enough, organized enough, etc.
  • Neighbors can be intolerant if the youngster has low-frustration tolerance, tends to explode or cry at each hurdle, or is very hyperactive.
  • Siblings often resent the amount of attention given to their “special needs” brother or sister, and they may even assert that he/she is a spoiled brat who is perfectly capable.

Almost on a daily basis, the AS or HFA youngster raises the aggravation-factor in family life. Conflict frequently stems from the youngster’s misunderstanding of instructions or going off on a tangent. When wrong or criticized, he may fall apart, withdraw, or act-out in one form or another. Due to the fact that he has trouble dealing with sequences and order, he doesn’t plan well.

This child is usually very disorganized. He may be distracted easily and is often impulsive. Just getting dressed for school in the morning can be a grueling task – sometimes resulting in flare-ups on the part of the youngster and his parents. And, he may leave everyone on edge, because his behavior is inconsistent and full of ups-and-downs, unpredictable, and erratic.

Emotionally, the AS or HFA child is very immature and fragile. She may personalize things that have nothing to do with her (e.g., when family members are laughing at something, she may be convinced that she is being laughed at, and as a result, may get very upset). Also, her moods swing widely; she may be laughing one moment, and crying the next. This fluctuation of emotions is hard to live with.

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

To complicate matters further, the young person on the autism spectrum is prone to anxiety and depression. His sense of defeat and failure may be contagious, in that the whole family can feel his vulnerability and misery. Oftentimes parents, who are otherwise very competent in their daily lives, feel very incompetent when with their “special needs” child. This can take a toll on them. Support and education may be necessary to strengthen their sense of confidence and capability in effectively parenting their child.

The AS or HFA child may be unable to play successfully with even one peer – and certainly not two. She has difficulty reading social cues (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, etc.). Also, she tends to be a very literal and concrete (e.g., can’t deal with subtleties, inferences, nuances, or multiple meanings). This affects peer-relationships and family life because she often can’t understand sarcasm, jokes, or subtle teasing. One of the consequences of this is that the child has to be taught explicitly how to relate to other people.


What can parents do to help? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Coach your child through common social situations until he or she develops appropriate interpersonal behaviors.

2. Kids with AS and HFA often respond well to positive reinforcement. Therefore, always be looking for opportunities to praise your child for the behaviors he is doing well. Be very specific, so that he knows exactly what you liked about his behavior. In addition to verbal acknowledgment of proper behavior, you may want to reward him with extra playtime or a small prize (e.g., a token or sticker).

3. Consider showing the wrong way of handling a situation, and then have your child critique you. The process of problem-solving, acting situations out, and talking about various scenarios will help your child to think through a wider range of options.

4. Stay consistent and on schedule. AS and HFA children like routines. Make sure your child gets consistent guidance and interaction. This can make learning new skills and behaviors easier, and will help him apply his knowledge in different situations. Also, talk to your child’s teachers and therapists, and try to align on a consistent set of methods of interaction so you can bring what your son is learning home.

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

5. Provide your child with practice in anticipating what might happen in various social situations.

6. Take your son along for everyday tasks. If his behavior is unpredictable, you may feel like it’s easier not to expose him to certain situations. But, if you take your child on everyday activities (e.g., grocery shopping, post office run, etc.), it will help him get used to the world around him.

7. Role-play with your child about what to do or say when he wants to join a game that his siblings or peers are playing.

8. Get some support (e.g., online support groups, support from other parents of kids on the spectrum, professionals, friends, etc.). Also, individual, marital, or family counseling can be helpful. Think about what can make your life a bit easier – and ask for help.

9. Work with your AS or HFA child on reading gestures and movements, reading faces, and learning what is - and is not - appropriate to say.

10. Most importantly, take care of your mental health. Here are some ways to accomplish this goal:
  •  Simplify, simplify, simplify…
  • Write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal. This will help you clarify things and can give you a renewed perspective.
  • Use your weekend time for a change of pace. For example, if your work week is fast-paced and full of deadlines, seek peace and solitude on the weekend. If your work week is slow and boring, make sure there is action and time for spontaneity built into your days off. 
  • Always remember that for every one thing that goes wrong, there are probably 10 to 50 blessings. Count them!
  • Unplug your phone and take a long bath, meditate, or read without interruptions. Have the courage to temporarily “disconnect.” 
  • Try to have a forgiving view of events and people. Accept the fact that we all live in an imperfect world.
  • Schedule a realistic day. Avoid the tendency to schedule back-to-back appointments. 
  • Say “no” to extra projects, social activities, and invitations you know you don’t have the time or energy for.
  • Relax your standards. The world will not end if your child leaves his dirty underwear on the floor, for example.
  • Learn to delegate responsibility to others.
  • Prepare for the morning the evening before (e.g., set the breakfast table, make lunches, put out the clothes you plan to wear, etc.).
  • Eliminate (or restrict) the amount of caffeine and sugar in your diet.
  • Only do one thing at a time. When you are busy with a project, concentrate on doing that project and forget about everything else. When you are with someone, be with that person and with no one or anything else. 
  • Learn to live one day at a time.
  • Learn the difference between needs and preferences. Our basic physical needs translate into water, food, and proper shelter. Everything else is a preference. Don’t get attached to preferences.
  • If an especially unpleasant task faces you, do it early in the day and get it over with. Then, the rest of your day will be less stressful.
  • Get up fifteen minutes earlier in the morning. In this way, the predictable morning mishaps will be less stressful.
  • Learn to be more flexible. Some things are worth not doing perfectly.
  • Get enough sleep. Use an alarm clock to remind you to go to bed.
  • Every day, do something you really enjoy.
  • Eliminate destructive self-talk (e.g., “I must be doing something wrong, otherwise my child wouldn’t have all these problems”).
  • Do anything that will improve your appearance. Looking better can help you feel better.
  • Allow yourself time every day for quiet, privacy, and introspection.
  • Discuss your problems with a trusted friend. This will help clear your mind of confusion so you can concentrate on problem-solving.
  • Check your breathing throughout the day – and before, during and after high pressure situations. If you find that your breathing is shallow, relax all your muscles and take several deep, slow breaths. 
  • Always set up some “just in case” plans (e.g., “If we get split up while at the Mall, here’s where we’ll meet”).
  • Lastly, try to have an optimistic view of the world. Believe that most people are doing the best they can – even your “special needs” child.

Moms and dads whose youngster has been diagnosed with AS or HFA experience a multitude of emotions. They become, through no choice of their own, pioneers in an unknown world of terminology, programs, and treatments. However, in learning to negotiate this daunting territory, parents can benefit from practicing a few basic techniques that will ensure success for both their youngster – and themselves.

==> Need more parenting strategies to effectively parent your child with ASD? You'll find a bunch of them right here...

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



•    Anonymous said… Exactly what we did. Our son is 16 and we just let him be. He is a super good kid but has no use whatsoever in socializing except when he’s gaming with the headphones. He won’t go anywhere except school and refuses therapy. For my sanity, I stopped trying to do all that. His life is different, his needs and wants are different. He’s content and I’m not so stressed.
•    Anonymous said… Find someone who will understand your child and "why" behaviors are effective for you kiddo. Don't let a on size all approach try to squeeze skills in. Understanding is the key to change not long list of boxes to check of their programs.
•    Anonymous said… Hahaha sometimes I would love to see them try. I think they won have them back before that time. My son is the same way and when a member of the family says something like that in day here take him, please. .. the never do  :)
•    Anonymous said… I feel this way all the time. I’m just burned out and haven’t seen any progress with social skills groups and counseling. My other kids have had to endure hours of waiting or doing homework in the car to make all the appointments happen. Just tired.
•    Anonymous said… I have a 15 year old and I can relate. I thought things would improve as he gets older but it hasn’t. I’m scared for his future but I wake up with hope everyday. Hope keeps me going. I hope things improve for all of us.
•    Anonymous said… I'm dealing with that with my 11 Year old and my Ex was /is the same way...thinking our son will "grow out of it"'s son has Aspergers and ADHD/SPD ...I feel like I'll be in your position in the future. Hugs to you .
•    Anonymous said… It can feel really isolating when family don't understand HFA!!! I find it can make you feel like a poor parent on top of the everyday struggling. At our place we are starting progress pages on the fridge that tackle one behaviour at a time. We include the whole family in the chart. For example our first is manners. Adding the visual and hands on aspect it makes the behaviour focus more concrete and less abstract. Once the behaviour has been rehearsed enough and feels more logical and comes naturally we'll move to the next behaviour.
•    Anonymous said… I've come to learn that nobody outside of the home can ever understand what goes on on a daily basis. It's sometimes the accumulation of little things, things that on their own seem petty, that ware you down. We've learned to take life in 24 hour doses. Even if issues carry over from day to day, each day is an opportunity to succeed or fail. But today's failure, or more accurately obstacles not failures, do not dictate the next days success.
•    Anonymous said… My ex refused to have her treated, shoot, he refused to have her diagnosed. She is now 21 and my job is to remind her to bathe, brush her teeth, and always put on clean clothes from the skin out. We live one day at a time. Sometimes it is one minute at a time. My advice is like many others. Relax, breathe, pick your battles and love each other.
•    Anonymous said… My son of 23 is out of control have been told to contact NDIS?
•    Anonymous said… Old school discipline  🙄 Somebody once told me that they'd have my son "straightened out" in a week. Um, no. He'll have you straightened out.
•    Anonymous said… Our son is 20 and the transition into adulthood has been so hard. 1 step forward 3 steps back. It's my wife and I alone. No breaks, no support from family. We are exhausted, frustrated and discouraged. No one understands what it is like to live with an ADHD Aspergers kid unless they have done so. If I had a dollar for everytime some one said: " have you tried... or you should..." most days I wonder how or if it will all end. What will become of him. Will he ever be able to leave home and live on his own. Will he ever have a happy life. Or for that matter will my wife and I ever have any peace our selves. Selfish? Yes. Our lives and marriage are controlled by our son. It's a never ending saga for the two of us at an age (we're in our early 50s)when our life together is supposed to be about the two of us. Raising an Aspergers kid is a daunting, exhausting task.
•    Anonymous said… so nice to share the frustrations. our son is almost 18 and the "to adult" transition not going well.
•    Anonymous said… Stop trying to treat him? Stop having him be the bad centre of your family? Try no treatment and no interventions for six month whilst you all spend time loving and caring for each other. I speak from experience. We live more quietly and empathically and we stopped setting our son up to fail. Take off the pressure.
•    Anonymous said… Thank you for saying this. There’s so much pressure to put your AS kid through endless expensive and time consuming treatments. The most helpful advice I was ever given was to spend patient quiet time doing structured activities together.
•    Anonymous said… That could have been written by us. It still breaks my heart looking back on what we all went through for so many years. Bruises, broken walls and tenuous relationships...The good news is now that he is 16, he has matured so much and behaviors are under control. Keep your child involved in a high interest activity- it helps.
•    Anonymous said… The part that’s really hard is the oldest sibling not tolerating any of our sons behavior... it breaks my heart... and it’s so stressful
•    Anonymous said… They all become functioning adults to some degree. How many HFAs do you see in your workplace? Recognizing them brings a whole new appreciation to working with "different personalities".
•    Anonymous said… this is Noah. The way his brain functions.
•    Anonymous said… Unfortunately there is NO short term therapy for AS children. Unfortunately, changes can take years. Temple Grandin spoke about her mom enforcing consistency wherever Temple went so that aunts, uncles, grandparents were all on the same page as to what behaviors they would accept etc. Made a difference for her in that she can work and function and behave in society.
•    Anonymous said… We have found narrowing it down to one word, "unacceptable", helps. Our son is 16 and if I had to walk him through the whys every time Id have a skull size hole in my brick wall. He understands all we're doing is letting him know what behaviour is unacceptable outside the house for his own safety and it seems to work. At times he may get frustrated but he understands its a one word, non-negotiable, non-confrontational observation. No pressure *wink* Works for us anyways.
•    Anonymous said… We have taken a break from BI. It was nice but really, didn’t seem to do a lot. Its so hard to know what works, BI, medication, trampolines!? The list is endless, thats why its frustrating when nothing really changes. We just love him, accept him, use autism-appropriate discipline, and deal with great days and tough days. And yes, we have tried everything. Autism has no cure, we just do what works best for our son. Every family dynamic is so different from another. Do what works best for your child.  😊
•    Anonymous said… must accept that your child is unique and do not see the world as the rest...most of them think outside of the box....learn what the triggers are and try to avoid those if possible...for the rest just take a deep breath and don't worry about the rest...they don't understand and never will.

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