(The following is a previously posted article that may be worth revisiting)
We all accept that having a child with autism is challenging. It is challenging because we often do not grow up knowing much about disabilities or how to be supportive, unless you grew up knowing someone. Parents have to learn how to not only understand the autism, which means lots of conversations with experts and the introduction of a whole new vocabulary, but it also means they have to learn to make decisions on behalf of their child. Decisions that they have never made before. So we can all agree, this life is challenging for families impacted by autism. Also, of course, very rewarding.
Now, for grandparents, they get an extra layer of hard! You are in the role of being supportive to not only your child, but also the grandchild with autism. That was foreign territory for your child and my guess is that in most cases, it is new territory for you too. Adding to that, you are likely in a position where you provide care to the grandchild, have him/her over, and are working to develop that special grandparent-grandchild relationship. It is all a tall order! Yet, it is also an extremely rewarding and positive experience when there is help and guidance along the way. Here, I’d like to talk about how to support the activities and interests of a child with autism. No doubt many grandparents love to visit or have their grandchildren visit the home. This is great! However, grandparents may notice that the grandchild with autism seems, in some cases, a bit particular about what he/she wants to do with their time. This can be challenging to know how to navigate but my one quick tip is to try your best not to “should” on yourself at these times.
We all have things that we should do like eating healthy, exercising, and managing stress. We strive to be at our best but know that at times, we will make mistakes and fall below our own expectations. Families and children impacted by autism have these same aspirations.
However, for children with autism, these activities may not come as easily. This is for several reasons. First, one of the key diagnostic features of autism is a child’s limited and restricted interests. What this means is that many children with autism have a limited number of activities or preferences. This is why you may see a child with autism who likes to mostly play with string, or seems to only like to play with trains, or who watches the same videos repeatedly. This may look like an “obsession” to some but it is part of the autism spectrum. What therapists, teachers, and many parents work hard to do is to expand the interests of their child through programs at school and in the community. However, it is a significant challenge to overcome. Imagine for yourself being asked to stop liking football so much and watch hockey instead. You might think hockey is fine, but you really prefer football. If someone kept trying to switch the channel from football to hockey or kept wanting to take you to hockey games rather than football, you can see how this might be distressing. The difference between you and the kiddo with autism is that likely you have numerous activities you enjoy…so just imagine if the ONLY activity was football. How hard would that be to leave the one thing you really like and learn to try to like something new? Hard!
This issue is also related to the language issues inherent in autism. It is not as easy as saying, “you should try out some art classes” to a child with autism in an attempt to suggest other activities the child could get engaged in. In fact, saying something like that to a parent of a child with autism can make them feel like you don’t think they are doing enough or it can make them feel isolated because so many do not understand how challenging it can be to get a child with autism to acquire new interests. It can be done and in most cases and there will be people in the child’s life trying to help them to do so, but keep in mind how hard it must be.
So all that to say, as we interact around parents of children with autism, we may be thinking that there are a lot of “shoulds” that need to happen. We should like different foods, or we should get the child to exercise more, or we should give them different toys, but as stated earlier, should is a great concept, but a longer process.