Grandparenting an autistic child is challenging, but you have an opportunity to learn much about human nature as you build a relationship with the special child in your life. The following information is designed to help you develop an understanding of pervasive developmental disorders and treatment plans, as well as ways you can help your grandchild to navigate the social world.
Understanding autism is extremely challenging since the spectrum is so very broad and common myths and misconceptions about autistic disorders can be confusing. Autism is fundamentally a neurological condition that affects the way the child processes and relays information. The key issues directly relate to the symptoms of autism.
- Communication is a significant challenge. Language development in cases of autism does not occur naturally, as it does with neurotypical children. Your grandchild has to learn language intellectually rather than acquiring communication skills automatically.
- Difficulty understanding figurative language
- Needs visual aids
- May benefit from sign language
- Social interaction is challenging because the child with autism processes verbal and nonverbal cues differently.
- The child does not always interpret smiles, frowns or other facial expressions appropriately
- There also seems to be "mind blindness" in many cases, in which the autistic person does not realize that other people have thoughts and feelings that different from his
- May want to play with peers, but does not seem to know how
- Sensory problems can be very troublesome because they can be very uncomfortable.
- May be hypersensitive or under-sensitive to lights, sounds, and smells
- May have difficulty tolerating certain textures in foods or fabrics
- May become overwhelmed in public places
- May engage in "stims"
Self-Stimulatory BehaviorsMany grandparents may have the urge to prevent their grandkids with autism from engaging in the stereotypical repetitive movements commonly associated with pervasive developmental disorders. These behaviors may be unusual, but they serve a purpose and repressing the behavior can lead to behaviors, internal stims, or tantrums.Some behaviors you may see include but are not limited to:
- Hand flapping
- Toe walking
- "Sighting" (squinting, following objects with eyes, coming up close to objects…)
- Burrowing into couches or pillows
Your grandchild's treatment plan is individually developed to address specific problems. The program focuses on strengths, interests, objectives and long-term goals.
One of the most important aspects of caring for a child with autism is becoming actively involved in the treatment plan. The ideal program uses a team that includes nearly everyone who comes into contact with the child. The process involves:
- Your grandchild's specific diagnosis
- Know the goals and objectives outlined in the treatment plan
- Become familiar with drills and autism treatments
Common treatment approaches for autism spectrum disorders include:
- Applied behavioral analysis (ABA)
- Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
- Music therapy
- Therapeutic horses
- Occupational therapy
- Sensory Integration
- Speech therapy
Grandparenting an Autistic Child
Grandparents of children with autism have a different perception than parents do. Grandparents have the extra challenge of trying to help their children as well as their grandchildren. Couples who have children with autism have many hurdles to face including a significant grieving period. Other challenges include:
- Financial strain
- Emotional distress
- Marital problems (an estimated 85 percent of couples with autistic children divorce)
- Insufficient community support
- Insufficient advocacy
- Alienation from parents of neurotypical children
- Stress from having parenting skills called into question
- Stress about the child's future
How Grandparents Can Help
Grandparenting an autistic child is a process that involves great patience, compassion and empathy. Some things that you can do to help your grandchild include:
- Provide occasional respite for parents
- Offer help with transportation
- Attend meetings with the treatment team
- Provide constructive feedback
- Set a consistent routine with your grandchild
- Encourage interaction whenever possible
- Follow the child's cues
- Use visual aids like the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
- Plan activities that have a definite beginning, middle and end
The holidays are of particular concern for parents of children on the spectrum because they have to deal with significant changes in routine. Practicing for holidays weeks or months in advance can help.
Resources for Grandparents of Autistic Children
Some resources can help, especially when grandparents have a chance to exchange ideas and experiences. Some helpful resources that can help make grandparenting a child on the spectrum a little easier include:
- Autism Society of America
- Southwestern Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC)
- Grandparents Autism Network
Grandparenting an autistic child involves becoming involved in the child's treatment plan while allowing parents to retain their primary role. Your support and guidance can help your grandchild to learn how to navigate the world around her with great success.