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How parents can help their children with ASD thrive

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Autism spectrum disorder is a “neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave”. (Photo: Envato Elements)
If you have recently learned that your child has or might have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you are probably worried about what will come next. While this might not have been what you had hoped for your family, raising children with autism is a reality for many. In truth, no parents is ever prepared to hear that their child is anything other than happy and healthy, and being told otherwise can be particularly frightening.اضافة اعلان

ASD is a lifelong condition and there are many practical approaches that you can take as a parent and a family to help your child with autism to acquire new skills and help them overcome the challenges they will face. Your child will rely on your help with all aspects of their life and caring for your own mental health and well-being is the first step to ensuring your presence with them and your ability to be the parent they are going to need.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ASD is a “neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.” Although it can be diagnosed at any age, symptoms usually first appear the child’s first two years of life, hence why it is considered to be a developmental disorder.

There are three main characteristics that define ASD. The first is having difficulty with interaction and communication. Children with autism make little to no eye contact, might not use words or gestures to communicate, and do not always understand language and might take everything said to them literally. The second characteristic that defines ASD is repetitive behavior. Children with autism tend to repeat certain sounds such as squealing, grunting, or throat-clearing, and they may also make repetitive movements such as hand-flapping and/or body-rocking. Having narrow interests is another characteristic that is present in children with autism, who tend to stick to a narrow scope of interests such collecting sticks or only playing with trains or cars.

Statistics and studies on the prevalence of autism in Jordan and in the MENA region remain limited. One major contributing factor is the taboo culture around mental illnesses and developmental disorders in the Middle East. Some Jordanian families still consider disorders such as autism to be a “curse”. Therefore, many families might feel ashamed about having a child with autism and may try to hide them from the public to avoid judgment. While some progress has been made in the past decade — with increasing evidence of a more positive attitude towards children with disabilities in Jordan — the Kingdom still falls short in services, programs, government assistance, and other necessary measures that should be provided for children with autism or any other developmental challenge.

One 2020 study published in the Journal of Educational and Social Research aimed to identify daily social and emotional challenges encountered by Jordanian parents of children with ASD. It found that the most common social challenge was the lack of social support, and the most dominant emotional challenges were anger and aggression. Families with children who have autism or other developmental delays or disabilities are far more prone to experiencing anxiety, stress, and depression. Since most of their time and effort is dedicated to fulfilling the needs of their child, parents experience more burnout and difficulty with social adjustment and maintaining their relationships, especially one with their spouse.

It is important to remember that autism is a spectrum, meaning it affects every child differently. Each child will have their own set of challenges and strengths. Therefore it is vital that you understand your child and their needs to help sustain a supportive environment for them. Here are some tips and strategies that you can try as a parent, depending on your child’s needs.

Early diagnosis
Early intervention is the best way to support a child with autism in their development, learning, and well-being. As soon as you begin to notice early signs of autism in your child, do not “wait it out and see” — act quickly and contact your pediatrician. Explain to them all the symptoms you have noticed. If your pediatrician does not seem to find anything wrong but you are still worried, know that it is okay to get a second or even third opinion from a licensed child psychiatrist or therapist.

Early intervention is the best way to support a child with autism in their development, learning, and well-being. (Photo: Shutterstock)

After that you can arrange for an autism assessment by a child psychiatrist to ensure an accurate autism diagnosis and use it as a benchmark to measure your child’s progress. The next step is to read, talk, and ask any and all questions you may have regarding autism to ensure that you are up to date on any advances made in the field, and learn about any new ways of support and therapies used.

Build a support network
Having a supportive network of family and friends can help relieve a lot of the stress that may come with raising a child with autism. This support system can help you make sense of the seemingly endless flow of information and support you in practical ways. Be in contact with whichever school or center qualified to educate your child and be transparent with them about your child’s diagnosis as well as his/her needs. Remain in close contact with the school’s counselor or therapist to follow up on your child’s progress.

Consider meeting and talking to other parents of children with autism so that you can share your experiences with them and help each other face certain challenges together. Knowing that there are others who share your journey and understand your circumstances can offer a sense of relief and support.

Build rapport
When you build rapport with your child, you build affinity, familiarity, and trust. Seek out a method of communication that works for you both; It does not necessarily have to be verbal — you will be able to pick up on any changes in their behavior and in turn alter your behavior to match their presence.

By being an active listener you can give your undivided attention to your child, which will be helpful to gain useful insight into their words and behavior. Share experiences with them and participate in activities that they choose to show that you care about and value their interests. This bond helps facilitate their willingness to communicate with you, making supporting them easier.

Be consistent

Children with autism have a hard time putting what they have learned from therapy or at school into practice. Therefore, it is vital that you create consistency in their environment to ensure and reinforce their learning. Continue any and all techniques and strategies followed by their therapist at home. Create a highly structured routine and schedule with regular meal times, bedtime, and therapy, and try to keep disruptions of this schedule to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable change, it is important that you prepare them for it in advance.

Furthermore, it is also important that you remain consistent with the way you interact with them and deal with their challenging behaviors. Positive discipline and positive reinforcement go a long way. Make a conscious effort to reward any good behavior and praise them appropriately and specifically when they acquire a new skill.

Reshape your outlook on ‘acting out’
Many children with ASD suffer from sensory integration challenges, which means that many “normal” activities can be very triggering to them. You have to accept your child for who they are and remind yourself that they are not trying to frustrate you on purpose, nor are their outbursts a form of manipulation — they are simply responding to an overly stimulating environment. Children have different thresholds for sensory overload, so you have to take it at their pace and should never force them or rush them into an experience that they are not ready for.

Help teach your child different calming strategies that can help with emotional dysregulation. Observe and identify all of their different triggers, which will allow you to intervene before they get upset and experience emotional outbursts. When you first notice a sign of an impending outburst, redirect them with calming statements such as “You look like you are feeling frustrated, do you need to ask for a break?” or “I can see that you are clenching your fists, should we try and do our breathing exercise?” Offering your child choices will help them feel more understood and allow them to feel more in control.

Finally, learn to be flexible, keep an open mind, and never underestimate the power of your child and how much they can actually understand. More often than not, children with autism know and understand most, if not all, of what is going on around them. What sets them apart is their ability to communicate and how they react to conditions around them. Give yourself a break and rely on the support of those around you to ensure that you are giving your very best to a child who needs you the most, even if they do not say it out loud.

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