Just as important as knowing what to do with an autistic child is knowing what NOT to do with an autistic child.
As an autistic parent and a person who helps other autistic parents, there are many mistakes that I see over and over again.
Some are simple oversights that people don’t realize can be harmful to an autistic child, while others can have major negative impacts that can last a lifetime.
A lot of information out there focuses on what you should do for a child with autism. Today, I want to take a different approach. I want to focus on what not to do.
I want to give you a list of the most common mistakes that I see that have the biggest impacts, and can have major negative consequences for a child with autism.
What Not to Do With an Autistic Child
Don’t discipline autism
You shouldn’t force them to be neurotypical.
Don’t act as if their identity is strictly autistic.
Don’t talk to them as if they’re not there.
Don’t treat them as less because they have autism
Don’t belittle their opinions because they have autism.
Never allow them to be bullied
Don’t stop believing in them.
As you’re going through this list, don’t just think about yourself. Think about the other people in your child’s life.
The teachers, grandparents, coaches, friends, people in your child’s life who have a little understanding of ASD but don’t live with it. People who care about your child, but whose lives don’t revolve around him or her.
If we, as autistic parents, are sometimes guilty of the things we are going to talk about today, how much more are the other people in your child’s life?
Don’t Discipline Autism
Before we go any further, I want to say up front that I’m not saying you shouldn’t discipline an autistic child.
I am saying that you should not discipline them for their autistic behaviors.
What is the difference?
If John is having a tantrum in public, discipline can be justified. If John is having a breakdown in public due to sensory overload, then that is autism.
My job at that point is to help him, not punish him. Punishment will not happen later either, even if the meltdown included The Curse or other unacceptable behaviors.
This is autism!
Disciplining an autistic child for having autism-related behaviors is like punishing a blind child for walking into a wall! Just because it is not a physical disability does not make it any less real.
Take a moment to analyze the situations and ask yourself if what is happening is a result of your child misbehaving, or if it is something related to your autism diagnosis.
On the other hand, just because I wouldn’t discipline John in this example doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take the opportunity to teach him.
In a situation like this, once the meltdown is over and he is more receptive to listening, we would discuss what happened. I would listen to him and gain a better understanding of what went wrong and what caused the merger.
I would then work with him so that he can better understand what is appropriate and what is unacceptable, and can learn to better deal with himself in the future, or remove his self from the situation before it gets uncontrollably worse.
Real Life Example
Some time ago, I planned to take John to a zoo, a water park, and an outdoor men’s store.
Long story short, I picked a horrible day to die. Besides the fact that it was a long trip, it was a vacation weekend. The lines were long, it was terribly hot, nothing was going as planned. Needless to say, John had a breakdown.
By the time we left the water park, it was over!
I had almost reached my limit, and had taken everything I was willing to take. I knew the meltdown was not his fault, but I had had enough. I practice what I preach, but I am human after all!
It was then that he brought up the store where I said I would take him.
Are you kidding me?!?!?!?!
You think I’m going to take you to a store after the meltdown you just had? This, of course, started another meltdown. Jesus!!!
Then I thought about it.
This new collapse had nothing to do with the others.
Despite what had happened, this was a completely new and unrelated issue for John. He thought about it the whole day we were going to this store. Not taking him would be the equivalent of changing his routine without warning.
In addition to wanting to go, he needed to go!
This is autism.
I made a YouTube video entitled, The difference between a breakdown and a tantrum. Not only can you see how this story ended, You can also gain great insight into what not to do with an autistic child, and see real examples!
Don’t Force an Autistic Child to be Neurotypical
What does it mean to be neurotypical?
To be blunt, in this context it means not being affected by autism or a mental illness. (Please note that autism is not a mental illness. Read almost any post made on this site for reference, no links necessary lol)
I get it. You want the child to act more normal, but the fact is that “normal” is a relative term.
An autistic child is normal … for someone with autism!
How you think, what you think, the paradigms in your life, these are not only normal for you, they are also shared by millions of other people around the world.
On the other hand, even though you may think or feel a million things a day, and millions of other people may think or feel each of these things as well, no one thinks or feels all of them like you do.
You are unique.
So is an autistic child.
Imagine if someone told you that it’s wrong for you to think or feel the things you do. How harmful would that be?
How horrible would it be for you to be made to feel like you were wrong or a bad person by your thoughts or feelings? What negative impacts would that have on your life?
Don’t Act as if your identity is strictly autistic.
It is often said that autism does not define a person. That autism is something a person has, but not who they are.
There is some debate about that, because many people, some autistics included, feel that autism really defines them. That they would not be who they are, for better or worse, without autism.
I won’t argue that in this article, but I will say that autism is not all that constitutes an autistic person
Autistic people are … people! They have likes and dislikes. Dreams and hopes for their future.
Your Likes, your dislikes, the things in life that are important to you, this is what you want to be told about. These are the things that make you you, and someone with autism is no different.
They are people first, just like you and me.
If you simply think of someone as autistic and treat them as such, you lose all the other things that make them who they are.
You dehumanize and categorize them in a way that can be demoralizing. This is not something you should do to anyone, especially someone with autism!
It is okay to seek a better understanding of autism so that you can support an autistic person in the way they need, but always remember that they are people first and foremost.
An Autistic Child Is Not Broken!
The first thing to realize is that an autistic child does not need to be “Fixed”.
I named this place autism: some assembly needed for a reason. Our autistic children, indeed the entire autistic community, do not need fixation.
They need to be understood.
They don’t need to be reprogrammed to think or feel differently, they simply need Help to understand how other people think and feel, and to learn to react to those things when possible.
As neurotypical people, we have the ability to relate quickly and efficiently to others. We can easily identify a social situation and can communicate and react appropriately.
People with autism struggle with that. And by Struggle, I mean, in some cases, they are simply not able.
An ASD diagnosis itself identifies areas that an autistic person may not have the ability to understand or control.
You can’t teach a blind person to see.
And it is completely unfair that as a society we accept that a blind person cannot see without judgment, while at the same time we refuse to accept that a kid with autism cannot tell the difference between sarcasm and being mean.
We accept that someone with a missing limb experiences phantom pain, but refuse to acknowledge that bright lights or loud noises can bring physical pain to an autistic person.
A blind person is not forced to see. We do not force the person with phantom pain to ignore it.
An autistic child should not be forced not to be autistic.
Believe that the behaviors of an autism diagnosis are real, and teach your child that it is OK to have autism, while at the same time teaching them how to function in a neurotypical world.
Don’t talk to someone with autism as if they are not there.
Talking to someone with ASD as if they are not there does two things.
First, it makes them feel unimportant. Second, it teaches them to rely on others instead of being self-sufficient.
Questions in the Dr.’s office about the child first need to be directed directly to the child. The child should try to answer the questions for himself, as much as possible, in his own words.
In restaurants, teach a child with autism to order their own food. Have them pay for things at the convenient store.
This builds self-confidence and helps reinforce things taught at home.
What If the Person With Autism Is Non-Verbal?
These same things apply even if a child is non-verbal, although of course more help and input will be needed from you.
People often assume that a child who is non-verbal is not listening. People believe that a child who is not making eye contact is not paying attention.
As autistic parents we know that this couldn’t be further from the truth, but often people fail to step forward and make sure that the child is directly included in conversations.
Questions are answered for them, rather than prompting them to answer. We accept it when questions about our autistic children are directed at us, rather than our child.
Don’t do it yourself and don’t allow others to talk about or near your child. Make sure they are treated as the individuals they are.
Don’t treat them less because they have autism.
We all have limitations. We are also all capable of many great things. The same applies to someone with autism. They have strengths and weaknesses just like anyone else.
Some weaknesses may be more pronounced, and since many kiddos on the spectrum don’t recognize how rules of social etiquette apply, they may be less apt to try to hide what others would consider to be disabilities.
However, this does not make them less of a person.
Society as a whole is based on the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals that comprise it.
When you tear someone down, you weaken society. When you build them up, you strengthen them.
Autistic people have all the needs and rights to a fair and equal life as anyone else. Treating them as less, or as if they deserve less, is more than wrong. It devalues them and can ultimately lead to them being the lesser person they are perceived to be.
How Are We, as Autistic Parents, Guilty of This?
There is a fine line between expecting too much from your child and not expecting enough.
Anytime we hold our children to a lower standard than they are capable of achieving, we are doing them a disservice.
It’s a hard line we walk as autistic parents. That’s why learning about the behaviors associated with an autism diagnosis is so important!
Are you giving your child routine tasks? Expecting them to do a task perfectly can be too much. Not expecting them to do any task may be too little.
Ask yourself these questions.
Do I answer for my child or do I let them speak for themselves?
Does my child at least try to clean up after themselves, or do I do all the work?
Am I expecting less from my child because an autistic behavior prohibits them from performing a task, or am I just allowing them to not do something simply because they don’t want to?
Don’t belittle their opinions just because they have autism.
As individuals, we like and need to be heard.
Our thoughts and opinions, however insignificant to others, are important to us. They are part of what makes us Who we are.
When you immediately discount an autistic person’s opinion you are belittling them. This is demoralizing, and it makes someone feel unimportant.
I talk about this a lot because it is so true and so important.
Autistic children are people too!
Their thoughts and opinions are as important to them as yours are to you.
And it can be argued that your input can be even more valuable as it gives you insight into what is important to them. It may be the best way to get valuable information about what they are thinking.
Don’t let them intimidate you.
It’s no secret that autistic children are one of the most targeted groups for bullying.
Perhaps the saddest truth of all about this is that they often don’t realize that they are being bullied.
Sure, they recognize when someone is mean to them, but they don’t recognize many social cues, such as sarcasm, that set them up for prolonged mistreatment by others.
Here is a great video that demonstrates what I am referring to.
I know I don’t have to explain to you the meaning or negative impacts that bullying can have on a child, so instead I’ll share with you some tips on how to tell if an autistic child is being bullied. .
I am purposely omitting the obvious warning signs, such as unexplained bruises or cuts, unexplained missing personal items, etc…and am simply focusing on signs specific to children on the spectrum.
Signs Of Bullying
Blaming themselves for problems-sometimes children do this on their own and it is understandable. If you find an autistic child doing this uncharacteristically when they normally don’t; if you see and increase in how often they are blaming themselves, or if you constantly see them blaming themselves for unrelated things that are clearly not their fault, this could be a sign of bullying.
Unexplained collapses or an increase in the number of collapses – many children on the spectrum have collapses. This is a typical part of autism. If you see a sudden unexplained increase in the number of collapses they have, or if you start seeing collapses so you can’t discern the reason when, in the past, you have been able to figure out the root cause, you should start asking questions related to bullying.
Talk about new “friends” who you know have been problems in the past – While there is nothing wrong, and it is in fact encouraged, for our children to make new friends, be cautious if they are suddenly friends with people who have caused problems for them in the past.
Unexplained changes in routine-if there is one thing we can be sure of with our children, it is that they have to stick to their routine. If you notice sudden changes in their routine, especially routines involving school, you should be asking questions.
An increase in sad meltowns-many people who are not familiar with autism may not notice this, but meltowns are not always filled with anger. Sometimes a meltdown can be filled with sadness and tears. Watch for an unexplained increase in these types of meltdowns, as they can be a sign that an autistic child is suffering from being bullied.
There are so many signs of bullying, I’m sure this has just scratched the surface.
If you have more signs you want to share, I urge you to leave a comment on the YouTube video from above. Share what you know and help others!
Don’t stop believing them.
This may sound simplistic.
You may be saying to yourself, “I would never give up on a child. “This is not something that happens overnight. It’s not a conscious decision that you make, thinking to yourself “I think I’m going to give up this kid.
It’s a slow process where you start to accept the kiddos limitations and stop striving daily for continuous improvement. A cycle where you accept things as they are.
Don’t get me wrong. It is important to recognize that our kids have limitations. This is true for all people, regardless of whether they have autism or not.
Accepting the limitations of a child with autism, however, does not mean that you should not continually strive to improve.
I think this is because noticeable improvement often takes so long. In some cases, it can take years to see small improvements. And sometimes there are areas in our children’s lives that may never improve.
You find yourself working day in and day out, trying to survive, rather than striving to thrive.
I can tell you from experience that improvement happens. And the more you work at things, the faster and farther that improvement will happen.
I will admit that there will be some areas where improvement never reaches the level you expect it to reach. There will also be areas, however, that go far beyond what you thought possible.
You can tell Mr. or Mrs. Quirky a thousand times to use your words before it finally sinks in. NEVER GIVE UP!
We talked about many things you shouldn’t do with an autistic child in this article, but I want to give you one for yourself.
Don’t blame yourself for the past mistakes you may have made, or the mistakes you may still make.
You are not perfect! In fact, none of us are.
I will be openly honest with you and say that even though I teach, preach, treat, parent and advocate about autism I still make mistakes.
And not always small ones!
Big juicy mistakes where I’m lying in bed later that night wishing I had handled things differently.
There are times when I’m in a situation and I have to step back and wonder what I would advise someone else to do, because I’m about to lose it!
It’s all good.
Most of the time there are no concrete right or wrong answers. Much of what we go through on a daily basis falls into gray areas.
We have a sense of direction to where we want to go, but the path to get there is hidden. Only in hindsight is 20/20. Everything else is a guess at best.
I don’t know who it is in your life that gave you reason to research autism, or what prompted you to read this article. What I do know, however, is that any autistic person out there is the cause for it, they are fortunate to have it in their life.
Despite all your potential mistakes and imperfections, you care enough to strive to be better yourself, and that makes you special!
Autism can be difficult.
I’m not talking about the end of the hard world, just challenging. It’s challenging for the autistic person themselves trying to make sense of a neurotypical world. Challenging also for the parent, the friend, the grandparents, the teacher or anyone directly involved.
As with most things in life, however, it is not the “doing” that is difficult, it is the understanding.
Janice is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Special Education. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from Queen’s University, Belfast. She has worked with and case managed children and youth with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in home and residential setting since 2013.