Chances are your family members have heard of autism, but it can still be confusing for them to understand what that might mean for your child. Time of onset, severity, and characteristics can vary for every child on the spectrum. When helping your family to understand autism, it can be helpful to explain it to them in terms of your child’s specific behaviors. Below are some topics that may be important to explain to your family to help them to understand why your child may act the way that they do.
1. Social interaction and communication
Overall, it’s important for your family to know that your child may act differently than others in social situations and for them to know ways to appropriately interact with your child. For many people with autism, it can be hard to make eye contact with someone, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening. Eye contact can be uncomfortable for some and it can also make it harder to focus when they’re trying to listen, read facial expressions, and understand body language. Some people with autism have said that their comprehension increases when they are allowed to not make eye contact and can instead look in a different direction or close their eyes (Faherty, 2014). People with autism can find it difficult to understand humor, sarcasm, and figures of speech and instead may take things very literally. It can be beneficial to speak in terms that are specific and concrete. People with autism may also struggle to comprehend what people are saying. You can encourage your family to try to communicate with your child in a way that they understand. This could include using less words, talking slower, talking in a quiet place, writing things down, giving them enough time to think and respond, and not insisting on eye contact.
2. Feeling emotions and behaviors
People with autism feel emotions, but they might not show their emotions in the same way as others do. Many people who are neuro-typical automatically show their emotions through facial expressions, but the faces of people with autism do not show how they really feel on the inside. They may also not have the words to communicate their emotions or know which words match how they are feeling. As a parent, you might know signs that show how your child is feeling and it can be important to share this with your family. Maybe they rock back and forth when they’re anxious, or they clap their hands when they’re happy.
Sometimes people with autism may show their emotions by engaging in self-injurious behavior (SIB) or in aggressive behavior towards others. It’s important to warn your family that these behaviors might happen and to communicate what you might need from them if the behavior does happen, whether it will be helping with managing the behavior or if it’s best for everyone to leave the room. By giving your family this information, it can help ensure the safety of not only your child but also your family. It can also be beneficial to try to explain to your family why the behavior may have happened and that your child didn’t mean to hurt anyone but instead may have felt anxious, scared, or overwhelmed.
Though the stereotypical behaviors might look different, it can be beneficial to explain to your family the reasons why your child may engage in these behaviors. Many people who have autism engage in stereotypy in one way or another. Repetitive behavior can meet a need that people with autism have, and can often be a type of emotional regulation for anxiety, happiness, excitement, or other emotions. On top of this, research has shown that allowing people to engage in self-stimulatory activities on a regular basis can decrease the total amount of self-stimulatory behavior (Faherty, 2014). Catherine Faherty recommends that families could take a “stim break” and that everyone could engage in similar behavior with the child (2014). Many neurotypical adults engage in self-stimulatory behaviors as well! Examples include playing with hair, tapping fingers, and using fidgets.
4. Routines and schedule changes
Some people with autism are routine oriented and can find schedule changes challenging, which can make visits and holidays with family difficult. You can let your family know that your child may have a hard time because they aren’t used to routine changes and encourage them to be patient with your child. Let them know if there is anything they can do to make the process easier. For example, your family members could follow the routine and schedule that you use with your child during the day. To try to decrease any behavioral problems you could foreshadow family visits with your child. This could be done with social stories and by putting family visits on the calendar/schedule. It might help to even put pictures of the family members that are coming on the calendar so that your child knows who to expect. By taking preventive measures it could help make the visit smoother for your child and your family.
Overall, it’s important to let your family know what you expect and need from them. It’s also important to let them know what they should expect from your child. Autism can be different, but people with autism also have some pretty special abilities. Let your family know all the cool things your child is capable of doing! You can encourage them to do their own research on autism and recommend books (House Rules by Jodi Picoult, Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, etc.), television shows (Atypical, The Good Doctor, Sesame Street, etc.), or movies (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) that portray people on the spectrum. Allowing and encouraging your family to understand your child’s needs can help to build a strong support system that can help not only your child but also you, live a healthy and happy life!
Faherty, C. (2014). Autism-- what does it mean to me?: A workbook for self-awareness and self-advocacy, with life lessons for young people on the autism spectrum: Structured teaching ideas for home and school. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
*This information is provided for informational and educational purposes only and should not be used to replace consultation with your doctor or qualified health professional.