Supporting friends and family who care for children with autism
“It must be upsetting to see such small successes.”
“I don’t know how I could do it”
“My friend had a child that was a late talker, but now the parents can’t stop him from talking!”
These are just a few of many unhelpful comments I’ve heard people say in an effort to empathise with parents who have children with Autism.
Prior to my career as a psychologist, I worked as a behavioural therapist with children on the Autism Spectrum (ASD) and their families, and I myself have friends and family members who care for ASD children. I have often observed families feeling isolated and misunderstood by their friends and family, even though they were trying to be supportive. In light of autism awareness month, I asked my friends and family who care for children with Autism what they have found helpful and unhelpful. From their reflections and my own, here are a few pointers on how to support your friends and family who care for a child with Autism.
Keep Up Social Interactions – Taking the time to call or meet with your friend to hear about their experience as a parent. If your friend/family member is bringing their child, ask them what would work best for them. For example, often children with ASD can get distressed by certain environments, be understanding if your friend wants to avoid these places. If the child does get upset while you’re meeting, realise that parents can feel concerned that those around them may become judgemental. In those situations, reassure parents that it’s fine, you understand that their child can become stressed or anxious, and that you aren’t concerned about their child’s behaviour.
Join with them – Join with them in the difficulties but also celebrate the successes, these can be things as simple as their child being able to walk through a supermarket without becoming distressed. Don’t think that these changes are insignificant, if a parent is sharing it with you, it’s likely that it’s taken them a long time to get to that point. Don’t always assume that parents of children with autism are struggling, despite the challenges, parents can often be coping well and delighting in their child. Delight alongside them!
Learn – Seek out information about autism and ask your friend what has been helpful for their family and how you can best support them. Be willing to get to know their child and delight in their strengths and personalities. Teach your friends and family to do the same. Try to avoid telling your friend or family member facts you’ve discovered about ASD. Even though it may be unintentional, this can give your friend the impression that you think they don’t know enough to help their child. More often than not, they have committed a large portion of their life to seeing specialists and learning how to care for their child.
Watch your language – Before we know it, we can slip into language that implies someone with Autism is defective. This can be hurtful to parents and their children even if it is unintentional. A helpful way to watch how we speak is to focus on the positives and spend time investing in these unique children.
Don’t compare their child with other children – I have observed people trying to give carers hope by telling them about success stories they have heard about other children with Autism. For example, “I know another child who was a late talker but now the parents can’t get them to stop talking!”. This can bring parents to feel misunderstood and unheard. Every child with Autism is unique and different, the development of one child does not necessarily reflect the development of another. Rather than compare children, share in the joys of your friends child and celebrate their strengths.
Sophie Antognelli (M Psych (Clinical), B Psych (Hons – First Class) is passionate about working alongside individuals and families to live more full lives, overcoming difficulties they may face. Sophie’s interests are in child and adolescent mental health are emotion regulation issues and anxiety. Sophie is interested in working with her adult clients to regain quality of life through early psychosis intervention, the management of symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as the broader clinical issues of perfectionism, adjustment to life stressors and low self-esteem. She developed these interests across her work in both inpatient and outpatient hospital settings. Alongside her clinical work, Sophie is also involved in a number of research projects exploring new approaches to anxiety disorders – with specific interests in investigating potential new avenues for addressing unhelpful thought patterns in health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding disorder.