Parenting a Child With Autism

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on November 29, 2022
4 min read

If your child -- or the child of a close friend or relative -- has just received a diagnosis of autism, you are probably feeling baffled and overwhelmed. It is never easy to learn that someone you love has a serious health or developmental condition. Learning all you can about the disorder -- and where to get help -- will ease your fear and confusion. It can also provide the tools you need to find the support that children with autism -- and you -- really need.

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in early childhood. Autism is the most common condition in a related constellation of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders, also called ASDs. Other autism spectrum disorders include Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD. Autism and other autism spectrum disorders can be difficult to diagnose, because the symptoms and degree of impairment -- ranging from mild to severe -- are different for every child.

Some features of autism include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Verbal or nonverbal communication problems
  • Rigid and repetitive behavior

In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.

Autism usually appears before a child is 3 years old. Some signs of autism may be evident as early as 10 to 12 months, and certainly by 18 months.

Varying widely, signs and symptoms in children with autism typically include:

  • Impaired communication skills
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Repetitive behaviors and activities such as arm flapping, head banging, or twirling an object over and over
  • Rigid behavior and difficulty with change and transitions
  • Narrow range of interests and activities

Experts do not know exactly what causes autism. In the past, people blamed parenting practices, which added a burden of guilt and shame on parents already struggling to cope with a disabled child. Today, most scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause autism.

Recent research confirms multiple genetic abnormalities that can predisposition someone to autism. Several genes have been implicated. In addition, there may be metabolic or biochemical factors that can cause autism spectrum disorders. Other research is looking at environmental triggers, including exposure to certain viruses. But a number of comprehensive studies have totally disproved the purported link between vaccines and ASD.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of diagnosed cases of autism in the U.S. and around the world. Experts do not know if this is because the disorder is actually on the rise, or if doctors are simply diagnosing it more effectively. We should learn more answers to questions like these over the next few years. That's because many researchers are currently looking into autism's origins, prevalence, and treatment.

Child development experts agree that a child with autism should receive treatment as soon after diagnosis as possible. There is no cure for autism, but early intervention using skills-training and behavior modification can yield excellent results. This type of educational and behavioral treatment tackles autism symptoms -- impaired social interaction, communication problems, and repetitive behaviors. It can also boost the chances of a child with child autism being able to go to school and participate in typical activities.

Other treatment options for children with autism include:

  • Medication. Doctors sometimes prescribe it for children with autism if they have other symptoms, including depression, anxiety, seizures, or hyperactivity.
  • Alternative therapies. These might include vitamin treatments, changes in diet, and a procedure called "chelation" that attempts to remove heavy metals from the blood. Although many parents insist these types of treatment work, researchers have not scientifically proven them effective for children with autism, either for symptoms or long-term outcomes. Chelation, in particular, is dangerous and should be avoided. Deaths have been associated with this type of therapy. You should always discuss the safety and effectiveness of any alternative treatments with your doctor before trying them.

If you have a child with autism, it is important to get support. The day-to-day care of children with autism can be stressful. Making sure your child gets the help they need can also pose a challenge, depending on whether quality support services are available in your area. At the same time, you are likely to have ongoing worries about your child's prognosis and long-term well being. For all these reasons, you need to take care of yourself, as well as your child. Make an effort to reach out and find the support you need.

  • Educate yourself. Learn all you can. Read about children with autism in other sections of this website. Consult governmental and nonprofit organizations for more information on children with autism. Stay up to date on current research findings, and make sure you are looking at reputable sources of information.
  • Build a support system. Seek out local groups and parent network organizations for families of children with autism. Ask your physician or child developmental specialist for referrals. Join online chat groups for parents of children with autism.
  • Make time for yourself and your relationships. Try to schedule regular dates with your partner and outings with friends. Keep up with the activities you enjoy.
  • Get help. Seek help if you or your partner is feeling persistently overwhelmed or depressed, or the stress of caring for a disabled child is affecting your relationship. Your health care provider can help you find a qualified individual, couples, or family therapist.