Parenting a Child on the Autism Spectrum

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 02, 2023
5 min read

As a parent, you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about your child’s future. Even more so if they have an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD diagnosis.

Apart from the medical care and therapies that you may line up to help your son or daughter, there are simple, everyday things that make a difference.

Focus on the positive. Just like anyone else, children with autism spectrum disorder often respond well to positive reinforcement. That means when you praise them for the behaviors they’re doing well, it will make them (and you) feel good.

Be specific, so that they know exactly what you liked about their behavior. Find ways to reward them, either with extra playtime or a small prize like a sticker.

Also, as you would with anyone -- on the spectrum or not -- prize your child for who they are. As a parent, loving your child for who they are is key.

Stay consistent and on schedule. People on the spectrum like routines. Make sure they get consistent guidance and interaction, so they can practice what they learn from therapy.

This can make learning new skills and behaviors easier, and help them apply their knowledge in different situations. Talk to their teachers and therapists and try to align on a consistent set of techniques and methods of interaction so you can bring what they’re learning home.

Put play on the schedule. Finding activities that seem like pure fun, and not more education or therapy, may help your child open up and connect with you.

Give it time. You’ll likely try a lot of different techniques, treatments, and approaches as you figure out what’s best for your child. Stay positive and try not to get discouraged if they don’t respond well to a particular method.

Take your child along for everyday activities. If your child’s behavior is unpredictable, you may feel like it’s easier not to expose them to certain situations. But when you take them on everyday errands like grocery shopping or a post office run, it may help them get them used to the world around them.

Get support. Whether online or face-to-face, support from other families, professionals, and friends can be a big help. Create a village of friends and family who understand your child's diagnosis. Friendships may be difficult, and your child will need support in maintaining those friendships. Support groups can be a good way to share advice and information and to meet other parents dealing with similar challenges. Individual, marital, or family counseling can be helpful, too. Think about what might make your life a little easier, and ask for help.

Look into respite care. This is when another caregiver looks after your child -- inside your home, outside of it, or both -- for a period of time to give you a short break. You’ll need it, especially if your child has intense needs due to ASD. This can give you a chance to do things that restore your own health and that you enjoy, so that you come back home ready to help.

You can identify or form your respite support team using these methods:

  • Ask your friends, family, and other parents you know for support connections you might not have thought about.
  • Check with your child’s doctors, therapists, and teachers for ideas or referrals. For instance, a teacher’s aide you really like might enjoy babysitting in their free time.
  • You can also post notices for childcare help in newspapers and online, local religious communities, and at colleges and universities near you. Be sure to check all references carefully.
  • Join a support group for parents of autistic children. Find out what works for others. You can find self-help communities by calling a local autism support center or looking online.

Take care of yourself.  As a caregiver, you need to keep your body and your mind in tip-top shape so you can face the challenges that crop up from day to day. This means slowing down and looking for ways to take care of yourself so you’ll have plenty of you (physically, mentally, and emotionally) to go around. 

Cut your stress.  Parents of kids with ASD often face more stress than those who deal with other disabilities. If left unchecked, caregivers can face breakdowns in relationships and even psychological disorders. Stress can affect your health, too.  Stay organized to help yourself avoid getting overwhelmed. This means finding time in your day just for yourself. Some important and even fun ways to do that include:

  • Pinpoint the real causes of your stress. If you feel overwhelmed, break down the major issues you’re facing into easier bites. You’ll feel better, and you’ll have a plan.
  • Meditation may help, too. Pay attention to your thoughts and the way you talk to yourself. It’ll help you weed out useless worries.
  • Exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym. Walk, work in the garden, swim, even dance in the kitchen. These are easy, effective ways to get some exercise.
    • If you want some adult company, take an exercise class. It’s a great way to recharge your batteries and meet new people.
  • Get some ZZZs. When you need to recharge your body and mind, you can’t beat the power of a good night’s sleep. If you need extra help winding down, meditate or do relaxation exercises. That can help your body get ready for rest.
  • Get creative with your food. You likely spend lots of energy making sure your child eats nutritious meals. What about you? Spice up your personal menu by trying different fruits, veggies, and cuisines. Scope out new recipes to keep things interesting.  And eat on a set schedule each day. It’ll help you keep your energy up and your system on track.

Get balance in your life.  This is the key not only to facing life's challenges, but also keeping a high quality of life. Your whole family will benefit. Book time in your weekly calendar for fun and socializing. Try these tips to add balance to your busy days:

  • Find your friends. Yes, you’re the parent of a special-needs child. But you’re a person, too. Remembering that you have your own identity makes you a better parent. Take time to reconnect and laugh with your friends. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Take up old hobbies. Track down your knitting needles, dust off the piano, or get out the golf clubs. Try new activities that catch your eye.
  • Take five every day. A few extra minutes first thing in the morning can center you and set the tone for the whole day. Gather your thoughts, take a long, warm shower, or jot some notes in a journal.
  • Make it quick.  Can your partner or other family members take over parenting duties for a bit? A quick walk around the block or short drive to the store -- by yourself -- will give you some much-needed time to yourself.