children with autism and horse
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Share your opinions and make a difference: Help Rutgers understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affects families of children with autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder by taking this survey.

Parenting a child with autism comes with a unique set of challenges, the most pressing one being the art of communication. While it’s a priority to figure out a way to understand their basic needs and wants, it’s just as important to nurture their talents and passions, especially as they get older. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way with my own 15-year-old son with autism.

EMBRACE THEIR PASSION, NO MATTER HOW QUIRKY IT IS

It doesn’t have to make sense to you. It just has to make sense to them. Your acceptance of their passions will only inspire them to practice their craft and build their own sense of self-esteem. For us, it meant a love of vacuum cleaners. Yes, you read that correctly. My son is obsessed with the make and model of vacuums and loves to use them. He’ll even happily vacuum for extended family when we visit them. And let me tell ya, I think that makes us very popular guests. Who needs to worry about a hostess gift when my son will make your rugs spotless? Maybe this isn’t a traditional passion, but I see it as the start of a job and independent living skills.

TRY NONTRADITIONAL APPROACHES TO LEARNING

Your child doesn’t learn the same way his or her typical peers do. While your first thought might be to hit the library, your kid might prefer a more hands-on experience. Children with autism respond to modeling as a teaching method. Have they expressed an interest in music? Buy a karaoke machine and show your child you still know all the words to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. Do they like trips to the petting zoo? Try horseback riding lessons to get up close and personal with farm life. Our kids want to be in it. Dive in!

CONSULT WITH OTHER PEOPLE IN THEIR LIVES

Teachers, therapists and classroom aides see a side to your child that you don’t typically get to see, and know how they act when you aren’t around to pick up the pieces and lead the way. Believe it or not, there’s a whole other kid in there you don’t know about. It’s not that they’re hiding things from you, it’s just that other people sometimes see and hear things we just kind of miss as parents. Plus, our kids love showing off to new people, so they might reveal things while getting to know someone. Hit them up…they’re great resources for your kid. I never knew my son was really into yoga until his teacher mentioned how much he enjoyed it.

ALLOW THEM TO FAIL…AND MAYBE EVEN WALK AWAY

Yes, our kids may have autism, but above all else, they’re still kids. That means they might be all in one day about a topic only to drop it like a hot potato with little warning or explanation the next. Forcing them to continue something they clearly have no interest in will only make them resent it more and wreak havoc on their trust in you. Realize some things will just be phases for them, just like their neurotypical peers. So, while you may be tempted to buy the best of the best for them, come to peace with the fact that some of that stuff might wind up collecting dust in a closet. Fear not, though. That’s why there are sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace. You might find another parent trying to unload an item that’s just right for your kid’s passion.

Sometimes, the thing they thought would be a blast is a whole other ball game in reality. This is especially the case as they get older. Teenagers moods and opinions change a heck of a lot. Also, allow them to have more than one interest. Don’t you? Expect that you might be changing things up from time to time.

PRAISE THEM—LEARNING SOMETHING NEW IS WORK

They need to hear their effort means something, even if it’s not perfect. It’s so important for their self-esteem and confidence that you see their hard work and acknowledge they’re trying their best. Offering feedback is helpful, but recognizing effort will boost their morale. As they practice, you may see behaviors and anxiety start to creep up.

That’s why it’s so important to let them know you see how hard they’re trying to learn something new, even if they aren’t very good at it. Point out past things that you had to practice and things you’re still trying your best at, even if the results aren’t ideal. People screw up, but it’s trying again that counts.

If you have a child with special needs, please take this survey from Rutgers, which seeks to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affects families of children with autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

—Autism is a trip Wall Twp. mom Eileen Shaklee didn’t plan on, but she sure does love her 15-year-old tour guide. Join her adventures with a side of sarcasm (and fries) at autismwithasideoffries.blogspot.com.

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