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How Parents Can Help Their Child With Autism to Thrive

June 11, 2021
By: Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

You can help your child be the best version of themselves and to live a great life by supporting their unique identity, their personal strengths, and implementing effective strategies to improve their skills and development.

There are many approaches for how parents can help a child with autism to thrive, improve their quality of life, and support their overall well-being. Since signs of autism are atypical, each parent should take an individualized approach to help their own child, but there are some general parenting strategies for helping children with autism that you can apply right away.

If you’d like a more individualized approach to using the strategies we’re about to discuss, contact Behavioral Innovations for a consultation.

In this article, you’ll learn about the following:

  • Using positive reinforcement to strengthen your child’s skills and abilities so they can prosper
  • Supporting your child’s unique self by being observant and assessing your child’s individual traits, supporting your child’s interests and preferences, and working with your child’s strengths
  • Using antecedent strategies to create a life that suits your child and helps them thrive in their future 

Positive Reinforcement - Strengthening Your Child’s Skills and Abilities

You can use the concept of positive reinforcement to help your child thrive in their day-to-day life. This strategy can help your child demonstrate appropriate behaviors in their interactions with others as well as in the way they handle daily living activities, such as self-care and daily routines.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is not just giving rewards like offering stickers or candy after your child does something you want them to do. Positive reinforcement, from the behavioral science perspective, refers to the concept of how a person will demonstrate a specific behavior more often as time goes on, based on the occurrence of a specific event or experience happening right after that behavior.

An Example - Getting Out of Bed in the Morning

Here’s an example of how you can use positive reinforcement with your child to help them excel in their daily life.

To use positive reinforcement to help your child get out of bed on time or at least not linger in bed for too long, you could set the expectation that you want your child to get out of bed within ten minutes of you telling them to get up in the morning. 

Of course, how you approach this will depend on your child’s current abilities, communication and comprehension skills, and other factors, but you can still use the general idea of what we’re discussing to help your child develop in this area. You can help your child with the skill of getting up in a timely manner in a way that works for them that is still based on the effective strategies that we discuss.

To get back to the example, to use positive reinforcement with your child, you may set up a situation in which you offer your child something they enjoy when they get up. This could be anything from spending ten minutes of one-on-one time with you doing something they like to do or choosing a preferred breakfast food to having 15 minutes of screen time.

By setting up your morning routine to allow for this preferred activity for your child, and then sticking with the plan to offer the preferred experience contingent upon your child getting out of bed by the predetermined time, you can increase the chances of your child getting better and better at getting out of bed in a timely manner in the mornings.

Why Focus on Positive Reinforcement?

The skill of getting out of bed on time is essential for kids and adults alike. By helping your child develop and strengthen skills that will help them in their childhood and even in their future adult lives, you are setting up your child for success in life. 

By using positive reinforcement to help improve skills in your child that are important to their well-being, from self-care tasks to increasing independence and much more, you are helping your child to thrive.

Supporting Your Child’s Unique Self

Just like adults, every child is unique in their own way. This is especially true for children with autism. To support your child’s unique self and help your child with autism thrive, there are a few strategies that you can implement.

Be Observant & Assess Your Child’s Individual Traits

It’s important to have good observational skills as a parent of a child with autism. By looking closely at your child’s behaviors and their reactions to their surroundings - both the physical environment and the people around them, noticing their emotional states, and being aware of their thoughts and preferences, you can learn more about your child.

This can help you connect with your child and improve your relationship with them. It can also help you to support your child’s development because you can intervene in certain ways that will truly be meaningful and important for your child’s well-being.

Consider your child’s individual personality, needs, skills and strengths, and general way of being. By doing this type of informal assessment, you can have a better foundation for helping your child to live their best life and to helping them live toward their own potential.

Support Your Child’s Interests and Preferences

Throughout the process of noticing your child, of being observant, as well as through assessment of your child’s functioning and development, you will learn more about your child’s interests. Even if you already have an idea of what your child likes, it can be helpful to look a bit more closely. 

Sensory Preferences

Think about what your child prefers in regard to their five senses. 

  • HEARING: Do they like certain sounds? Do they get overwhelmed when there is too much noise or when they are in public places for too long? 
  • SIGHT: Does your child like to look at certain stimuli, such as lights or tractors, or dogs?
  • TOUCH: Does your child have certain preferences for specific types of textures? Do they like to feel or touch things? Do they not like the feeling of certain things?
  • SMELL: Does your child enjoy certain smells? Do they get disgusted by other smells? Even simple things like the smell of freshly baked bread or not liking the smell of certain soaps can be important to note about your child.
  • TASTE: Does your child really like certain foods? Do they not like certain foods?

Balancing Acceptance with Learning New Skills

Supporting your child’s interests and preferences may be a bit tricky at times. Although it is important and recommended to allow your child to have more preferred experiences and to try to keep their unpreferred experiences to a minimum, sometimes it may be appropriate to gently challenge your child to overcome their discomfort or at least to tolerate their discomfort from time to time.

This might be the case when your child has a meltdown in the grocery store because he hears a sound or smells a smell that he doesn’t like. If that happens often, it may be a good idea to help your child learn to manage their behavior when these unpreferred stimuli arise.

However, there are things you can do to help your child avoid or minimize exposure to unpreferred stimuli, as well. For example, if your child gets overwhelmed by constant noise, you can give them more quiet time throughout the day rather than expecting them to be around people the entire day.

There are many ways you can support your child’s interests and preferences while also being sure to continue helping your child learn and develop in a way that will help them live their best life now and in the future. 

Feel free to contact Behavioral Innovations if you’d like help figuring out when to accept your child’s preferences and when to gently challenge them to learn new skills.

Work with Your Child’s Strengths

It’s common for many parents of children with autism to be told repeatedly about all the things their child might not be doing quite right or what their child is not good at or what skills their child is behind in. 

However, it’s important not to lose sight of your child’s strengths!

You can help your child by identifying their strengths and building on those abilities. 

  • For example, if your child is good at using electronics, use electronics to help them develop other skills. You might allow them to use a smartphone to follow a daily routine or to use a talk-to-text app or feature on a computer to do writing assignments. 
  • Another example of using your child’s strengths is, if your child is independent and likes to do things himself, you might give him activities he can do around the house or even find other people he can do activities for and let him take the lead. This might be teaching him how to cook a meal or encouraging him to teach his younger sibling something that he knows how to do.

Using Antecedent Strategies - Set Your Child Up for Success

One of the most highly recommended parenting strategies for how parents can help their child with autism thrive is to incorporate antecedent strategies into the child’s day.

Antecedent strategies are things that you, as the parent, put in place before your child engages in a specific behavior. The purpose of antecedent strategies is to get your child to be more likely to engage in the desired or appropriate behavior and to reduce the chances of them engaging in undesirable or inappropriate behaviors. 

There are many different parenting strategies that you can use for your child with autism that will set your child up for success. By using antecedent strategies, you can be proactive in modifying your child’s daily life in a way that will make it more likely that your child will be able to accomplish things, become more independent, and be happier and less stressed, too.

Be sure to individualize the antecedent strategies that we’re going to discuss to suit your child’s needs, abilities, goals, and preferences, but generally speaking, the antecedent strategies that we’ll discuss are likely to help support most kids.

Creating a Daily Schedule

Most, if not all, kids thrive when they have at least somewhat of a predictable daily schedule. That doesn’t mean they will always be compliant and follow a schedule without complaint or issue, but research shows that kids do better when they know what to expect. 

Daily schedules help children with autism to understand what is expected of them, the duration of both preferred and unpreferred activities, and it helps avoid overwhelm they may experience when they don’t know what’s going to happen (Kern & Clemens, 2007).

Allow Requests for Breaks

It’s important to teach your child skills they can use when they do feel stressed or overwhelmed. This includes teaching them how to ask for a break when they need one (Majeika et al., 2011). 

  • A break doesn’t have to be a formal activity only reserved for “work” time, such as during homework or more intensive therapy sessions. 
  • A break may be taking some time alone in the child’s room if he is getting uncomfortable or stressed around his siblings.
  • A break can mean sitting in the car instead of going into the grocery store (with supervision, of course). 
  • A break can look like going to a certain location inside the school building instead of having to stay in class.

Offer Choices

You can help minimize problem behaviors and increase compliance with expectations in your child with autism by offering him or her choices (Green, Mays, & Jolivette, 2011).

  • You can ask your child if he would like to complete science or math first. 
  • You can ask your child if he wants to feed the dog or sweep the floor.
  • You can give your child the choice of which shirt to wear.

There are so many ways you can incorporate offering choices for your child. Consider how you might offer more choices for your child.

Make It Easier - Reduce the Response Effort

Most people get frustrated or stressed when they are asked to do things that seem too difficult. This is especially true for kids. 

You can help your child thrive and live a better life by reducing the response effort required to complete tasks that you want them to do. 

  • Instead of asking a child who has an extremely messy bedroom to clean their entire room, you could ask them to make their bed. Then, later, you could ask them to pick up dirty clothes. Later, you can ask them to do another task, and so on.
  • Instead of asking a child to do an entire math worksheet, ask them to do one problem. You can build up to having your child do an entire worksheet in one sitting.

How Parents Can Help Their Child with Autism Thrive

We have discussed many different parenting strategies that you can use with your child with autism to help them live their best life. 

Let’s recap what we’ve covered.

  • You can use the strategy of positive reinforcement to encourage your child to engage in behaviors that will help improve their quality of life. 
  • You can support your child’s unique self by being observant, supporting your child’s interests and preferences, and working with your child’s strengths. 
  • You can also incorporate antecedent strategies into your family’s daily life to help support your child’s positive behaviors and reduce maladaptive behaviors which will ultimately help them develop and thrive throughout childhood and even into their adult years.

References

Green, K. B., Mays, N. M., & Jolivette, K. (2011). Making choices: A proactive way to improve behaviors for young children with challenging behaviors. Beyond Behavior, 20(1), 25-31.

Kern, L. & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 65-75.

Majeika, C. E., Walder, J. P., Hubbard, J. P., Steeb, K. M., Ferris, G. J., Oakes, W. P., & Lane, K. L. (2011). Improving on-task behavior using a functional assessment-based intervention in an inclusive high school setting. Beyond Behavior, 20(3), 55-66

Wright, J. 2015. Antecedents: Strategies to Prevent Misbehavior. Retrieved 4/30/2021 from interventioncentral.org

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