There are sports, and then there are extreme sports. I like to think of raising a child with autism as extreme parenting. That said, in some ways, it's not as different as you might think. It's just much more intense, which forces the parents of autistic children to work smarter, not just harder, when caring for our kids. As I wrote my novel, If I Could Tell You, about families struggling to raise children with autism, I was reminded of so many moments when I learned from my son, who was diagnosed with autism 13 years ago. So here are 10 tips I have picked up on our journey together that are worth keeping in mind, especially as the holiday season makes life more hectic:
1. Think Like a Kid. So much of children's behavior is easy to understand when you look at the world through their eyes. People with autism often see the world very differently from their parents, but the more you can identify and empathize, the more effective a parent you will be.
2. Don't Underestimate How Much Children Crave Your Attention. I was told my son preferred to be alone. But he is extraordinarily attached to me and to the other people he loves, even if he doesn't always show it in conventional ways. The more he gets focused attention, the more he blossoms.
3. Kids are extraordinarily forgiving. I've made every mistake in the book with my son, but he still loves me.
4. We tend to criticize bad behavior more than we praise good behavior. This has nothing to do with discipline. It's simply a fact that positive reinforcement is incredibly motivating. Of course, it's important to correct bad behavior, but never forget that encouragement is always welcome.
5. Bribes work. If you want your kids to do something, motivate them. You can't do everything by the book all the time - no one can. No one's future was ruined because he ate his vegetables in order to get dessert. We parents of children with autism, whose children are often oblivious to winning adult approval, often have to resort to all kinds of rewards to get our kids to do what they need to do. Ideal? No. Effective? Yes.
6. Get to know your kids' teachers and show them you appreciate their work. Ditto for bus and van drivers and their assistants. No one works harder than a really good teacher, and special education teachers have an especially demanding job. Maybe society doesn't reward these people as it should, but you can still show your gratitude.
7. Education bureaucrats tend to be awful, but you can beat them at their game if you're in it for the long haul. To them, it's just a job. To you, it's your child's life and future.
8. Take time to hug your kids and tell them that you love them. Banal advice maybe, but worth mentioning.
9. It's OK to ask for help. I used to feel that as the mother of only two boys, I should be able to handle everything on my own, at least when I wasn't working. Now I understand that I can't always be there for them. So many times when I have lost my temper with my children, I have felt exhausted and overwhelmed. Everyone needs a break sometimes.
10. Even the longest days end eventually. And you will all get through them.