If your child is autistic, or if you think they might be, you may be wondering how you can support their development and emotional health.
It’s important to remember that autism is not something that needs to be cured or fixed. It’s just a way of being that impacts how people experience the world. We call this “neurodivergent”, which means a person’s brain works a little differently than most people’s. (Read more about the language of autism.)
As a parent, the best way to support your child is to work to understand their needs and experiences, and help create an environment that will work for them. This approach should ease frustration for both of you, and give your child more freedom to grow and learn.
Creating a comfortable environment for your autistic child
“It’s not my goal to adjust my son to this world, it’s my goal to adjust the world to my son.”
- If your child is older and you know the basics, skip to the section below about supporting autistic teens
- If you have a question about behavior, read the article on Managing behavior challenges of autism
If you can understand your child’s reaction to different environments, and adjust the environment, it can greatly reduce their stress. Here are some common things to look at.
Autistic kids often experience sensory information differently than neurotypical people. For example: certain kinds of noise, lighting, food textures, or the feeling of clothes on their skin can be incredibly irritating to some, or even painful. This can make kids distracted and upset, making it hard to attend to what they’re doing. It’s not that they are being picky, it’s because of how their brains process these sensory inputs.
“I was forever getting infuriated by stimuli that other people told me was nothing more than easy-to-ignore background noise. Two women cackling in the corner of a café while trading funny stories. The standard-issue, blazing fluorescent lights in an office. The stink of a Lean Cuisine in the communal microwave. Every time I went out into the world, I did so hoping I wouldn’t encounter these beacons of pain; every time I was sorely disappointed because that is simply what the world is like.“
So, if you can adjust your child’s environment to minimize these assaults on their senses, it will make a big difference. Prepare quiet spaces in your house, change the lighting if needed, and find tagless clothes (yes, they exist!) Your child also may need frequent breaks from a stimulating environment.
Pay close attention to your child’s words or cues about how close you can be to each other, whether they want to be touched, and what’s bothering them in general. Practice asking them about their preferences, using words, signs, or pictures. Give them the “vocabulary” to make their needs known. This is a great way to model respect for their needs.
Autism may affect a child’s ability to communicate–in a range of ways. This could mean they have trouble articulating how they feel, or it could mean they don’t talk at all. It’s critical to understand that there is more going on in their thoughts than you may know. Speaking is not the only way of communicating. We all use cues like body language, gestures, and facial expressions to share our thoughts with others. Not to mention that our behaviors are also ways to communicate.
Find the ways that your child makes their feelings known, and help them develop strategies to be understood by the people around them. Explicitly teach them the “vocabulary” – in words, signs, or pictures – to describe their needs. Explore tools like picture schedules, communication boards, or speech output devices. All children need ways to communicate with the people around them, and some may need to use different methods.
Many autistic kids have some anxiety in social situations. They usually know that they seem “different” to others, and this can be intimidating. Or they may just have different levels of interest in being with others, especially large groups. (Don’t we all?)
Social gatherings like school fairs, community events, or birthday parties may feel like a minefield of stress triggers to an autistic child. It takes an enormous amount of energy for them to block out distracting stimuli, read the social cues of their peers, and try to fit in by “masking” their differences. Transitions can also be hard.
“Autistic people need to be mentally rehearsed because we often cannot spontaneously process new things at the same speed as others. Being blindsided by unexpected circumstances will consume so much executive functioning that we won’t have enough left to stay regulated, focused, and communicative in busy spaces.
That’s when meltdowns happen.“
You can help by preparing your child ahead of time if a new gathering is coming up, like a big family holiday. (“If you start to feel stressed, say ‘I need a break’ [or ‘show me your I-need-a-break picture’]. Or: “You can go to your quiet corner anytime you need to.”) It also helps to prepare the family who will be gathering! That can create a better environment for your child.
Help your child learn to communicate their social differences to peers and adults in their life. Most people will be more accommodating and understanding if they learn the reasons behind your child’s communication style, and tips to interact effectively with them.
Follow your child’s lead and don’t force them into situations you know will make them uncomfortable. We need to remember that–autistic or not–our kids may not have the same social habits as we did. And that’s ok.
Strategies to support your autistic child at home and nurture their development
Besides adjusting the environment, here are some other ways to support your child.
Play with your child
This is one of the most important ways to take care of your child, and of course it’s not unique to autistic children. Kids learn by playing. When you play together, you model social behavior like turn-taking, problem-solving, and self-regulation. You are also connecting with your child and showing them they are important to you.
Depending on your child’s age and interests, “play” might mean getting down on the floor with blocks or sharing their favorite activities, or it may mean watching them line up toys in patterns and asking them about what they’re doing. Do they have a strong interest in trains, dolphins, or a TV character? Help them learn more! Let your child lead the play, even if it seems unusual. Just being together builds your relationship.
For younger children in particular, you can use purposeful play to help them develop skills they struggle with, or learn more about something that has grabbed their attention. Check out these other tips for purposeful play with your autistic child.
For older children and teens, there are different ways to share interests and enjoy activities together. Read more about supporting teens.
Add structure and routine to their days
Structure and routines are especially important for most autistic children. They often need to know exactly what to expect, and do better with a very consistent schedule. Try to have a clear set of tasks for things like bedtime and getting ready for school or daycare. Make this the same every day if you can.
Even beyond schedules and routines, it can help to maintain “sameness” and consistency in many other aspects of their life. If your child wants to wear a certain sweater every time they go to the park, let them do it. Do they need to bring Teddy when they see the doctor? Make sure Teddy is ready when it’s time to go. Maybe they’re used to always having peas with their mac and cheese, no problem. Doing things the same way helps your child organize and regulate. Help them maintain this consistency whenever possible. When it’s not possible, give them plenty of time to adjust their expectations and find a substitute.
Visual supports can help in many ways. They can be things like schedules, choice boards, checklists, or stories. These can be helpful for all kids, but this structure with visual cues can be especially effective for autistic kids.
Teachers often use checklists or visual schedules to help kids know what to expect and complete tasks. Your child may use a chart to check off each step in the morning routine. If you can use a similar system at home, that will help your child feel more comfortable and ease the transition to get out the door or ready for bed. (This is a way to add “sameness”: if they use the same kinds of charts and visuals at home and school.)
Prepare your child ahead of time if something new is going to happen. Field trip at school? Dentist appointment? A parent going away for a few days? Talk to your child and explain what will happen. Ask what will help them manage. Maybe they need to bring a toy or blanket, or maybe you need to build in a special activity like watching a show together. You can also make a social story to explain the event. This is usually a series of pictures that describe what’s going to happen and how the child can deal with it.
Set up developmental therapies if your child needs them
There are many types of developmental therapies, or services, that can help children with things like overall development, communication, fine motor coordination, and gross motor skills. For example: Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy (OT), or Physical Therapy.
Therapists can sometimes even help with food aversions. Many autistic kids have trouble with the textures of certain foods because of their sensory differences. Speech and occupational therapists can sometimes help them get used to a wider variety of foods.
Not all autistic kids will need these services. But if your child does need them, it’s helpful to get them set up as soon as you can. Read more about developmental therapies and how to get them.
There are also behavioral therapies that you will hear about, especially ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis. This is the most common therapy suggested for autistic kids. Its goal is to train them to reduce “undesirable” behaviors and learn more “positive” ones. It may sound good on the surface, as they use positive reinforcement and reward techniques. But it ultimately is meant to train children who are different (neurodivergent) to behave like typical children (neurotypical). Many who have gone through it consider it to be traumatic, as it forces them into a box they don’t fit into, and may have no reason to be in. It suppresses behaviors (like rocking or hand flapping) that are not bad or wrong, but actually help a child stay calm. Consider other types of therapy, like DIR Floortime, to interpret your child’s behavior and support their development.
Practice the skills your child is learning in therapy or at school
If your child gets services like OT or Speech Therapy, or works with a specialist at school, you can practice the same skills and strategies at home.
For example, some developmental therapists may teach strategies to help your child manage their emotions and behavior. A provider might teach your child about a step-by-step “calming down” process they can use when they start to get angry or upset. It might include things like blowing bubbles to regulate breathing, or running up and down the steps to get out their energy when they are angry. You can talk about and practice those strategies at home – both when your child needs them and in the “off” moments – to help your child really learn these skills.
OT or speech therapists may use strategies to help a child understand and use their body, interact with peers, or express their needs. You and your child can practice these same strategies at home. They may include things like role-playing or narrating an experience to help them learn the words to express their feelings.
Here’s what you can do:
- Talk to your child’s therapists or special education teachers (if they have them). Find out what they do that has been helpful to your child
- Watch them interact with your child and ask them to demonstrate the skills, exercises, and strategies they are working on
- Try to practice these skills and strategies at home
- Give feedback to the therapists and teachers. What do you notice at home that’s the same or different?
- Use the same kind of checklists and visual supports, if possible
Get in-home help (PCA or Direct Service)
If your child has significant needs, your family might qualify to get in-home help. This would be a trained Personal Care Attendant (PCA) or Direct Service Worker (DSW) who would help your child with daily activities like bathing, dressing, and feeding.
If you have Medicaid and qualify for PCA services, they should cover a certain number of hours per week and help you find a PCA or Direct Service Worker.
- Learn more about getting benefits from Health Insurance.
- Learn more about caring for a child with severe disabilities.
How can I get in-home services?
If your child has private health insurance or Medicaid, call your plan and ask them about PCA services. If not, see our Health Insurance section to learn how to apply for health insurance, including Medicaid. Autistic children should qualify even if your family doesn’t. This can be a huge help!
Your state Agency for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities should have a Flexible Family Support program that can offer services. They may be able to provide in-home services, respite care, and help pay for other needs. Call them, describe your child’s needs, and see what they can offer. (Hint: don’t downplay your child’s needs.)
Who qualifies for in-home services?
It depends on the program, but usually a child will qualify if they have “substantial functional limitations.” This means they have trouble with everyday activities, learning, moving around, communicating, or self-care tasks.
Self-care tasks are also called ADLs: Activities of Daily Living. They include things like dressing, bathing, eating, and using the bathroom. It depends on how old the child is, but if they are not able to do these things the way most kids their age can, they may qualify for PCA services.
If your child or family member lives with you, you may need a break sometimes. Ask about Respite Care: a trained caregiver can take care of your child for a few hours or overnight.
- Contact your local Human Services District (HSD). There are 10 HSDs in Louisiana. Each HSD can tell you what services you qualify for and how to apply. Tell them your child needs PCA services. Ask specifically about Medicaid Waivers and Individual Family Support
Massachusetts: Department of Developmental Services (DDS)
Keep track of your child’s habits with pictures and videos
For all children, big changes in speech, personality, and behavior can happen overnight. For autistic kids, these changes may help you decide what kind of support they need.
It might be a good idea to start keeping a record of your child’s habits and developmental growth. This can help when the doctor or therapist asks you if a certain behavior is new, or when your child started doing a certain thing (like flapping their hands).
Here’s what you can do:
- Take a short video of your child every 3 months. Videos can be of anything — your child playing at home, sitting in a therapy session, or joining your family at a big event
- Try to capture new abilities or habits that you think the doctor or therapist might want to know about
- Label the recording with their name and the date so you can keep track
How to support an autistic teen at home
These days, most children are diagnosed with autism early on, but that was not as true 10-15 years ago. As a result, many autistic teens today have spent their early years with little understanding of why they are different. There is also a greater understanding now of autism as just a different way of being (neurodivergent), rather than something that needs to be fixed.
“I am an Autistic adult, however, I didn’t find out I was Autistic until I was 29 years old. Therefore…I had no language, or vocabulary, to express the autistic experience that I had, because I thought, incorrectly, that I was non-autistic, Allistic, NeuroTypical.”
If your teen or young adult has just been diagnosed, it can be a relief to find that there is a reason for their differences, and that there‘s a community who can understand and support them. If they’ve been diagnosed for a while, it’s worth checking out recent advocacy and support from autistic self-advocates. We’ll tell you how.
Either way, you’ll see there are many services and programs that can help! There are also many ways you can support your autistic teen at home.
Here’s what you can do:
- Be supportive. Make sure they know that there is nothing “wrong” with them (despite what they may hear or sense from others). Autism is part of who they are. It’s not wrong and it’s not their “fault”. They are unique, and all people should feel good about their unique qualities
- Nurture their interests and talents. Help them do more of the things they enjoy and do well
- Help educate your community about autism so they can be understanding. People can be more accepting if they know more about autism: what it is and what it isn’t. Talk to friends, neighbors, and the school community about autism. Your child can also learn to self-advocate by being part of this process
- See these tips on being a good friend to an autistic person, and encourage your child to share tips like these with their friends
- Connect with the programs and people in your area who support autistic people
- Put your child in touch with autistic people or groups (teens and adults) who can speak from experience. They can help your child know they are not alone, and help them learn how to celebrate their way of being
“Different, not less. This mantra applies to so many parts of me. These many parts of me make me whole.
In my wholeness, I am content. It is only others’ ridicule that knocks me down.
I have met other neurodivergent and/or multiracial individuals who feel the same. In these communities, I have found the people who help me to stand whenever I have fallen. Our unique perspectives are powerful. Just like all others, we are inherently valuable as we are”.
How to find and assess support groups
Support groups and social groups are great ways for autistic teens to meet and support each other, and this is so important! To find one in your area, ask your school district, your local library, or explore The Arc’s directory of support centers
Make sure the group shares your values around how to think about autism. There are still some that focus on “fixing” or “curing” autism, so ask some questions to see if a group is right for your child
Resources for autistic teens:
This video was created by a high school student to educate other teens about autism. Its message is about learning to be sensitive about the quirks and challenges of autistic people. (14 min)
“It doesn’t help neurodivergent kids when you try to make them pretend they’re “normal” so they can “fit in”. It doesn’t work that way… In your zeal to “fix” what is perceived to be “broken” in them, you are ACTUALLY BREAKING THEM.
Instead of forced conformity and in-fitting, educational support for neurodivergent students needs to shift toward coaching them; identifying that which holds their attention in a vice grip and draws it like a cat to a laser pointer, that which gives them focus and develops their talent. That which unlocks their future and releases their potential”