Lending a Hand: How to Help Parents of Children with ASD

Since one in 68 American children has an autism spectrum disorder, you may at some point be witness to a child with autism having a public meltdown, just like the passengers on a recent United Airlines flight. A meltdown can be hard to watch, but it’s also hard to be the parent who is dealing with it. Here’s how to help when a situation arises.

Ask How to Help

Everyone’s situation is different, and kids with autism all have their own preferences, triggers and challenges. What works for one child might upset another, so the best way to lend a hand is to ask the parent how you can help. Perhaps you can keep an eye on siblings, find a safe place for family to go until the meltdown subsides or adjust an environmental factor that is disturbing the child.

However, there may not be anything practical you can do to help parents during an autistic child’s meltdown. The parent knows his or her child best and may have the situation under control, even if it doesn’t look that way to you. If you offer to help and the parent declines, graciously accept this response and, if appropriate, wait off to the side until a need does arise.

Show Empathy

When your child is having a meltdown, all eyes are on you. No matter who you are, that can become quite uncomfortable, quite quickly. No one wants to feel he’s being judged by an entire room full of people, and feeling that both you and your child are being judged is even more hurtful.

It’s easy to chalk a child’s behavior up to poor parenting, but that’s not what’s going on in the case of a child with autism. Rather, his actions are directly tied to his autism, which is an actual medical diagnosis. By educating yourself about autism and the ways it manifests, it will be easier to withhold judgment in a tense situation and remember that children with autism sometimes struggle simply because they process the world differently.

The opposite of judgment is empathy. Even if there’s nothing in particular you can do to make things easier for the parent, a smile can go a long way. It can communicate, “You’re doing your best,” “I support you,” or, “You make a difference for your child.”

Educate Your Children

Kids are curious, especially about things they don’t understand. Curiosity is good, but when it leads to staring or pointing, that can make for an uncomfortable situation for everyone. Educate your children about autism before an awkward situation arises.

With your help, kids can learn that a person with autism’s brain might work differently than their own. That’s okay, though, because we’re all a little different! However, because a child with autism’s brain works differently, he might do things to help himself relax or keep from becoming overwhelmed, and these behaviors might seem strange to others. Help your children brainstorm about their own unique behaviors and emphasize that everyone approaches life a little differently.

In fact, helping your children befriend people with autism is a great way to promote autism acceptance in your own family. Teach them to focus on what their new friend can do, rather on the things that he struggles with, and to picture themselves in their friend’s shoes. When relating to people with autism is a normal activity for your children, responding respectfully in tricky situations will become second nature. Perhaps you, too, will even learn a thing or two from your kids!