We rely on social and emotional skills to navigate everyday life with our families, co-workers, and friends. This is as true for individuals with autism as it is for others. Children with autism deal with a unique set of challenges when it comes to developing social and emotional skills.
As a family, there are steps you can take to guide your child with autism through their development. There are also strategies you can employ to enhance your own emotional development as the parent of a child with autism.
Helping Your Child with Autism Develop Socially and Emotionally
The development of social and emotional skills is a process. It is a collaborative effort. Parents need to work with their child’s teachers, therapists, and as well as with other family members to help their child with autism thrive. Here are some specific tips to for this journey:
1. Avoid Negative Reactions
Your child with autism may not display social behaviors we accept as standard behaviors, such as greeting people when they enter a room or not ending a conversation abruptly. Reacting negatively when autistic children neglect to show these behaviors will not get you very far.
Remember, they are not doing it on purpose. Conventional behavior is not second-nature to them as it is to you. Make sure others understand this. Do not take it personally when your child fails to demonstrate acceptable social behavior. Do not scold them or respond negatively.
2. Practice “Correct” Social Behaviors
Children with autism can learn social behaviors through practice. Your child can practice looking others in the eyes, properly greeting others, participating in conversations, etc.
Over time, they will become increasingly able to perform these behaviors in real social settings. When they do, praise them. Some children catch on quickly and others need more practice before they are able to integrate traditional behaviors into real life. Be patient.
Role-playing can be helpful, too. Pretend you are your child’s peer. Simulate situations that might happen on the playground or at school. This allows autistic children to practice social behaviors in an environment where they feel comfortable and at ease.
3. Model Social Interactions
Give your child opportunities to observe you interacting in social situations. Have friends over and let your child observe you chatting with them, sharing meals, and interacting socially. Tell your friends beforehand that your child will be observing so they are aware of their own social behaviors.
After your friends leave, discuss the social behaviors your child observed. Answer any questions they may have. Remember, what is innate to you may seem odd to your child. Talking through confusing social scenarios will help boost your child’s understanding.
4. Talk About Emotions When Emotions Are Not “Running High”
Children with autism may not always be the best at regulating their emotions. The best time to address and talk about emotions is not during or right after an emotional outburst. Let the emotional drama play out and later, when your child is in a non-threatening environment and is feeling calmer and more collected, circle back to discuss the emotions they were experiencing earlier.
What are better ways to manage emotions? Discuss this topic often; not just following an outburst. Ensure the rest of your family is also on-board with this strategy.
Furthering Your Own Social and Emotional Development
One of the most important aspects of guiding your child’s emotional and social development is remaining in control of your own emotions and serving as a good role model. It is important to be continually working on improving your own social and emotional skills. Here are 3 ways to further your development:
1. Participate in Therapy
Attend appointments with a therapist, alone. This will give you an opportunity to talk about the challenges of raising a child with autism. When you talk about your challenges, they start to feel more manageable.
Therapy will help you control your own emotions. Your therapist can help you develop strategies for managing your own emotions more effectively. You can pass these strategies on to your child.
2. Maintain Healthy Relationships
Children with autism will look to you as an example of how to behave, so you want to make sure the examples they see are good ones. Work on keeping your own relationships with friends and family members healthy.
Let your child see you engaging in kind, productive conversations and respectful disagreements, rather than arguments. If there is a friend or family member with whom you struggle to positively relate, separate from them or seek therapy together so you can improve your relationship.
3. Practice Self-Care
Caring for any child is a full-time job, and it can feel overwhelming at times. Make sure you take time out to care for yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Your child deserves the healthiest, most balanced version of you.
Set aside a half-hour to engage in a hobby you love each day. Spend 10 minutes meditating at the start of every day. Have a friend or family member babysit from time to time so you can step away before you start to feel overwhelmed.
Children with autism differ in the ways they interact socially and display emotions. As a parent, it’s up to you to guide this development. This really comes down to setting a good example, exercising patience, and continually giving your child opportunities to practice and improve. Rely on therapists, teachers, and family members in your life to work with you.
Remember, this is all done out of love for your child.
Anthony Cupo is a Trained Mindfulness Facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.