If you're the parent of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you know that dealing with the diagnosis can be tough at times. If your little one doesn't suffer from ASD, however, it's possible that you may be confused about the causes, symptoms, and behaviors associated with autism. As a result, you or your kids may shy away from children with ASD, allowing the fear of saying or doing something hurtful or offensive to prevent new friendships from forming.
With the number of autistic kids on the rise (The Center for Disease Control just released a report that 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with ASD), it's more important than ever to get the facts, and learn how you can help moms, dads and children dealing with ASD. Echoes CDC Director Thomas Frieden, "One thing the data tells us with certainty—there are more children and families that need help."
Frieden's statement sends a clear message to parents: even if your family isn't directly affected by ASD, it's important to step up and figure out how you can make a difference. If you'd like to volunteer but aren't sure where to start, get started with these six tips:
- Learn the facts. You probably don't know much about ASD, so make an effort to familiarize yourself with the disorder. As a starting point, Dr. Rhea Paul, the Founder and Director of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology at Sacred Heart University, recommends resources from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. In addition to brushing up on the basics, learn to separate fact from fiction when checking up on the latest research. Dr. Paul cautions that red flags include claims of cures for ASD, as well as "outcomes backed by testimonials only without reference to medical or scientific findings."
- Educate your kid. Teach your child respectful behavior when meeting an autistic peer—or anyone labeled "different" by others. Kids often shy away from other children with autism because they don't understand the disorder, so encourage her to be accepting. "Parents can help unaffected children to learn to play with and accept children with ASD simply by explaining to them that some children are different and learn differently, so they are not confused and frightened by unusual behaviors they see," explains Dr. Paul. "They can then be encouraged to be 'good teachers' for children who may need to learn how to play, and, again, to invite them to play with what they are playing with [and] show them appropriate ways to use toys."
- Plan ahead. Families with a kid suffering from ASD often feel isolated and cut off from typical activities, so make an extra effort to be inclusive of ASD children when planning your little one's next play group or birthday party. Go the extra mile by taking the time to plan a few ASD-friendly activities like painting, a matching game or anything that stimulates different senses. Dr. Paul recommends "back-and-forth" games like catch, which make it easy get a rhythm going and keep all kids involved.
- Watch your words. Since autism's more prevalent than ever, it's crucial to always set an example of how to act and speak in respectful ways. In addition to (obviously) avoiding hurtful statements, refrain from making snap judgments about other children's behavior, or categorizing it as bizarre until you know the full story. Should you hear any rude remarks from your child, sit her down and explain right away that teasing won't be tolerated, and that it's not okay to treat others with disrespect—no matter how different they may seem.
- Lend a hand...or an ear. Show support to the mama of the autistic child in your kid's class—especially if you have any experience with ASD or special education training. Offer to babysit while she takes time to unwind or get personal business done. Spending time with someone new can benefit an ASD child, Dr. Paul notes. "[It] can often supplement [a] child's intervention as they play with him/her." If you don't feel comfortable as a sitter, whip up a comforting casserole, lend a hand with cleaning, or just listen patiently if a parent wants to talk.
- Support research. Investment in research is always needed to help the world learn more about the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of ASD—if you're passionate, put your money where your mouth is. "There is a lot of research going on in the area of drug discovery, and I think additional useful medications will be identified in the near future," notes Dr. Paul. "There is also a lot of genetic research going on that may help us to understand the mechanisms of ASD, and this, too, may lead to new drugs or other medical interventions." Whether you can contribute a lot or a little to an autism research fund, you'll be making a positive impact with anything you can give. If you're not sure which cause to support, Dr. Paul recommends the Autism Science Foundation.
Raising a child with ASD requires patience from parents, siblings, and all involved in the life of the child. By working hard to help out those who may be affected, you not only make an impact in the lives of families dealing with ASD, but teach your own kids a strong lesson about tolerance, kindness, and the power of goodwill.