Ted Hutman, Ph.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Santa Monica, CA.
A parent’s guide to autism treatment and support
If you’ve recently learned that your child has or might have autism spectrum disorder, you’re probably wondering and worrying about what comes next. No parent is ever prepared to hear that a child is anything other than happy and healthy, and an ASD diagnosis can be particularly frightening. You may be unsure about how to best help your child, or confused by conflicting treatment advice. Or you may have been told that ASD is an incurable, lifelong condition, leaving you concerned that nothing you do will make a difference.
While it is true that ASD is not something a person simply “grows out of,” there are many treatments that can help children acquire new skills and overcome a wide variety of developmental challenges. From free government services to in-home behavioral therapy and school-based programs, assistance is available to meet your child’s special needs and help them learn, grow, and thrive in life.
When you’re looking after an autistic child, it’s also important to take care of yourself. Being emotionally strong allows you to be the best parent you can be to your child in need. These parenting tips can help by making life with an autistic child easier.
Don’t wait for a diagnosis
As the parent of a child with ASD or related developmental delays, the best thing you can do is to start treatment right away. Seek help as soon as you suspect something’s wrong. Don’t wait to see if your child will catch up later or outgrow the problem. Don’t even wait for an official diagnosis. The earlier children with autism spectrum disorder get help, the greater their chance of treatment success. Early intervention is the most effective way to speed up your child’s development and reduce the symptoms of autism over the lifespan.
When your child has autism
Learn about autism. The more you know about autism spectrum disorder, the better equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions for your child. Educate yourself about the treatment options, ask questions, and participate in all treatment decisions.
Become an expert on your child. Figure out what triggers your kid’s challenging or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your child find stressful or frightening? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems and preventing or modifying situations that cause difficulties.
Accept your child, quirks and all. Rather than focusing on how your autistic child is different from other children and what he or she is “missing,” practice acceptance. Enjoy your kid’s special quirks, celebrate small successes, and stop comparing your child to others. Feeling unconditionally loved and accepted will help your child more than anything else.
Don’t give up. It’s impossible to predict the course of autism spectrum disorder. Don’t jump to conclusions about what life is going to be like for your child. Like everyone else, people with autism have an entire lifetime to grow and develop their abilities.
Helping your child with autism thrive tip 1: Provide structure and safety
Learning all you can about autism and getting involved in treatment will go a long way toward helping your child. Additionally, the following tips will make daily home life easier for both you and your child with ASD:
Be consistent. Children with ASD have a hard time applying what they’ve learned in one setting (such as the therapist’s office or school) to others, including the home. For example, your child may use sign language at school to communicate, but never think to do so at home. Creating consistency in your child’s environment is the best way to reinforce learning. Find out what your child’s therapists are doing and continue their techniques at home. Explore the possibility of having therapy take place in more than one place in order to encourage your child to transfer what he or she has learned from one environment to another. It’s also important to be consistent in the way you interact with your child and deal with challenging behaviors.
Stick to a schedule. Autistic children tend to do best when they have a highly-structured schedule or routine. Again, this goes back to the consistency they both need and crave. Set up a schedule for your child, with regular times for meals, therapy, school, and bedtime. Try to keep disruptions to this routine to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable schedule change, prepare your child for it in advance.
Reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement can go a long way with children with ASD, so make an effort to “catch them doing something good.” Praise them when they act appropriately or learn a new skill, being very specific about what behavior they’re being praised for. Also look for other ways to reward them for good behavior, such as giving them a sticker or letting them play with a favorite toy.
Create a home safety zone. Carve out a private space in your home where your child can relax, feel secure, and be safe. This will involve organizing and setting boundaries in ways your child can understand. Visual cues can be helpful (colored tape marking areas that are off limits, labeling items in the house with pictures). You may also need to safety proof the house, particularly if your child is prone to tantrums or other self-injurious behaviors.
Tip 2: Find nonverbal ways to connect
Connecting with an autistic child can be challenging, but you don’t need to talk—or even touch—in order to communicate and bond. You communicate by the way you look at your child, by the tone of your voice, your body language – and possibly the way you touch your child. Your child is also communicating with you, even if he or she never speaks. You just need to learn the language.
Look for nonverbal cues. If you are observant and aware, you can learn to pick up on the nonverbal cues that autistic children use to communicate. Pay attention to the kinds of sounds they make, their facial expressions, and the gestures they use when they’re tired, hungry, or want something.
Figure out the motivation behind the tantrum. It’s only natural to feel upset when you are misunderstood or ignored, and it’s no different for children with ASD. When children with ASD act out, it’s often because you’re not picking up on their nonverbal cues. Throwing a tantrum is their way of communicating their frustration and getting your attention.
Make time for fun. A child coping with ASD is still a child. For both autistic children and their parents, there needs to be more to life than therapy. Schedule playtime when your child is most alert and awake. Figure out ways to have fun together by thinking about the things that make your child smile, laugh, and come out of her/his shell. Your child is likely to enjoy these activities most if they don’t seem therapeutic or educational. There are tremendous benefits that result from your enjoyment of your child’s company and from your child’s enjoyment of spending unpressured time with you. Play is an essential part of learning for all children and shouldn’t feel like work.
Pay attention to your child’s sensory sensitivities. Many children with ASD are hypersensitive to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Some children with autism are “under-sensitive” to sensory stimuli. Figure out what sights, sounds, smells, movements, and tactile sensations trigger your kid’s “bad” or disruptive behaviors and what elicits a positive response. What does your child find stressful? Calming? Uncomfortable? Enjoyable? If you understand what affects your child, you’ll be better at troubleshooting problems, preventing situations that cause difficulties, and creating successful experiences.
Tip 3: Create a personalized autism treatment plan
With so many different treatments available, it can be tough to figure out which approach is right for your child. Making things more complicated, you may hear different or even conflicting recommendations from parents, teachers, and doctors.
When putting together a treatment plan for your child, keep in mind that there is no single treatment that works for everyone. Each person on the autism spectrum is unique, with different strengths and weaknesses.
Your child’s treatment should be tailored according to their individual needs. You know your child best, so it’s up to you to make sure those needs are being met. You can do that by asking yourself the following questions:
What are my child’s strengths – and their weaknesses?
What behaviors are causing the most problems? What important skills is my child lacking?
How does my child learn best – through seeing, listening, or doing?
What does my child enjoy – and how can those activities be used in treatment and to bolster learning?
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what treatment plan is chosen, your involvement is vital to success. You can help your child get the most out of treatment by working hand-in-hand with the treatment team and following through with the therapy at home. (This is why your well-being is essential!)
A good treatment plan will:
- Build on your child’s interests.
- Offer a predictable schedule.
- Teach tasks as a series of simple steps.
- Actively engage your child’s attention in highly structured activities.
- Provide regular reinforcement of behavior.
- Involve the parents.
Choosing autism treatments
There are many different options and approaches to ASD treatment, including behavior therapy, speech-language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nutritional therapy.
While you don’t have to limit your child to just one treatment at a time, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to address everything at once. Instead, start by focusing on your child’s most severe symptoms and pressing needs.
Tip 4: Find help and support
Caring for a child with autism can demand a lot of energy and time. There may be days when you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or discouraged. Parenting isn’t ever easy, and raising a child with special needs is even more challenging. In order to be the best parent you can be, it’s essential that you take care of yourself.
Don’t try to do everything on your own. You don’t have to! There are many places that families of children with ASD can turn to for advice, a helping hand, advocacy, and support:
ADS support groups – Joining an ASD support group is a great way to meet other families dealing with the same challenges you are. Parents can share information, get advice, and lean on each other for emotional support. Just being around others in the same boat and sharing their experience can go a long way toward reducing the isolation many parents feel after receiving a child’s diagnosis.
Respite care – Every parent needs a break now and again. And for parents coping with the added stress of ASD, this is especially true. In respite care, another caregiver takes over temporarily, giving you a break for a few hours, days, or even weeks.
Individual, marital, or family counseling – If stress, anxiety, or depression is getting to you, you may want to see a therapist of your own. Therapy is a safe place where you can talk honestly about everything you’re feeling—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Marriage or family therapy can also help you work out problems that the challenges of life with an autistic child are causing in your spousal relationship or with other family members.
Free U.S. government services for children with autism
Under the U.S. federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities—including those with ASD—are eligible for a range of free or low-cost services. Under this provision, children in need and their families may receive medical evaluations, psychological services, speech therapy, physical therapy, parent counseling and training, assisted technology devices, and other specialized services.
Children under the age of 10 do not need an autism diagnosis to receive free services under IDEA. If they are experiencing a developmental delay (including delays in communication or social development), they are automatically eligible for early intervention and special education services.
Early intervention services (birth through age two)
Infants and toddlers through the age of two receive assistance through the Early Intervention program. In order to qualify, your child must first undergo a free evaluation. If the assessment reveals a developmental problem, you will work with early intervention treatment providers to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). An IFSP describes your child’s needs and the specific services he or she will receive.
For autism, an IFSP would include a variety of behavior, physical, speech, and play therapies. It would focus on preparing autistic kids for the eventual transition to school. Early intervention services are typically conducted in the home or at a child care center.
To locate local early intervention services for your child, ask your pediatrician for a referral or use the resources listed in the “Get more help” section at the end of the article.
Special education services (age three and older)
Children over the age of three receive assistance through school-based programs. As with early intervention, special education services are tailored to your child’s individual needs. Autistic children are often placed with other developmentally delayed kids in small groups where they can receive more individual attention and specialized instruction. However, depending on their abilities, they may also spend at least part of the school day in a regular classroom. The goal is to place kids in the “least restrictive environment” possible where they are still able to learn.
If you’d like to pursue special education services, your local school system will first need to evaluate your child. Based on this assessment, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will be drafted. An IEP outlines the educational goals for your child for the school year. Additionally, it describes the special services or supports the school will provide your child in order to meet those goals.
Know your child’s rights
As the parent of a child with ASD, you have a legal right to:
- Be involved in developing your child’s IEP from start to finish
- Disagree with the school system’s recommendations
- Seek an outside evaluation for your child
- Invite anyone you want—from a relative to your child’s doctor—to be on the IEP team
- Request an IEP meeting at any time if you feel your child’s needs are not being met
- Free or low-cost legal representation if you can’t come to an agreement with the school
Caring for a child with autism when you are autistic
Research indicates that there is a genetic component to autism. However, many parents only discover they’re autistic when they research and obtain a formal diagnosis for their own child. If you’re autistic, you might face unique challenges when it comes to raising children who are also neurodivergent. Here are a few tips that may help:
Don’t hide your identity. Let your child get to know the real you. If you have certain quirks, such as repetitive behaviors or unusual body movements, don’t feel pressured to mask them in front of your child. By being yourself, you’re encouraging your autistic child to be themselves around you and creating an opportunity to bond over your similarities. You can also talk with your child about how neurotypical individuals may react to your behaviors and how to handle negative reactions. Aim to offer the type of guidance you could’ve used when you were young.
Remember to care for yourself. Caring for a child can be challenging if you struggle with sensory needs or require a highly structured lifestyle. For example, if you’re sensitive to sounds, a crying child may be a constant source of stress and discomfort. A child’s sudden tantrums can make it hard for you to stick to a consistent schedule, creating further frustration. To protect your own sense of well-being, it’s important for you to adopt coping habits that help reduce your stress in these types of situations.
If certain tasks seem overwhelming, look to other people for support. For example, if communicating with doctors and teachers poses a challenge, a parenting mentor or other parents with autism might be able to help you come up with solutions.
Build on your strengths. Everyone has specific strengths, and you’re no exception. Consider how your skills and talents can help you establish a supportive household for your child. Do you excel at visual thinking or design? Create educational posters for your child. Are you able to focus for long periods of time? Use that focus to research and study up on parenting practices and coping strategies. Are you good at problem-solving? Use your creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to overcome challenges around the house.
Be patient with yourself and your child. Be willing to accept that you both have plenty of time to grow and learn. You might experience some setbacks. Perhaps, you lose your temper and feel ashamed by your reaction. Or maybe your child has a hard time fitting in with peers when they start school. Resolve to learn from bad experiences and find solutions, even if you have to make multiple attempts. When one of you does make progress, remember to acknowledge the growth. Offer your child praise and celebrate your personal successes as well.
Ted Hutman, Ph.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Santa Monica, CA.
Hotlines and support
In the U.S.
Call the Autism Society National Helpline at 1-800-328-8476.
Call the Early Intervention helpdesk in Perth at 1800 778 581 or Get support for your child from NDIS.
Call the Autism Canada Family Support Representative at 1-800-983-1795.
Find helplines and support in your area at Autism New Zealand.
Last updated or reviewed on June 5, 2023