The following is a personal story written by Kristin, an ambassador of MyAutismTeam, the social network for parents of children of all ages with autism. Below she shares the lessons that she has learned incorporating her extended family into her son’s life. If you are a parent of child with ASD, go to MyAutismTeam and connect with other parents who ‘get it.’ Thousands of parents from all over the country are here to share not only their stories, but their daily lives: the good days and bad days and the triumphs!
This time of year my favorite for one main reason—the food! Seeing extended family and getting time off from school or work is also a bonus. Sometimes spending time with your extended family can be a hassle, especially if you have different circumstances than the rest of your family.
My son happens to be the only child with any sort of special needs (ASD) on either side of the family, which can make the holidays stressful. Yes, getting my son to do something other than climb the stairs over and over again is frustrating, but that’s not the main stressor, the extended family is. We all love our families (hopefully!), but sometimes things aren’t all pleasant.
I remember how interactions with my son went at the first family gathering following his diagnosis. It was nearly nonexistent. We have two doctors in the family, so they interacted with my son, but others didn’t. Over time I began to notice a trend in who would make an effort to talk to and play with my son, but also that did not. I even conducted an informal experiment to see how often my extended family interacted with my son last Thanksgiving. You know what I found? The family members who barely engaged my son had little to no knowledge about autism.
It can be so easy to just get angry, assume they don’t want to be a part of your child’s life, or even dislike your child. Try not to jump to conclusions and think about why certain family members avoid your child. There could be a whole host of completely rational reasons why they avoid your child.
Here are some reasons that I have found to be true:
- They don’t know how to interact with your child. This is the most common reason that I encounter. Not everyone is as versed on the ins and outs of autism as us ASD parents. Telling your family that your child has autism may not be enough to prompt investigation on their part. Try bringing your child up in casual conversation and state how they should interact with your child. For example, you could say “Talking to him like we would other children is most beneficial for him,” or “we typically talk to him with short, specific sentences,” to emphasize how to communicate with your child. I did this exact thing with my siblings-in-law to let them know that we talk to our son just like we would any other kid. Modeling it also helps. I noticed that a few of them began to make consistent efforts to interact with my son after that.
- They want to help, but don’t know how. I specifically noticed this with my mother-in-law. She wants to help, but doesn’t really know what to do. She used to repeat herself over and over again to my son, trying to help, but it just made us angry. We felt like she assumed our son was unintelligent. Turns out, she was told that repetition helps with learning. She took that too literally, hence the repetitious nature of her conversations with my son. When she last visited, we actually told her about things he was working on at school and asked that she practice those things, too. One thing in specific was hugging. My son is very affectionate, but in unique ways. He has been learning to hug at school, so we told her about it and asked her to do it. When he did hug her, she was so proud! She even instructed my father-in-law to start doing it, too!
- Awareness is crucial. The simple act of knowing has major influential effects on how people behave. I can attest to this myself. Even as a parent to a child with autism, I still find that initially I feel a little bit of anxiety when initially meeting a new child with ASD. The more exposure I have, the more comfortable I feel. I am an undergraduate research assistant in an Applied Behavior Science program, so I interact with children with ASD all the time. The more time I spend with these kids, the more comfortable I get with new children and new issues. Just try to inform your extended family about your child’s situation. This can be formal and informal. Chances are your family may have some idea that autism is something that it really isn’t. Express the great things your child does as well as struggles (chance to ask for help!).
I have noticed that the more information I provide to my family, the more they want to interact with my son and ask about his progress. It is so important to not jump to conclusions and get angry. Let’s be honest, raising a child with ASD is hard work. Why add more work and stress to your load? Try to enjoy the holidays, eat lots of yummy food, and teach your child some new social skills. And if some family member refuses to be social with your child, then don’t sweat it. Your child needs to be surrounded by supportive and loving people anyways.