9 Simple Strategies to Help Your Child with Autism Thrive

How to Help Your Child with Autism Thrive

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Autism affects each child differently, with some having mild symptoms while others have more significant challenges.

The main signs of autism typically appear during early childhood when a child does not reach expected developmental milestones. Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with communication and language: For example, children with autism may be slow to start speaking or have trouble holding a conversation.
  • Repetitive behaviors: These may include repetitive body movements like hand flapping or rocking, insistence on sticking to routines, or obsessive interests.
  • Difficulty with social interaction: Children with autism tend to have trouble reading social cues, making eye contact, or engaging with peers. They may prefer solitary play.
  • Sensory issues: Kids with ASD may have abnormal responses to sensory stimuli like loud noises, bright lights, certain textures, or strong smells. They may find these things painful or overwhelming.
  • Behavioral challenges: Some children with autism have intense tantrums, aggression, or self-injurious behaviors. These often result from communication difficulties or sensory overload.

Though all kids with ASD share some common symptoms, the condition varies widely in severity and exact symptoms. Some children may have mild challenges while others have more significant disabilities. This spectrum is why the disorder is called autism spectrum disorder. With early intervention and support, all children with autism can make progress and lead fulfilling lives.


1. Getting an Accurate Diagnosis

Getting an accurate, early diagnosis is crucial for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The earlier a child is diagnosed, the sooner they can begin receiving specialized interventions and therapies proven to improve outcomes.

It is recommended to have your child screened for ASD as early as 18-24 months if there are developmental concerns. Some early signs include lack of eye contact, delayed speech development, lack of interest in peers, poor pretend play skills, repetitive behaviors, and hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input.

To get a thorough diagnostic evaluation, work with your pediatrician and insurance provider to find specialists like a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, or neuropsychologist. They will gather developmental history, observe your child, assess cognitive, language, and behavioral skills, and may use autism screening tools like the M-CHAT questionnaire.

Diagnosing ASD is based on direct observation of your child combined with parent reports. There are no medical tests that can diagnose ASD. The average age of diagnosis is around 4 years old, but an experienced specialist can reliably diagnose ASD as young as 18 months. Early diagnosis and intervention provide the best chance at optimal outcomes.


2. Building a Support Team

Surrounding your child with a strong support system is crucial for their development and well-being. This involves identifying key support people and professionals who can provide specialized care and collaborate to help your child thrive.

Some important members to have on your child’s team include:

  • Pediatrician: Your child’s doctor can monitor their overall health, screen for any co-occurring conditions, and help coordinate care between specialists. Annual check-ups are important.
  • Developmental pediatrician: They can assess your child’s development and make referrals to therapists and intervention services. They often lead your child’s care team.
  • Behavioral therapist: A therapist can teach your child social, communication, and life skills through therapies like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Early intensive ABA is recommended.
  • Special education teacher and support staff: Once your child is school-age, having caring teachers experienced with autism is invaluable. They can adapt the curriculum and provide accommodations.
  • Speech-language pathologist: A speech therapist can improve communication, speech, and language abilities through exercises and tools like picture exchange systems.
  • Occupational therapist: They help with sensory issues, motor skills, and daily living skills like getting dressed and feeding themselves.
  • Psychologist or psychiatrist: They can diagnose any co-occurring conditions like anxiety, ADHD, or depression and provide counseling or medication if needed.

Having trusting relationships and ongoing communication between team members ensures everyone is working together towards your child’s goals. As the parent, you are the team leader. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child. When professionals collaborate, your child with autism will thrive.


3. Focusing on Communication

Communication challenges are very common in children with autism. As a parent, you can support your child’s communication development in several key ways:

Speech Therapy

Many children on the spectrum work with a speech-language pathologist for speech therapy. This type of therapy focuses on improving verbal communication skills, such as articulation, vocabulary building, conversational skills, and more. During sessions, the speech therapist will use activities, games, and exercises tailored to your child’s needs. They can also provide tips for continuing language practice at home.

Visual Supports

Visual supports like picture exchange communication systems can be extremely helpful for nonverbal children or those with limited verbal skills. With picture exchange, your child communicates using pictorial symbols rather than words. The therapist will create customized communication boards or books with relevant pictures that your child can point to or hand to you to make requests and express themselves.

Augmentative Communication Devices

For those who struggle profoundly with speech, augmentative and alternative communication devices like tablets or voice output systems are available. These tools allow the child to press buttons or type words that are voiced aloud by the device. A speech therapist can help determine if your child would benefit from high or low-tech assistive communication tools.

Though every child progresses differently, focusing intently on communication and providing multiple avenues for your child to make themselves understood can have immense positive impacts. Work closely with your speech therapist and autism treatment team to determine the best strategies to support your child’s communication growth.


4. Encouraging Social Skills

Social skills can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, many techniques and therapies can help encourage the development of social skills.

Social Skills Training and Therapy

  • Work with a therapist on skills like making eye contact, reading facial expressions and body language, taking turns in conversation, and maintaining appropriate physical distance. Role-playing and social stories can provide practice in real-world situations.
  • Look for therapists who specialize in evidence-based techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy, modeling, and peer-mediated interventions. Many offer both individual and group sessions.
  • Ask your child’s school about incorporating social skills lessons or group therapies like LEAP into the IEP. These build social competence in a natural environment with peers.
  • Enroll your child in a dedicated social skills summer camp to provide intensive immersive practice in a safe environment.

Peer Mediation and Autism Buddy Programs

  • Set up a peer mediation program at school, where socially adept students guide and provide feedback to students with ASD.
  • Use an autism buddy program to pair your child with a neurotypical peer for daily practice with socialization and play at recess or lunch.
  • Look for programs that train peers on supporting students with ASD. These can build meaningful connections and reciprocal friendships.

Modeling Appropriate Social Behavior

  • Explicitly demonstrate, narrate, and explain social skills in everyday situations. For example, explain how to join a playground activity or take turns in board games.
  • Praise your child when they demonstrates good social skills. Provide gentle corrections for inappropriate behaviors.
  • Role-play scenarios and model language for social situations like starting conversations, compromising in play, or reading body language and facial cues.
  • Use TV shows, movies, and books to highlight and discuss appropriate social skills. Point out good and bad examples.
  • Invite friends over for playdates to provide natural opportunities for practicing social skills with peers. Offer guidance during interactions.


5. Providing Structure and Routine

Children with autism often thrive on structure and routine. Here are some tips for building a structured environment that meets your child’s needs:

Use Visual Schedules

Post a visual schedule where your child can see it, like on the fridge or a bulletin board. The schedule should outline your child’s daily activities using pictures, photos, or words. Refer to the schedule often and walk your child through what comes next. Visual schedules build predictability and self-management skills.

Plan Structured Activities

Have set times for structured learning, play, meals, and hygiene. Try to keep routines consistent during weekends and holidays too. Break assignments or activities into manageable chunks. Set timers to help your child transition between tasks. Consider using a reward system.

Give Warnings Before Transitions

Transitioning between activities can be challenging for kids with autism. Give 5-10 minute warnings before transitions using a timer, song, or gesture. Tell your child exactly what is ending and what comes next. If needed, use a visual support like a checklist. Prepare for challenges around transitions like tantrums or avoidance. Remain calm and patiently guide your child through transitions.

Creating structure through schedules, routines, and transition warnings can reduce anxiety and behavior issues. Observe what is predictable and comforting to your child, then design a structure around those preferences. With time and consistency, your child will better understand and participate in daily routines.


6. Handling Sensory Issues

Children with autism often struggle with sensory processing, meaning they have difficulty taking in and responding appropriately to input from their different senses. This can manifest in hypersensitivity to certain textures, sounds, lights, or other stimuli that most people can tune out. Sensory issues may also cause kids to crave extra stimulation. There are various strategies parents can use to help their child handle sensory challenges:

  • Provide sensory breaks: Create a cozy space where your child can relax and take a break when feeling overwhelmed. A small tent with pillows, noise-canceling headphones, and calming fidget toys can provide an escape. Regularly build in sensory breaks between activities. Go for a walk, listen to music, play with sensory bins, or do other calming activities.
  • Adapt environments to reduce stimuli: Notice when and where your child tends to get overstimulated. Remove bothersome decor, use soft lighting, minimize clutter, and muffle sounds in problem areas. Prepare your child for potentially stressful sensory experiences in public places. Carry noise-canceling headphones or sunglasses.
  • Offer fidgets and weighted blankets: Fidget toys allow sensory input in a controlled, helpful way. Items like stress balls, fidget spinners, and chewy jewelry can meet sensory needs while avoiding disruptive stims. Weighted blankets supply calming deep pressure. Explore different options to find the most effective sensory tools for your child.

Paying attention to your child’s sensory environment and making accommodations can help avoid meltdowns while teaching self-regulation skills. Work with an occupational therapist for more ways to support sensory processing. With creativity and compassion, you can help your child handle sensory challenges.


7. Managing Challenging Behaviors

Many children with autism engage in behaviors like tantrums, aggression, or self-injury that can be difficult for parents to manage. While challenging behaviors should never be ignored, it’s important to respond calmly and consistently and try to understand the underlying cause. Some strategies that may help:

  1. Conduct a functional behavior assessment: Working with a therapist, observe your child to identify triggers for the behavior. Then you can make changes to avoid or minimize those triggers.
  2. Use positive reinforcement: Notice and praise good behavior, like using words instead of tantrums to express frustration. Reward your child with fun activities or privileges when they meet goals. This encourages positive behaviors.
  3. Make accommodations: If your child is acting out due to sensory overload, provide noise-canceling headphones or sunglasses. Creating a calming space they can retreat to may also help.
  4. Stick to a schedule: Consistent routines and clear expectations can reduce anxiety that may lead to behaviors. Use picture schedules to help your child know what’s coming next.
  5. Teach replacement behaviors: Instead of scolding unacceptable behavior, teach an appropriate alternative. Role-play the desired response to a situation that triggers behaviors.
  6. Avoid punishing outbursts: Harsh discipline often escalates the situation. Stay calm, acknowledging your child’s feelings. Redirect them to a relaxing activity until they have de-escalated.

Managing your child’s challenging behaviors takes patience, but can improve over time with compassionate support and consistency. If problems persist, don’t hesitate to seek help from your doctor or a therapist. Taking care of your mental health is also key.


8. Exploring Your Options for School

When your child is diagnosed with autism, one of the biggest decisions you’ll make is choosing the right educational path. There are several options to consider:

Public Schools

Public schools are required by law to provide special education services and accommodations for students with disabilities. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), your child has a right to a “free appropriate public education” in the least restrictive environment. Public schools must follow an Individualized Education Program (IEP) tailored to your child’s needs.

Pros of public schools include access to special education resources, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills training at no cost. General education classrooms provide opportunities for socialization and peer modeling. Public schools also offer activities and clubs.

Potential downsides are large class sizes and difficulty getting the specific services your child needs. You may need to push for appropriate goals and placement in the IEP. Public schools vary widely in resources and quality of special education programs.

Private Schools

Private and parochial schools are not required to follow IDEA, although many still offer special needs services and accommodations. Private schools can provide smaller class sizes and lower student-teacher ratios. Some specialize in autism and have extensive experience with therapies and behavioral interventions.

Tuition is often high. Unlike public schools, private schools can pick and choose which students they admit. Make sure to ask about the range of services provided and policies for inclusion before enrolling your child.

Charter Schools

Charter schools operate as public schools but outside the traditional public school system. They have more flexibility over their curriculum, budget, and staff. Some charter schools cater specifically to children with autism through intense behavioral therapies and highly structured environments.

Charter schools are meant to provide innovative approaches, but quality varies widely. Resources may not be as extensive as larger public school districts. Charter schools are allowed to cap enrollment and often have waiting lists.


Homeschooling allows you to fully customize and control your child’s learning. You can go at their pace and tailor the curriculum around their unique needs and abilities. Homeschooling removes the stress of mainstream classrooms and rigid school days.

Creating your curriculum requires time, energy, and resources. Consistency and socialization can also be a challenge. Many homeschool cooperatives and online programs now cater to special needs children. Connecting with other homeschooling families is key for support.

Online Schools

Online public schools run by school districts or charter schools allow students to take classes at home on the computer. This provides more flexibility while still giving access to teachers, special education services, and standardized curriculums.

IEPs and therapies may be more difficult to implement in a virtual setting. Make sure to get details on how accommodations, modifications, and goals will be tracked. Online schools require self-motivation and parental supervision. They are not right for children who need hands-on therapies and sensory support.

With any option, visit programs, ask questions, and observe classes before deciding. Choose the environment you feel will help your child thrive socially and academically. Stay involved and advocate for their needs every step of the way.


9. Caring for Yourself as a Parent

Being a parent is a full-time job, and being a parent to a child with autism comes with unique challenges. You need to take time for self-care and seek support. This will allow you to be fully present and available for your child.

Take Time for Self-Care

Make sure to regularly do activities solely for yourself that help you recharge. This could involve reading, meditating, exercising, enjoying a hobby, or simply relaxing alone. Don’t feel guilty about taking this time – you will ultimately be a better parent when your cup is full.

Join a Parent Support Group

Connect with other parents who understand what you are going through. Local autism organizations likely have parent support groups you can join. The shared experiences and advice can help you feel less alone. You may build lasting friendships in the process.

Seek Counseling if Needed

The challenges of parenting an autistic child can take an emotional toll. A mental health counselor can provide a safe space to talk through difficulties. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed – be proactive in caring for your mental health. With the right support, you will gain coping mechanisms and perspective.

Remember, you are your child’s greatest champion. But you can’t pour from an empty cup. Prioritizing self-care allows you to be the caring, patient, and present parent your child needs. Don’t hesitate to ask for help along this journey.