Autism, technically Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder affecting social skills and communication. It is called a “spectrum” because there is a range of symptoms and a range of severity, so each child is unique.
If your child has been diagnosed with autism, you probably have questions. Maybe you sensed this day was coming. Maybe you know someone else who has autism. Maybe you've never even heard of autism. No matter what, the big question is the same...now what?
- First, take time to breathe. Yes, literally: take a minute to relax. Take a few minutes to play with and enjoy your child. Remember that your child didn't change between yesterday and today. Your child is still a person, not a diagnosis. Your child is still your child, the son or daughter you love.
- Accept your emotions. Everyone responds differently, and you may go through a range of emotions - you may be angry or sad or feel like you're grieving. Some people are relieved to know what's going on. You will be the best parent you can be if you are aware of your own emotions.
- Get help. There are many services for children with autism, so much in fact, that it can be overwhelming. Whoever made the diagnosis should be able to refer you to services in your area. I recommend starting with your public school district, even if your child is not in school yet. The school is required by law to provide educational services. They will do an evaluation and develop a plan based on your child's unique needs. This process takes time, and most families find it helpful to get other services as well.
- Prioritize and plan. Once you've started the process for school services, take time to educate yourself. There is a wide variety of services for ASD, and different approaches may be helpful for different kids. Make sure your services and the provider's goals match your priorities and are realistic for your family, and that you are comfortable with the person providing the service. Because autism is a disorder of social communication, I recommend focusing on developing relationships with other people and learning a way to communicate with others. When I work with families, I do this through play, teaching parents how to help their children connect and grow, both in their abilities to develop relationships and through their relationships with others.
- Find support. Don't be afraid to ask for help, whether it is through a professional organization or an informal network of friends or family. Ask your school or doctor if there is a support group in your area; if there is one available, it will be your best source of emotional support, information, ideas and local resources. Other parents who have been where you are want to help you. Soon enough, you will feel confident that you can do the same for the next person.