Bridging the Generation Gap: Grandparents and Autism
by Shannon Flynn –
As much as you love them, it can sometimes be difficult to relate to your grandchildren. It can be even more difficult if your grandchild has autism. However, grandparents play an important role in the lives of children and grandchildren, so it’s important to understand autism and learn the best ways to help your family.
Understanding Autism: The Basics
There are many myths and misinformation about autism, therefore educating yourself about it is one of the most important things you can do. Recent years have yielded a lot of information about the disorder and having a basic understanding is important.
In the simplest terms, autism is a group of conditions with similar symptoms. It impacts social skills, communication, interests and behaviors. While autism affects these areas, the way it presents is different in every child, so it’s important not to make assumptions about children with autism.
You’re also probably wondering what causes autism. It seems like every day a new study claims to have found the cause of autism, but the truth is no one knows for sure what causes it. Researchers think it’s likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While researchers aren’t sure what causes autism, they are sure that it isn’t caused by bad parenting. Autism is no one’s fault.
The Generation Gap: Common Problems and How to Solve Them
Grandparents of children with autism face special challenges. Some of the most common problems are: trying to help without being intrusive; believing that there’s not enough discipline; and unintentionally sabotaging routine and diet.
Many grandparents of children with autism find themselves in a difficult situation: they want to help with their grandchild, but they don’t want to be intrusive. However, it’s critical for grandparents to support parents in every way possible.
“Grandparents can be such a wonderful resource for their children and grandchildren,” says Dr. Erin Moran, clinical psychologist with the Portland Autism Center.
Parents of children with autism experience a great deal of stress and rarely have time for themselves. Grandparents can help by providing much needed respite for parents. This can take many forms and the best way to understand what the family needs is to have an open and honest dialogue.
If you’re a grandparent who is seeking a more involved role, discuss the possibility of being involved in your grandchild’s services. Parents may be willing to include grandparents in the meetings and discussions about a grandchild. This also gives the opportunity to become more involved in a grandchild’s care and also provide the family with a neutral third party. A therapist, clinician or professional may help provide input or conflict resolution without intruding on a family’s desire to not be judged on parenting styles or methods.
On the subject of judgment, another common disconnect between parents and grandparents surrounds discipline. “Some grandparents can feel like there’s not enough discipline,” says Dr. Moran. Grandparents have raised their own children so Dr. Moran says, “Grandparents might think what worked well for parenting for them, should work well for the grandchild as well.”
As a grandparent, you need to realize two things: (1) your child is having a very different parenting experience than you did because their child has autism and (2) suggesting that your grandchild isn’t being properly disciplined makes parents feel judged.
The best thing you can do is to be understanding. Understand that parenting a child with autism isn’t easy. Also, understand that most of the time your grandchild isn’t intentionally misbehaving. “What appear to be bad choices, aren’t really choices. They’re more impulses,” says John A. Green, III, MD, founder of the Evergreen Center in Oregon City. As a result, children with autism don’t benefit from negative consequences. It’s best to reinforce the desired behavior and provide redirection. “We do a terrible disservice to kids when we punish them for something they can’t help,” says Dr. Green.
A final problem involves routine and diet. It doesn’t take parents of children with autism long to discover that having a consistent routine is key. Many of these parents also discover that putting their children on special diets can help with the symptoms of autism. However, sometimes grandparents can unintentionally sabotage their grandchild’s schedule and diet.
Parents of children with autism are careful to set up a schedule that works for their child. Routines help children with autism function and feel secure. In the name of fun or spending more time together, some grandparents deviate from the schedule. This can be distressing to children with autism and it can make parents feel disrespected. The best thing you can do is learn your grandchild’s schedule and be careful to stick to it.
Diet is another area that parents of children with autism carefully orchestrate. However, diet can sometimes be an area where parents and grandparents disagree. “Grandparents take the role of comforter,” says Dr. Green. Most of the time, this is a wonderful thing. It becomes a problem though, when grandparents give certain treats to their grandchildren.
Some children with autism are on diets that eliminate foods containing dairy, sugar, gluten, or dyes. Many of the goodies that grandparents give their grandchildren are full of these ingredients. Ingredients that can cause behavior problems, often when the grandchild goes home to their parents. This is why it’s so important to ask about your grandchild’s diet and to respect it.
This article’s advice can be summarized in two words: love and respect. The best thing that you can do for your children and grandchildren is love and respect them. If you always do these two things, you’ll find it much easier to connect with them.