A diagnosis of autism is as much a diagnosis for a family as for an individual child. Though there is a spectrum of autistic symptoms a child may exhibit, any autism diagnosis takes a major toll on parents and siblings. Autism greatly affects the life-long capabilities of a child and thus, requires an immense amount of time, patience and work on the part of his or her family. However, there are ways to mediate the difficulties that a diagnosis of autism can bring to a family. Creating a consistent family atmosphere, reaching out to other families in the same situation, and making non-affected siblings feel cared for and understood can go a long way toward helping a family live with autism.
It may not seem intuitive, but when a child is diagnosed with autism, it’s’ important parents find an emotional outlet to grieve over the loss of their child. Though parents can love an autistic child just as well as a child not on the spectrum, they likely weren’t expecting the diagnosis and thus need time to adjust to their new circumstances. Often autism is diagnosed after a normally developing child suddenly regresses verbally or emotionally between 18 and 24 months. This is especially hard for parents, since the child seemed so “normal” previously and it often has parents searching to figure out what they did to cause their child’s autism. Therefore, it’s important that parents take the time they need to seek counseling and truly deal with the emotional burden that comes with having a child with autism.
Additionally, autism can take a toll on parents’ marriages so it is important that parents make their relationship a priority. This might mean finding a highly-qualified babysitter for a date night or attending couples therapy. Another outlet is to find a group of parents going through the same situation. There are many support groups, clubs, and online forums where parents with autistic children can share their stories, support one another, and give useful advice.
Children with autism struggle with normal social development, may seem more aloof and disengaged than other children, and may misread common social cues. As a parent, this social disconnect is a struggle because it can seem the child isn’t able to respond or appreciate the love given to him or her. For parents, a diagnosis of autism means a lifetime of extra specialists’ visits, therapy, and at-home interventions and unlike parents of children with other disabilities, an autistic child might not be able to respond in an outwardly loving way. The seeming lack of an emotional connection can create added grief over the diagnosis.
The difficulties of autism spread beyond the parents to siblings as well. Often, siblings of children with autism experience great ambivalence about their disabled family member. While siblings often form strong protective bonds with their autistic brother or sister, they can also harbor feelings of resentment. While they love their siblings, they are very aware of the disproportionate parental attention given to their special-needs sibling. In a family dealing with autism, it is important for parents to make their equal love and affection clear to each of their children and to be open and honest about what autism means for their family. While growing up with an autistic sibling is a challenge, non-autistic siblings can still have happy, productive childhoods. In fact, siblings of a child with autism are more accepting of differences and have empathy for other children with disabilities or developmental delays.
There is no way to prevent autism from shaking the foundations of the strongest of families, but autism doesn’t prevent a family from finding a new, happy balance. Parents need to realize they are only human and allow themselves to experience all the negative and positive emotions that come with raising a child with autism. For all the difficulties that come with an autism diagnosis, there are also positives. Children with autism see the world with a unique perspective that parents and siblings will appreciate. Frequently children with autism are academically gifted or have a talent they feel passionate about. It’s important to realize that no family is perfect, and that autism can bring unique richness to a family experience.