One of the goals of developmental autism intervention is to create stronger connections with not just parents and caregivers but with a child’s entire community: siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, peers, and friends. For people who have never had an autistic individual in their lives or may have outdated ideas about how autism presents or a child’s future, it can be challenging for them to accept a diagnosis and learn how to interact and play in ways that create healthy connections.
To support caregivers in nurturing those connections within their child's community, we wanted to share six strategies to help them educate their extended families and close friends about developmental therapy-informed ways to understand, celebrate, and – yes – have fun with their child. For this blog, we’ll be focusing on adults, but these messages can be shared with younger family members, too.
1. Teach them about the iceberg.
An iceberg is a common and useful metaphor for understanding autism. Above the surface of the water, you see behaviors, which may include aggression, withdrawal, rigidity, and repetitive actions (also known as “stimming”). Below the surface are the internal experiences and challenges that lead to what you see: sensory sensitivities, how they process information, and challenges with speech, emotional self-regulation, learning, and motor functions.
Some relatives may just see a child “acting out” or “being strange” because they don’t understand what is leading to these behaviors. Helping them to understand that all behaviors are an attempt to communicate and explaining what is going on beneath the surface with your child, and what they are communicating with their behaviors can help family understand and appreciate your whole child. They can learn to relate to your child in healthier and more helpful ways.
2. Make it personal.
With their experience with their autistic child, it’s not uncommon for families to recognize that older relatives may also have undiagnosed neurodivergence, as it was not as frequently diagnosed in the past or among groups that didn’t exhibit stereotypical symptoms (such as women with ADHD). Recognizing that grandpa has had a lifelong obsessive hobby, an aunt has a limited food palate and also hates clothing tags, or another relative has challenges with reading social cues can help families understand themselves better, while destigmatizing your child’s diagnosis.
3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Unrecognized or ignored sensory sensitivities and pushing children to do things they may not enjoy or be capable of yet can lead to big battles. By starting with the iceberg, grandparents and other relatives can learn that under-the-surface differences may mean it’s wise and supportive to give up what are – ultimately in the long run – small things. Are wearing formal clothes for holidays, attending a crowded event, or trying a new food worth making your child feel unsafe and overwhelmed and causing a possible meltdown? Explain that by not sweating the small stuff, your relatives can build stronger, more joyful connections with fewer meltdowns and moments of withdrawal.
4. Don’t sweat the big stuff either.
Extended family members may also worry about how your child does in school, if they’re making friends, and what the future looks like. This may be your biggest battle. Share that developmental therapy is evidence-based and that your child has a team of therapists working closely together with you and their school to support them in their goals. Celebrate all of your child’s successes and gains as they advance in their development. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends don’t need to sweat the “big stuff”; they just need to play, love, and find joy with your family.
5. Help them focus on strengths and interests.
It is unfortunately common for people to focus on what others can’t do versus what they can do in both neurotypical and neurodivergent situations. Like everyone, autistic children have amazing strengths, interests, and passions. Explain the intrinsic motivation that’s created when you meet the child where they are – interests, abilities, and strengths – and how letting them lead provides the space they need to feel comfortable to learn and grow.
6. Involve those closest in therapy.
If you have a relative who lives with you or provides part-time care, include them in some coaching sessions or therapy visit reviews. It will help them understand your child in the same way you do, give them agency in what can be a difficult situation for loved ones, and provide the tools to better support your child as they learn and grow. The more developmental techniques can be incorporated as a natural part of everyday living – from getting ready in the morning to playtime to meals and baths – the fewer hours your child spends in 1:1 therapy and the more time you can grow together as a family.
To learn more about how Positive Development can help your family, take the first step to contact us.