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Creating Harmony in the Home

Managing autism within the context of the entire family

December 2013

Autism has a pervasive effect on a family. Mom, dad, siblings, grandparents and others can feel its weight. Is it possible then, to create a harmonious household in the face of such a diagnosis? While no one strategy will work for every family, trying various methods can lead to a more peaceful home. Area experts weigh in:

One step at a time

Autism Society of Indiana ally Christine Belviy advises parents find a way to handle an autism diagnosis without getting all consumed by it: "It's really hard to do especially when a child is first diagnosed. The whole world becomes autism and everything else gets pushed out. It's important to be focused and to keep the family together at the same time."

Work with an expert

Because the needs of children with autism change as they age, Jim Dalton, president and chief of operations of Damar Services, says a family's structure and routine may also need to change over time. "A relationship with a developmental specialist or pediatrician who regularly treats children with autism can be very helpful. Families need outside resources to rely on for information and support as the child with autism and the family grows and copes together," he said.

Try proven treatments

Parents should access evidence-based treatments for their child with autism. Melany Shampo, clinical director at the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism in Fishers, points to natural environment training that allows therapists to go into homes and instruct families on how to teach and interact with their child who is autistic.

Identify key reinforcers

Shampo also recommends parents learn what things or activities their child with autism truly loves. Use these as reinforcers by granting access to them for desired at-home behaviors.

Learn to communicate

Marci Wheeler, social work consultant with Indiana Resource Center for Autism, believes family members should prioritize communication skills so everyone at home is working to understand each other. Communication with the autistic child may be verbal, or come by way of a picture system, electronic device, objects or combination of methods. It's also important to understand what behaviors might come up as a means of communication when an autistic child has no other way to express himself.

Stick to a routine

Children with autism do best when their days are structured and routine. "Teaching siblings the importance of sameness and predictability in the home for the child with autism is important. Sticking to a routine and schedule tends to help children with autism learn and cope better," said Dalton, adding that routines for neurotypical siblings can also promote responsibility and accountability.

Teach empathy

Wheeler recommends helping the autistic child learn that other people have needs as well, like time to themselves. Teaching all family members to support one another's needs promotes empathy and unity.

Have siblings participate in skills training

Dalton says a family's schedule should include times with specific attention on the child with autism. "It is no secret that these children need extra help and focus on their needs. While certainly not their sole responsibility or activity with a child with autism, siblings need to understand the developmental and behavioral challenges that accompany autism and participate in skills and communication training activities together as a family," he said.

Spend time apart

Just as important, siblings need time away from the home to enjoy their own friends and interests. Likewise, parents need time away from their children. Date nights and time with friends should occur regularly.

Have fun

Dalton believes the happiest families are those that have fun together. "Knowing the limitations and particular stressors of your child with autism is important. Within those limitations, be sure to be encouraging and energetic in daily activities. Siblings need to see from their parents that having a child with autism is a unique opportunity and that time together can be fun and is important to enjoy," he said.

Take holidays in stride

Mary Rosswurm, executive director of Little Star Center, recognizes families can feel especially harried in December. "The holidays are crazy. Parents need to take a deep breath and give themselves permission to not be perfect and to have a sense of humor about the season and just make it through," she said.

Tags: In This Issue, Special Needs

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