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What I Learned from Helping a Family with Autistic Children

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It is a condition that still holds many mysteries, even for researchers who study it. Because of that, sometimes it can be difficult to know how you can help a family with a member who has it. This past summer I encountered it when I went to California for a discipleship training program called Project Impact. The director of our program was an inviting and extroverted man, and it was by interacting with his family that I was exposed to this bittersweet reality.

The condition I am referring to is autism. Many of us have had few if any encounters with autism. We may know some autistic peers, read romanticized depictions in teen fiction, or watch TV specials about autistic savants. My conceptions of autism were refined during the summer of 2009, when I was brought for a long period of time into intimate contact with the director’s two youngest children, who both had autism (the older of the two had Down’s syndrome as well).

I learned that raising autistic children can be very hard, and what a blessing it is to be able to help a family that must deal with the condition 24 hours a day. Autism affects different people in different ways. The young children I spent time with were severely autistic (though they always brightened up our days). They spoke very little, one only in sounds, and the youngest boy had a tendency to fall into what is called an autistic meltdown: he would shriek and sometimes hit himself if you didn’t hold his arms. Being around this big-hearted family taught me more about character, patience, love, optimism, and the value of faith than I can describe, but what I want to focus on here is what one can do to assist such a family in a practical way.

If you know a family with an autistic child, and you want to help them, the first thing you have to do is ask if you can share in their lives. Ask the family if you can spend some time with their child. Offer to lend a helping hand. If they consent to your spending some time with them, don’t take it lightly. You are fortunate to have an opportunity to learn and help in ways many others will never be able to. On that note, here is an incomplete list of things to keep in mind in that situation:

Listen to the family. If you live somewhere else, you do not encounter autism as they do: 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The parents of the autistic child have watched him/her grow for as long as he/she has been alive. A father’s decisiveness and mother’s intuition can be some of the best tools available. Furthermore, if the family is seeking therapy for the child (which hopefully they are), they have primary contact with therapists – another reason to listen to them.

Learn about the child. As previously stated, autism affects every person differently. Learn what specific struggles the child faces and how they can be responded to. Sometimes undesirable behavior can be prevented, but you are going to have to learn how to cope with it positively when it can’t be. Sometimes children exhibit unusual behavior like escapism. If they do, stay attentive when you watch them. There are also more general things to learn. Find out the child’s likes and dislikes. What is their favorite food? How often can they have it? What do they like to do for fun?

Encourage sociability and activity. The family I stayed around this summer did a tremendous job of keeping their children engaged with other people. Their father was the director of the training program I was going to, and whenever the 30 other attendees were around he would bring his youngest children into the midst of us. We would watch Barney alongside them, which was neat for us as well beneficial to them. Autistic children can become withdrawn and unsociable if they don’t receive that kind of social exercise. Sometimes outdoor activities are a part of a recommended regimen for an autistic child. One of my favorites was to give them rides in a bicycle trailer.

Cleaning up. Instead of getting one-on-one time with an autistic child, sometimes the greatest act of kindness you can show a family is to help clean up when the child is not present. Often a room is a mess after it’s been used for therapy. A floor strewn with magnetic alphabet letters, marbles, beads, flashcards, and video tapes was not at all uncommon during my summer of 2009. Helping pick up those messes (or doing other things around the house – cooking, etc. – so that family members have time to clean up if they would rather) may not seem as rewarding as direct interaction with the child, but the family may appreciate it tremendously.

Being active in the lives of autistic children is a joy, but also requires maturity. Many times the youngest boy I was with would throw tantrums in public or wail without being able to communicate what he wanted. Plans had to be made to accommodate his and his sister’s special needs. One night our group was on the verge of panic after not finding him for about half an hour.

In spite of all that, the summer I spent at a training program with this family has been one of the best of my life. My time with these two wonderful children and their family has had a profound, positive impact on my life. I have learned so much from them and feel more prepared to interact with autistic children in the future, and sincerely hope I can interact with this family again.

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About Trevor Clark

  • http://www.kellylangston.com Kelly Langston

    Trevor:

    You get it! Thank you for writing such a great post about how to help families dealing with autism. You provide clear ways to help, and tell readers that they will be blessed in return in wonderful ways. Yes, this is so true. These kids has so much to teach us…if only we will listen.

    Thanks for writing…blessings to you!

    Kelly