Dr. Temple Grandin is a renowned animal behavior scientist and a respected and prolific author – who also happens to be diagnosed with autism. She’s been famous to those in the world of autism for years, but now her name is even more recognized thanks to the award-winning HBO movie, Temple Grandin, which detailed her unique mind and how – with the support of a loving mother – she became an accomplished and independent adult. Seeing Grandin speak to an audience of over a parents, teachers, professionals and kids with varying degrees of autism is a remarkable experience, especially when you consider how far she’s come in her own personal journey.
At Metro Parent’s 2010 Living with Autism workshop, Grandin was happy to share some of the strategies that she and her own parents used over the years as she persevered to turn her autistic traits into strengths and become a highly contributing member of society. Here are some of her top tips for parents of children with autism.
1. Get professional services like Early Intervention and Applied Behavior Analysis in place for your child as soon as you suspect he or she may be autistic.
2. Spend a lot of time playing board games (like checkers and Parcheesi) that have rules and involve taking turns – something Grandin says autistic kids have a very hard time doing.
3. Limit TV and video watching to an hour a day and focus on broadening your child’s world by exposing them to lots of different situations and experiences.
4. Match learning strategies to your child’s thinking pattern and areas of strength. Grandin identifies three different types of autistic thinking: Verbal Logic, who think in word details (they often love history, foreign languages, weather statistics, and stock market reports and aren’t good drawers); Music and Math thinkers, who see patterns (these people often excel at math, chess, and computer programming and are interested in music and play it by ear); and Visual thinkers – those like Grandin, who think in photographically specific images. (These thinkers are often good at drawing, other arts, and building things with building toys such as LEGOs. Many children who are visual thinkers like maps, flags and photographs.)
5. Increase your child’s social interaction by getting them involved in shared activities like science or computer clubs, horseback riding classes or interesting hobbies that could potentially turn into a career for them. Realize that one-on-one interactive relationships, while rewarding for you, may not feel the same to your autistic child.
6. Have clear and realistic expectations for your child’s behavior. Grandin is concerned that today’s looser social structure harms autistic kids far more than other children because of their inability to pick up on social cues.
7. Experiment with your child’s tolerance for different foods. Food problems with autistic children are frequently texture-related, so you should offer them many types and varieties of foods. Special diets like gluten-free or dairy-free are often successful in improving young autistic children’s overall functioning.
8. Be logical and thoughtful in how you use medication with your autistic child. Grandin believes that many powerful drugs with serious side effects are being given out to kids way too casually. Don’t be tempted to use strong medications to make your child a "teeny bit less hyper."
9. Make sure your child gets lots of physical exercise. Grandin can’t emphasize enough how important this tip is and notes that the rhythm of horseback riding seems to be very soothing for autistic children.
10. Give your child lots of work experience, starting early. Grandin recalls that she had many jobs during her childhood including sewing dresses, cleaning out animal stalls and feeding livestock, and carpentry projects.
11. Get help! Caring for an autistic child 24 hours a day can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Grandin uses examples from her own childhood, noting that she had a nanny, lived with her aunt and uncle during some summer vacations, and also went to boarding school. Your family may not have those resources, but consider your options. Spending time with specialists, friends and family members not only gives your child new perspectives; it also gives parents much needed time to recharge.