Seven Steps to Becoming the Perfect Autism Grandparent

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You already know the bad news: your perfect grandchild has an autism spectrum diagnosis. But there's good news as well: as the grandparent of a child with autism, you have the opportunity to play a critical role in helping your adult child and your grandchild survive and thrive with an unexpected challenge. You may also be surprised to learn that being the "perfect autism grandparent" isn't nearly as difficult as it sounds.

Withhold Blame

Yes, you may have seen your daughter plop your grandchild down in front of the TV one time too often, or decide to spare the rod and allow too much chaos. But every scrap of research has made it absolutely clear that autism is NOT (and never was) a result of questionable parenting styles. Obviously, if you think your grandchild is in danger you will need to step in and make accusations. But short of a serious crisis, swallow your desire to lay blame on your grandchild's parents.

Listen

Your adult child will be getting an earful of information about autism from every direction -- doctors, teachers, therapists, friends, and neighbors. As a grandparent, it's not your job to add more to the cacophony. Instead, use your active listening skills. Allow your child and his/her partner to tell you what's going on, what's challenging, what's frustrating, what's working, and what isn't. Ask questions, help to clarify thinking, but do your best to avoid jumping in with yet more information, advice, or ideas.

Instead, use your active listening skills. Allow your child and his/her partner to tell you what's going on, what's challenging, what's frustrating, what's working, and what isn't. Ask questions, help to clarify thinking, but do your best to avoid jumping in with yet more information, advice, or ideas.

 Ruth Nemzoff, author and speaker of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children says: "A grandmother shouldn’t discount the adult child’s concerns, but should support them."

Get Over Your Anxiety About "Special Needs."

Most people of grandparenting age grew up in an era when "special" children were segregated as far from the mainstream as possible. You may also have grown up with a sense that mental and developmental challenges are shameful. In order to support your adult child and really be engaged with your grandchild, you're going to have to get over it. That may mean some emotional work for you, but it's well worth the effort: you can't possibly be a good grandparent to a child you're ashamed of!

Get to Know Your Grandchild's Strengths

One of the toughest things about parenting a child with autism is the reality that so many people will see him as "damaged goods." Schools, therapists, and doctors all focus on challenges rather than strengths.

As a grandparent, you have the privilege of getting to know your grandchild as a human being. Imagine being the one who discovers your grandchild's hidden talent for drawing, singing, or math -- the one person who actually notices strengths first, and sets the challenges aside.

Learn a Lot, Share a Little

There's always more to know about autism, and you could easily dedicate every day and night to TV, radio, books, websites, podcasts and articles about autism. Then, you could show up at your child's house with a ream of paper each day. As you can probably imagine, however, all that paper would probably wind up lining the bottom of the bird cage. Rather than sharing the latest autism tidbit from the "Morning News," bone up on the therapies your grandchild is receiving, learn something about autism and education -- and be ready with information when it's really needed.

Help Manage​ ​Extended Family

Your adult child has enough to handle without also trying to cope with her brother in law's "helpful advice," her cousin's concerns ("Will my son catch autism?!"), and her uncle's kind but useless remarks ("he'll be fine, just give him time!"). As you can, step in beforehand with rules and ideas for family get-togethers that will help smooth the road both for your adult child and for your grandchild with autism. Rules like "no autism advice allowed," and "yes, the child with autism does get his own bedroom" should settle questions before they arise.

Offer Hands-on and Financial Help

If there are two things an autism parent needs, they are time and money. Time to take a break, reconnect with their partner and other children, shop for groceries, get a haircut -- time for ordinary, autism free life. And money. Money to pay for therapies, or replace lost income. Money to afford special baby sitters, special needs programs in the community, therapies that aren't covered under insurance. You can offer to actually look after your grandchild, or you can spring for a sitter; you can pay for specific needs or bolster income. You can pay for your autistic grandchild's needs, or offer siblings special "grandma and me" time. Whatever works best for you will be a huge gift to your adult child and his or her partner.

As you can see, grandparenting a child with autism is very much like parenting any child, though, as Nemzoff notes, "even more so." As you get to know your grandchild and learn about autism, you'll discover even more possibilities for forging a unique and unbreakable bond with a child who truly needs you.

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