Hopeful Parenting for Special Needs Children

Positive solutions for the challenges that come with raising children with ASD.

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Vince Turcotte is a father to 28-year-old Peter who has high-functioning autism, and 26-year-old Daniel, who was born with primary infantile autism. Both boys received their diagnoses when they were three years old and Vince remembers feeling overwhelmed trying to bond with them. 

“It was really difficult for them to establish eye contact or for me to express my feelings in a way that they understood. I couldn’t tell how they were feeling and that was the single most frustrating thing for me,” he says.

Acceptance is key to parenting children with ASD

Vince admits that at the beginning, he saw his sons’ diagnoses as a personal affront and succumbed to self-pity. But then, he did everything he could to learn more about autism and how he could best support his boys. 

“You can’t just give up. So you read about all the different therapies. You find the things that they like, and you try and engage,” says Vince. 

“If they engage in stimming behaviors, as long as it doesn't endanger them physically, I try to understand what motivates those behaviors.  Rather than force them to be normal, I’ve come to see that when they stim it’s because they need to regulate so they can be present with me. I understand that maintaining connection is hard work for them.” 

Growth mindset aids parents in managing ASD challenges

Stephanie Chung is a board-certified behavior analyst and mother to an 11-year-old son with autism. Although she sometimes find it challenging to provide constant support for routines, repeat instructions, and practice self-regulation in escalating situations, she always sees the best in her child.

“My son is hilarious! His quirky and eccentric sense of humor is not for everyone, but I really appreciate what he has to offer. His memory is incredible. His visual-spatial skills are ridiculous! He is a self-proclaimed Lego master, and I would agree. Sure, his diagnoses can bring daily challenges, but it is so important to value your child’s contributions and find ways they can feel good about themselves and what they can share with the world,” she says.

“Pick your battles. Our children have so many demands placed on them just being alive in a rather ASD unfriendly world. Meet your child where he or she is at, not where you wish he or she was at. If you know of your child’s particular needs and struggles, be reasonable in what you are expecting your child to do throughout the day.” 

Stephanie believes it’s important to manage expectations that you have of yourself and to take time for exercise, socializing, and date nights.

"We are all doing the best with what we’ve got. Give yourself space to regulate and recognize your efforts."

If you're overwhelmed, take a break – that can mean taking a short walk alone, setting a timer for a five-minute time out, then returning to regroup, or asking a friend for help.

A learning and growth mindset has helped Stephanie cope with challenges and stay positive. “There are lots of posters, visuals, worksheets, and more that are available online. I have one printed and blue-tacked inside my wardrobe so I can see it daily as a reminder,” she says. 

Celebrate the successes of children with ASD 

In 2023, Vince did a road trip with Peter in the United States and met Peter’s girlfriend and her parents for the first time.

“I really liked the way he was around his girlfriend, and how they had these cute little conversations. He was very kind and considerate with her, and I felt really proud of the fact that he doted on her. I’m so glad that he's done well in this department!”

Another way to stay positive is to celebrate your successes. Stephanie says, “Taking time each day to appreciate my child’s growth and improvements help me re-center when I find myself getting frustrated or angry. If he is having a bad day, I try to keep demands light, and when he is regulated, we reflect on the day and his choices, thinking about what he can do next time. I remind him often that I love him, no matter what.” 

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Find the right support for children with special needs

Sometimes, parents have to turn to professional support, and Dr. Amanda Oswalt, a psychologist at SPOT Children’s Therapy Centre advises, “When seeking professional help for your child or yourself, it’s crucial to ensure you’re working with the appropriate professional. There are some professionals who specialize in trans non-binary individuals, some who specialize in adolescents, and others who work with very little kids and sensory processing. Ask the professionals what it is that they're passionate about because we're all different and so is your child.”

“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” says Mindy Hung, a speech and language pathologist at SPOT. “Children’s brains are not ready for self-regulation, so they rely on co-regulation with adults. If parents are not regulated themselves, this will be mirrored in their children. Parents have to be the calm in all the chaos that is childhood.” 

Mindy also advises parents to embrace creative thinking and adaptability. 

“For example, if your child finds school overwhelming either due to sensory or social differences, explore the possibility of shorter school days or online classes. Being creative can also mean advocating for a safe place or person in the school where the child can seek solace if they get dysregulated. For a child who has sensory motor differences that affect writing, it might mean requesting alternatives to writing such as speech-to-text for homework assignments or tests.” 

Find a community of special needs children

“Finding other children who share your child’s interest is the best way to help them build friendships. If your child is still finding out what their interests are, perhaps find groups with children who have the same communication or interaction style. In the same way, parents might also find it helpful to meet other parents with similar experiences,” says Mindy.

A good place to start making connections is through social media groups or local communities. Mindy says, “While friends and family can be supportive, the connection with another parent who is dealing with the same things you are can really make you feel heard and understood on a deeper level.”