Even though I haven’t crossed the threshold from parent to grandparent, I’ve heard it’s one of the most rewarding roles in a person’s life. But if you are the grandparent of a child with autism spectrum disorder, your role, although equally rewarding, comes with a unique set of challenges. Challenges that you probably haven’t experienced. You may find yourself questioning your ability to offer the best of support to your son or daughter as they navigate raising an autistic child. You may worry about your relationship with your autistic grandchild. Perhaps your grandchild hasn’t been diagnosed, but you have suspicions and don’t know how to approach your son or daughter about them. All of these are valid concerns. After my son was diagnosed with autism, I shifted my career toward supporting other families like my own. Often it’s concerned grandparents like you. But if you incorporate the following tips, I’m confident you will be not only the grandparent your grandchild needs, but also the parent your child needs.
1. Educate Yourself
The first and most important tip is to educate yourself. Hearing the word autism in connection with your grandchild can be scary. But once you learn enough about autism, you’ll find it’s not as scary as you initially thought once the mystery is gone. Here are a few ways to do that.
- Read “What is Autism Spectrum Disorder” to learn the clinical description of autism as explained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
- Since autism impacts each individual differently, ask your son or daughter to explain how autism affects your grandchild.
- If your grandchild attends therapy or visits a specialist, ask if you can attend an appointment.
- Another great resource is the Grandparent Autism Network. It’s a nonprofit specifically for grandparents of autistic grandchildren where you can learn more about autism and find community.
2. Meet Your Son or Daughter Were They Are
As a grandparent, your role is to support your son or daughter as they parent their child. Sometimes this means offering advice; sometimes it means stepping back. If your son or daughter has fully embraced their child’s autism, follow their lead. If they are still struggling with the diagnosis, try offering encouraging, kind words as they evolve into this new world. In some cases, the grandparents often suspect their grandchild may be autistic, and the parents may be skeptical. If that is your situation, then tread carefully imposing your opinions. Rather, offer unlimited love and support, an open, non-judgmental listening ear, and more than likely, your son or daughter will come to the realization on their own.
3. Accept Your Grandchild’s Truth
When my son was initially diagnosed with autism, my father had difficulty accepting the news. I felt torn between the experts I trusted and the parent I respected. My father has come fully on board in the years since, and I’m so grateful. But it took me a lot of work to get him there. Trust that your son or daughter has likely done grueling hours of research and consulted multiple experts to get your grandchild an autism diagnosis. Also know, the diagnosis doesn’t change your grandchild. They are the same child before the diagnosis as after. The diagnosis is like a guide that provides the tools their support system needs to help your grandchild become the best version of themselves possible.
4. Let Go of Traditional Parenting Beliefs
When I speak with parents of autistic children, I tell them to burn their traditional parenting books because they are useless. And this is so true. The parenting techniques you likely used with your son or daughter probably won’t work with your autistic grandchild. It’s a whole new world. A world where punishment escalates problem behavior and positive reinforcement can deescalate it. It’s a world where transitions can be challenging, and timers can make all the difference. Sitting around the same table enjoying the same meal may have been how you raised your children, but your autistic grandchild may have food aversions and difficulty sitting in one place for long periods. Embrace what helps your autistic grandchild be successful, as non-traditional as that may be.
5. Be Realistic, But Optimistic
When I’m asked questions such as Will your son ever go to college? Do you think he’ll ever live independently? I answer a couple of different ways. First off, I tell them none of that matters to me. But I also have faith that with the unwavering support of his loving family and his amazing team of professionals, he’ll reach his optimal level of success to live a happy life—on his terms. Don’t fall victim to a negative narrative of all the things your grandchild may never be able to do. Instead, accept their truth, love them unconditionally, and know that their lives will likely look different from those of a non-autistic individual. And that is okay! My autistic son will turn seven next month, and while our journey has had its ups and downs, I love him for exactly who he is. I tell him autism is his superpower. And I wouldn’t change him if I could!
Best of luck and may you find an abundance of joy in your autism grandparenting journey!
Grandchildren fill a space in your heart you never knew was empty.-Author Unknown