Finding out your child is autistic can be a life-changing moment for many parents.
You may have a lot of questions, concerns, and emotions as you try to navigate this new path. It’s important to remember that you are not alone in this journey, and there are resources and support available to you and your child.
While it can be overwhelming at first, taking proactive steps can help you and your child adjust to the diagnosis and begin to flourish.
In this article, I’ll give you guidance on what to do when you first find out your child is autistic, common FAQs, and strategies for supporting your child to thrive.
As a parent of a child who is newly or recently diagnosed, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what autism is, and the core traits / symptoms of autism.
Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, cognitive flexibility and sensory processing. These differences can also impact on behaviour.
Although its official description is “neurodevelopmental disorder”, actually many families and experts prefer to describe it as a developmental difference. In my clinic, Everlief, when we diagnose a child with autism we always focus on the positives associated with their diagnosis as well as the difficulties it may bring. Many children feel very proud to be autistic and see it as a superpower.
Communication and Social Interaction in Autism
Autism may impact a child’s ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally. For example, they may find it harder to spot nonverbal cues that another person is bored, annoyed or sad. It may also impact their social interaction skills, including knowing how and when to initiate an interaction appropriately.
Autism and Cognitive Flexibility
Autism generally affects a child’s cognitive flexibility, often making it harder for them to adapt to new situations or switch between tasks. It might mean they engage in repetitive behaviors or repetitive movements. They may also have difficulty with abstract thinking and problem-solving.
Sensory Processing in Autism
Most autistic children have sensory processing differences when compared with “neurotypical” peers, including hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory input.
They may also have difficulty integrating information from different sensory modalities.
Autism & Challenging Behaviour
Autistic children may struggle to understand and navigate social situations, leading to frustration and challenging behaviors or meltdowns. Their sensory differences may also cause discomfort or distress, further exacerbating challenging behaviors.
It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, so each child’s symptoms and strengths will vary. Your child’s autism diagnosis doesn’t mean that they will have a similar presentation to other autistic children you know.
For example, your child may be good at eye contact and navigating new social situations, but might struggle more with sensory processing and repetitive behaviours. Other autistic children may struggle much more with social communication but less in other areas.
Many autistic children have developmental delays in certain areas, whereas others are less affected.
The Autism Diagnostic Process
The diagnostic process can vary massively depending on where you live. See my article about autism assessments for more information. But at the very least, the team assessing your child should have taken your child’s developmental history, observed your child in clinic (and ideally in school too), and sought your child’s views and input.
Very often, evidence based structured or semi-structured interviews and assessments are used such as the DISCO or the ADOS-2. It’s a good idea to ask well in advance about the tools and systems that will be used, so that you and your child can be clear about how the decision was made regarding their ASD diagnosis.
Coping with the News That Your Child Has Been Diagnosed With Autism
Receiving an autism diagnosis for your child can be an emotional and overwhelming experience at first.
Following your child’s diagnosis you will probably feel a range of emotions including shock, grief, and uncertainty about the future. You may also feel relieved.
It is normal to experience any or all of these emotions.
Make sure you allow space and time to adjust and reflect, and consider who can support you during this process.
You might turn to family, friends, or support groups for parents of autistic children. Talking to other parents who have gone through a similar experience can provide you with reassurance, guidance, and practical advice.
An important strategy for managing the emotional impact of an autism diagnosis is to learn as much as you can about the condition.
That’s why you’re here!
Learning more about autism, including the common traits and symptoms, can help you better understand your child and their needs. You will also of course need to work with your child’s healthcare provider or the team who diagnosed them, to develop a treatment plan that meets their unique needs.
Remember that seeking support and taking care of yourself can help you better support your child.
How to Explain Autism to Your Child
Explaining autism to your child can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to have open and honest conversations.
This could be one “big” conversation followed by a series of smaller ones. Or, it could be an extended process whereby you slowly plant seeds about autism, to help your child grow accustomed to the idea gradually.
There’s no universal best way to do it, only the best way for your family.
Having said that, I recommend keeping the explanation simple and age-appropriate, using words and concepts your child understands. You might say something like:
“Autism means your brain works a little differently. It might make it hard for you to do certain things, but it also means you have unique strengths.”
Use examples to help your child understand what autism might look like for them. This could include things like sensory sensitivities, difficulty with social interactions, or having a special interest in a particular topic. Encourage your child to ask questions and share their own thoughts and feelings about their diagnosis. Remind them that autism is just one part of who they are.
It’s vital to reinforce the message that autism is nothing to be ashamed of. Help your child see the positive aspects of their diagnosis, such as having a unique perspective on the world or being passionate about their interests.
Encourage them to embrace their differences and find ways to use them as strengths. With time and support, your child can develop a positive self-identity and thrive with autism.
Finding Out Your Child is Autistic: Great Resources
These are some of my favourite books for young people who have recently been diagnosed:
The Superhero Brain: Explaining Autism to Empower Kids by Christel Land
Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes by Jennifer Elder
My Awesome Autism: Helping Children Learn About Their Autism Diagnosis by Nikki Saunders
The Awesome Autistic Go-To Guide: A Practical Handbook for Autistic Teens and Tweens by Yenn Purkis, Tanya Masterman & Emma Goodall
Neurotribes by Steve Silberman (for older teens and parents)
All Cats Are on the Autism Spectrum by Kathy Hoopman
The ASD Workbook: Understanding Your Autism Spectrum Disorder by Penny Kershaw
The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic by Siena Castellon
I love this video and regularly recommend it to families and schools. It’s great for autistic children themselves, other children around them, and friends and family.
Navigating Treatment and Support Options
Autism is not an illness or disease, but rather a neurological difference that affects the way a child processes information and interacts with the world around them.
Many children with autism don’t need any professional support. But for those who do, there are a range of options available.
One type of therapy commonly used with autistic children is talking therapy, which can be helpful in managing anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties. This type of therapy focuses on teaching your child strategies for managing their emotions, improving their communication skills, and building their self-esteem. When your environment is not designed with your particular type of brain in mind, navigating everyday life can be stressful and difficult. Accepting talking therapy for your child doesn’t mean they are flawed or broken. It’s their environment that is often flawed.
If your child needs emotional support but finds direct talking different, the therapist will be able to adapt the approach. For example, they can incorporate communication through drawings, diagrams or play. You may also wish to consider specific types of therapy that focus on non-verbal methods, such as art therapy or music therapy.
Occupational therapy can also be beneficial for some autistic children. OT’s can support your child with strategies to manage daily activities such as dressing, eating, and playing. An occupational therapist can also help with sensory issues.
Speech therapy is helpful for some autistic children, particularly those who have difficulty with communication. This type of therapy focuses on developing speech and language skills, and/or social communication skills and confidence. Ultimately, the type of treatment and therapy that is best for your child will depend on their individual needs and strengths, as well as your family’s goals and priorities.
Parent support can be invaluable when navigating how to parent your autistic child. For example, meeting with a child clinical psychologist or behavioral therapy specialist will enable you to discuss how to manage any challenging behaviour at home, whilst developing your understanding of the underlying reasons for these behaviours.
Early Intervention in Autism
I cannot stress enough the importance of early intervention and support for children who are autistic. Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve outcomes for autistic children.
Studies have shown that children who receive early intervention services, such as talking therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy, have better long-term outcomes in terms of social skills, communication, and adaptive functioning. These services are designed to address the specific needs and challenges of autistic children, and can help them build skills and strategies that will help them succeed in daily life.
Furthermore, early intervention can also help address some of the common co-occurring conditions that autistic children may experience, such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
Autism: Dealing With Stigma
It’s important to remember that autism is not a negative or shameful diagnosis and that your family is not alone in this experience. Reach out to local support groups and other parents who have been through this process if you can. You can sometimes find local groups through your child’s school. If you’re the UK, try your local branch of the National Autistic Society.
You may need to support your child to deal with any stigma they may face. Ensure your child is clear on what autism is and how it affects them, as well as providing them with the tools to advocate for themselves (see my helpful resources above).
Encourage your child to be proud of their differences and to communicate their needs and boundaries to others. You can also work with your child’s school over time to create an inclusive environment that celebrates neurodiversity.
Dealing with stigma from other family members can be especially challenging. Try to have open and honest conversations with family members and educate them on what autism is and how it affects your child uniquely.
Use some of the resources I have suggested above. Remind them that your child is still the same person they’ve always been and that their diagnosis doesn’t define them. Encourage them to ask questions and engage in learning more about autism. If necessary, consider setting boundaries to protect your child from any negative attitudes or comments.
Autism & Embracing Your Child’s Differences
As a parent of a newly diagnosed autistic child, it’s understandable that you may feel overwhelmed and uncertain about how to move forward.
However, it’s important to remember that your child is so much more than their diagnosis.
Instead of focusing solely on their struggles, try to celebrate the unique strengths and qualities of your child’s brain. Encourage them to explore their interests and talents, and help them find activities and opportunities that allow them to shine.
When you focus on your child’s strengths, it not only helps boost their self-esteem and confidence, but also helps you as a parent to see your child’s strong points and not just their limitations.
It can be easy to get caught up in the challenges of parenting an autistic child, but taking the time to appreciate and celebrate their strengths can make a big difference in how you approach their care and how they see themselves.
You can also involve your child in discussions about their diagnosis and encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Help them understand that autism is just one part of who they are, and that it doesn’t define them.
By focusing on their unique qualities and talents, you can help your child feel seen, valued, and empowered.
Finding Out Your Child is Autistic: Summary
A diagnosis of autism does not define your child.
Finding out your child has autism doesn’t change who they were before.
It’s the start of a new journey of discovery in your child’s life. Your child will gradually be able to better understand themselves and feel understood by those around them.
With support, your child can thrive.
Autistic people can have successful careers and very happy personal lives.
Finding Out Your Child is Autistic: FAQs
What are the signs of autism in children?
Signs of autism in children include difficulties with communication and social interaction, repetitive behaviors or interests, and sensory processing difficulties. Other signs may include difficulty managing changes and a preference for routine.
When should I be concerned about my child’s development?
If you notice delays in your child’s communication or social interaction, repetitive behaviors or interests, or sensory processing difficulties, and these concerns persist, speak with your child’s doctor.
The doctor may ask you some questions and may give you some screening questionnaires to complete. They may then refer you to a specialist team for a full assessment.
What should I do if I suspect my child has autism?
If you suspect your child is autistic, first of all speak to other people who know your child such as family and their teacher, to see if they have made similar observations. It can be helpful to keep a note of your concerns over a period of a few weeks or months. you should speak with your child’s doctor or seek an evaluation from a specialist.
If you remain worried after keeping a log and speaking to other adults in your child’s life, speak with your child’s doctor or seek an assessment via a specialist.
What causes autism?
The causes of autism are complex and not fully understood yet. It’s not possible to pinpoint the exact cause of autism in an autistic individual. It is widely accepted that there is a genetic component in autism however.
What resources are available for parents of autistic children?
There’s a wealth of information available for parents. I recommend two places you can start.
Firstly, the online course I have put together with 4 of my colleagues, Embracing Autism, is a fantastic introduction for parents of newly or recently diagnosed children.
Secondly, you’ll find a wide range of articles and support resources on the Autism & ADHD section of the website.
What is the outlook for autistic children?
The outlook for children with autism diagnoses depends very much on how much their autism affects them in everyday life. It is different for every child. Early intervention and individualised support can be vital. For many autistic children, the outlook is very bright. Autistic individuals can go on to become successful and happy adults.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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