Every once in a while parents are embarrassed by their child’s behavior or the factual remarks they make, such as pointing to a person next to you in line and claiming, “she’s fat!” Moments like this can be very uncomfortable but fortunately do not occur often, but the risk may be higher if you are a parent of a child with Autism.
All children eventually learn how to regulate their behavior and speech but children on the Autism spectrum tend to be slower at acquiring this skill. Children with autism experience the same world we live in but in a dramatically different way and they are limited in their ability to read social situations.
Most children with autism don’t even realize that their behaviors are socially unacceptable. Some of these behaviors may include:
1. inappropriate touching or invading another’s space,
2. handflapping, spinning or stimming
3. fascinations with particular objects,
4. extreme displays of affection or the exact opposite.
Some children respond aggressively when least expected and many have sensory issues that produce bizarre reactions to food textures, tastes, light, sound and smells.
Therefore, as a parent of a child on the Autism spectrum the possibility of having your child commit a social ‘faux pas’ in public is high. Unfortunately, until we are able create more awareness about Autism and minimize the judgmental reactions of others, parents will have to continue to deal with some embarrassing situations deemed ‘socially inappropriate’ by onlookers.
Eventually, you may develop a protective armor from the piercing looks of disgruntled strangers that just don’t understand but what can you do in the meantime?
Finding ways to minimize or prevent the number of embarrassing incidents you might have to endure is one option. Here are some strategies to consider that might help.
• Remember, you are your child’s best teacher. Your child may be receiving therapies that work on building appropriate social skills but you are with your child 24/7. Don’t overlook potentially embarrassing actions and address them as they occur by telling and showing your child what to do instead, how to do it and when.
• Appeal to the way your child’s brain works best. Most children on the Autism spectrum are very visual so use pictures, photos, lists or video modeling to communicate with your child. Some may respond better to auditory input, so make a recording for your child with step-by-step instructions for them to listen to. Others may need to be physically manipulated by taking their hand and demonstrating just how much pressure to apply to petting an animal or touching people.
• Be persistent. Constant repetition and reinforcement will eventually work to instill more suitable behaviors in your child. It typically takes twenty-one repetitions of an action before a new behavior becomes a habit but a brain that is wired differently may take more time – so start early, practice often, practice some more and have patience.
• Use distraction. Plan ahead when going out in public and bring a bag of tricks with you to divert your child’s attention when your gut begins sending you a warning that something potentially unacceptable might occur. Fill a backpack with stress relievers and favorite items that will quickly catch your child’s interest.
• Give people information. If all else fails, be prepared with a short statement to say to others that will enlighten them. Some parents carry around cards that explain their child’s behavior and may even provide suggestions for being helpful or information about websites that educate people about Autism.
• Ignore onlookers. It takes time to build up the confidence, courage and a secure sense-of-self necessary to disregard the gawkers and disapproving stares that you may encounter. Begin building your protective armor by forcing yourself to focus on your child who really needs you to respond appropriately in that moment. Try creating a mantra to recite in circumstances such as these that would reassure you and help you concentrate on what is most important – your child.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Remember that every child has the potential to call attention to themselves or fall apart and every parent has the capacity to handle it inappropriately at times so don’t be hard on yourself after an episode such as this. Tell yourself you did the best you could and use it as a learning experience to gain insight about what you might do differently the next time.