A parent's guide to autism

Parents often feel relieved when they finally receive a diagnosis of autism, because they have an explanation for their child's unusual behaviour.

Receiving a diagnosis may come as a great shock, and it can take a while to accept what you're being told. Try to remember that although it may feel like the end of the world, your son or daughter is the same person they've always been. The only difference is that you're now aware of what condition they have and can help them make the most of their potential and live life to the fullest.

It can sometimes be difficult for a child to understand their condition; however, there's plenty of advice available on the best way to explain your child's autism diagnosis to them.

Coping with autism at home

There are a few things to consider when parenting a child with autism, which are outlined below. All these points are covered more fully by The National Autistic Society (NAS), on their website.

Behaviour and autism

There are numerous reasons why people with autism may have behavioural difficulties. Autism is a social and communication disorder, so people affected by it may sometimes find the world a confusing, isolating and daunting place. It's important to remember that bad behaviour is not a result of bad parenting. There are, however, a number of things you can do to help, such as being consistent, patient, giving your child regular exercise and remembering that punishment rarely works.

For more information, read about understanding behaviour on the NAS website.

Sleep and autism

Almost all children with autism suffer from disturbed sleep patterns at some point. Sleep problems can be divided into two main groups: settling problems, where the child has difficulty going to sleep at the appropriate time, and waking problems, where the child wakes repeatedly during the night.

If you think your child may have a sleep disorder and you want to know the extent of the problem, it's a good idea to keep a sleep diary. You can then discuss the diary entries with your GP (or another healthcare professional), and together you can decide on how to overcome the sleep problems.

For more information, read about sleep and autism on the NAS website.

Eating and autism

Some people with autism have problems with food and diet. These dietary problems can cause both over- and undereating.

Causes of undereating can include sensory differences, interrupted routine and the social aspects of eating. Reasons for overeating can include food becoming an obsession and low self-esteem, which can result in comfort eating.

As with sleep, it can be helpful to keep a food diary, as it could reveal a pattern and possible reasons for over- or undereating. For more information, read about dietary management on the NAS website.

NHS Choices has tips for teaching good eating skills to children with special needs, which may be helpful to parents of some autistic children.

Coping with the education system

Many parents of children with autism have problems finding the right school. Some children have statements of special education needs before they start school, while others go through the statementing process (statutory assessment) once they're in school. Some don't have or need a statement at all. More information can be found on the NHS care and support: special educational needs page.

If your child isn't of school age and is undergoing statutory assessment, your local authority will provide you with a list of suitable schools close to you. You can ask for a more comprehensive list if you feel you need it.

For more details about choosing a school, getting extra help, statements of special educational needs and bullying, see the NAS's guide to education.

Page last reviewed: 08/05/2014

Next review due: 08/05/2016

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